Year 5, Piece Thirty-Seven: 42. Purple Black White
A long one about collaboration, plant genitalia, and Judy Chicago.
Judy Chicago has a retrospective right now at the de Young Museum. My mom was in town and it seemed like something we could appreciate together. So even though I had visited SFMOMA two weeks before, I found myself taking yet another trip to a museum. And incidentally a museum I worked for a decade ago selling memberships. It is funny to have recently waxed poetic about going to a museum without my kids, and next to be going to a museum I used to work at with my mom.
We made the plan to see the show while I was still working on Blue Yellow. By the time we actually went, I was working on Purple Black White. Purple is awareness, identity, and self, and Black White is interconnectedness. The two together tell a story of self in relation to the collective. As I approach the end of Year 5 and anticipate Year 6, I am preparing myself to possibly launch a mass collaboration. So Purple Black White read to me as the story of my project, the story of 49 pieces about one individual’s experiences transforming into 49 pieces about 49 individuals’ experiences.
So I went into the Judy Chicago show thinking about collaboration already. As it turned out, collaboration was everywhere. Or at least collective artmaking, multiple people working to create a singular project or work of art. Chicago’s work spans so many mediums and scales, which makes the people she who must help her create it all so apparent. Many are attributed in the wall text: weavers, needleworkers, ceramicists. Many more are likely not: fabricators, installers, even the workmen we saw out front of the museum putting together the elaborate scaffolding for what would become the smoke piece Forever de Young.
Walking around, it eventually occurred to me that not just the meaning of Purple Black White was present here, but that the colors themselves were there too. The wall text and graphics for the show were Purple Black White, or Purple White, anyway. Even Judy Chicago’s hair is now a signature Purple White, a mass of purple curls with a poof of white bangs.
I’m not surprised anymore when the week’s colors show up in my daily life. I sort of expect it, so that when it happens it's more of a “Hello!” than a “Holy shit!” It still feels magical, especially this year when I can’t know the colors in advance, determining each week’s color by pulling a card from a Rainbow Squared deck. But it feels like a pragmatic magic somehow, one that tugs on the threads of reality that are always dangling there. A magic that could be a product of our narrative driven brains or the nature of the universe or both.
Through five years of iterating on the same formula, I have created my own symbol set. The more I work on it, the more connections emerge, and the richer the symbolism gets. Or, I should say, the richer the symbolism gets for me. That’s the thing: I have created a custom divination system where each color and each combination has many personal associations and meanings. I can share those meanings with others, but it is still rooted in my experience. What would it look like for someone to grow their own set of color associations using this formula?
49 pieces is a big commitment for any one person. I should know, I’ve done it five times. But what about just one piece? I’ve done that five times too now, with five guest artists so far this year, each one a profound experience to work with. If this formula is modular, what would it look like for a group of 49 people to each explore an individual color combination, collectively creating a full set of 49 together? Could a group of 49 people create a symbol set that would be uniquely resonant to them, like my symbol set is resonant to me? Would it then resonate with other people?
Who are these 49 people? What is the organizing principle that brings them together? Is it the fact that they are all makers? Or is it the fact that they are all makers who happen to know me? Or, depending on the recruiting tactics I would need to use, is it the fact that they spend time on the same internet as me? I’ve had so much intimacy with each collaborator so far, how could that possibly scale? What does the make-up of that initial group of people determine about the resulting artwork?
Judy Chicago set a dinner party for 39. She arrived at this number from 13 x 3: three last suppers, three covens. An equilateral triangle made from three long tables, each with thirteen elaborate place settings representing a different “woman of achievement” in Western Civilization. The floor was made of 2,300 custom made triangular tiles with 999 more names of women written on them in gold. The 39 handstitched needlework runners with 39 hand-sculpted ceramic plates were made by a team of over 400 volunteer artisans over the course of six years, from 1974-1979. A stunning feat of collective effort, The Dinner Party is a work that has been celebrated and panned in almost equal measure.
The Dinner Party is not on view at the de Young Museum’s retrospective of Judy Chicago. The show does have sketches, test plates, and other paraphernalia associated with the work, along with a 45-minute video tour of The Dinner Party’s permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, apparently as part of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The video has subtitles but no sound and no bench in front of it. Elizabeth Sackler herself pops up at the beginning, which prompted a couple gasps and giggles from the women standing huddled in front of the video watching it play on loop. Myself included.
I appreciated that even the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (of which the de Young is part) did not shy away from the historical criticism of The Dinner Party in its wall text:
...The Dinner Party has drawn criticism for the lack of diversity among the women honored and the means with which Chicago chose to represent the few women of color she did include. In particular, her depiction of Sojourner Truth, which features three faces rather than a vulva, has been noted as dehumanizing the only Black female at the table through the erasure of her sexuality. Subsequent generations of feminist scholars have also criticized Chicago's focus on female genitalia as reinforcing the patriarchal constraints on gender identity that the artist meant to critique. While Chicago stands by her “essentialism,” she has acknowledged the concerns regarding Truth (which also extend to her rendering of Sacajawea). However, she also speaks of her fear at the time of furthering a racialized discourse that exoticized and sexualized women of color while desexualizing white women in Western society.
It isn’t and shouldn’t be up to Judy Chicago to determine who is included in history and how they should be portrayed. She had a lot of people working with her (for her?) to determine the 39 seats and 999 names in the piece, but they were almost entirely other white women. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if this dinner party didn’t attempt to represent all women in Western Civilization. You could argue that these 1,038 women merely scratch the surface, that having 999 names on the floor is a gesture toward the almost infinite number of women who remain unnamed. But 39 and especially 999 is still a lot, and surely there could be room at that dinner party for more than a couple women of color.
It is hard not to cry “white feminism” when looking at this work forty years later, to say nothing of the lack of queer representation. But even today, can any well-meaning white woman assemble a group of people for a project and have it be other than a product of the racist, classist, ableist system she is part of herself?
Am I comparing myself to Judy Chicago? Not exactly. I guess I am using Judy Chicago’s work as a lens to consider some aspects of my own, modular and large-scale collaborative as it may be.
Another aspect: the 49 people who may create Rainbow Squared next year would be creating a work that is ultimately my intellectual property. Even if it’s Creative Commons and everyone’s attributed, even if I pay them each a stipend (which I plan to), even if we mint the resulting work as an NFT and share the proceeds (which you can hold me to). The work as a whole might be a collective effort, but it would still effectively be “mine.” Maybe that’s okay?
Judy Chicago is a complex figure. I look at her body of work, her technical prowess, her relentless curiosity, and I see a dynamo. Her artistic choices aren’t perfect—hell, she just filled Golden Gate Park with smoke during fire season—but she is out there making them. But honestly the ridicule for those choices is pretty scary. I don’t have her notoriety and in all likelihood never will, so I don’t need to fear that level of scrutiny. But I still don’t want to put my everything into a project and have it be ultimately interpreted as the opposite of my intention.
I guess I don’t want to be a bad art friend here, and I definitely don’t want to be a bad art friend 49 times over. But as we might be able to learn from Sonya Larson, making art using other people’s work is ambiguous territory. Though I certainly feel fine about making animations out of other people’s paintings.
The image that the de Young museum chose as the icon for the show also happens to be Purple Black White: Through the Flower 2, from 1973. Made using sprayed acrylic, its symmetry and slick surface make it seem almost digitally rendered, like a computer graphic. Some might even say it is graphic in a different sense, one in a series of similar paintings that all depict petal-like shapes surrounding an opening, an abyss, a hole. The image of Through the Flower 2 is now splashed across the show’s website, printed on posters and bus shelters throughout San Francisco, and adorns t-shirts, handbags, scarves, stickers, puzzles, and the cover of the exhibition catalogue in the museum gift shop.
“Through the Flower” is a phrase that Chicago has used frequently in her work. Around the time of these paintings, she published an autobiography in 1975 titled Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist. She also chose Through the Flower as the name of her own nonprofit, founded “to manage the overwhelming public support of The Dinner Party” and that “focus[es] on education and continues to engage in numerous initiatives aimed at providing opportunities for learning about women’s history through art.”
But what does “through the flower” mean? The only words about it that I can find easily online from Chicago herself are these, quoted by Artsy.net from her autobiography: “I felt myself ...moving through the limits of the female role. I used the flower as a symbol of femininity...the petals of the flower are parting, and one can see an inviting but undefined space, the space beyond the confines of our own femininity...my longing for transcendence...my first steps in being able to make clear, abstract images of my feelings as a woman.”
I suppose it is not a stretch then to imagine these paintings are also vulvas. When one thinks of vulva flowers, one automatically thinks of Georgia O’Keeffe. Right? But as I learned this week while digging around the internet about The Dinner Party, Georgia O’Keefe never intended for her flower paintings to be sexual. That was hype created by her husband and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz to drum up viewers, and O’Keeffe resisted this reading of her work her whole life. Talk about your work being interpreted against your intention. Still, when I look at the plates in The Dinner Party, I see them all as what I previously associated with O’Keeffe-esque vulva-flowers. And in fact, Georgia O’Keeffe is the final and most recent place of the 39 set at The Dinner Party. Unlike Sojourner Truth and Sacajawea, her plate’s anatomy is quite unambiguous.
Here’s the thing with vulva flowers though: it’s not that flowers look like vulvas, it’s that vulvas look like flowers. This is no evolutionary accident: flowers are plant genitalia. And flowers can be any type of genitalia depending on the plant it comes from, female, male, or both. Some flowers match the sex of the plant they are on, some plants have flowers of each sex, and many flowers are both sexes at once. And they are all plant genitalia. Petals, pistils, stems, and stamens; labia, vaginas, penises, testicles, and buttholes. Whether plant or animal, it’s a whole garden of appendages and cavities, flesh for pleasure and/or reproduction and/or just existence. Parts that make us alive, make more of us, make us earthlings.
For the record, I am totally here for graphic depictions of flowers. Depending on the context in which they are rendered and shared, I’m probably here for graphic depictions of genitalia too. Well, at least graphical ones. I honestly don’t know where I land on the essentialism of using vulvas to represent the people who have them. I’ve certainly dabbled in it myself, as part of a collective no less. Is it the fact of having a vulva that needs historical recognition, or the fact of being a woman? Or is it both? Judy Chicago gives us one answer, but there are so very many. Just don’t ask Dave Chapelle.
My god, Purple is always a little unwieldy, being wrapped up as it is in self and identity and awareness and even magic. Purple in these pieces often ends up kind of meta. So it’s not really a surprise that this penultimate Purple would be a bit of a wrestling match to create and maybe even to read. I can’t sum up why this relentlessly personal project needs to become massively personal, and maybe it’s because I can’t quite pin it down in words yet. It’s an intuition, which is also Purple. I want to do right by anyone who has and would join me on that journey, but ultimately it’s an experiment. We’re making it up as we go along, so how could it ever be perfect?
There could never be a perfect Dinner Party: someone is always left out because someone is always throwing it. Even a Box Lunch couldn’t be much better. Has anyone ever suggested a Potluck?
Maybe that’s a way to think about Year 6 of Rainbow Squared. Potluck. I put out an invitation, people sign up for the dish they want to bring or I assign them one. They bring their piece, we set it out with all the other pieces, everyone digs in. Even people who didn’t bring a dish can come and eat. Will it be a representative sample of humanity? Will everyone be compensated at a market rate for every hour they put into it? Probably not. But I am not attempting to reconstruct a canon here. Just trying to gather some people for a metaphorical meal. A meal and a little magic. Think of it as 3 ¾ last suppers. Or 3 ¾ covens.