“For decades, the feminist artist was pushed to the sidelines. Relevant once again, she can no longer be ignored.”—The New York Times, February 2018

Paperback edition available October 2018

Gail Levin’s critically-acclaimed biography of Judy Chicago gives us an uncommonly intimate and deep view of the artist as a person and a woman of extraordinary energy and purpose. Drawing upon Chicago’s personal letters and diaries, her published and unpublished writings, and more than 250 interviews with her friends, family, admirers, and critics, Levin presents a richly detailed and moving chronicle of the artist’s unique journey from obscurity to fame, including the story of how she found her audience outside of the art establishment.

The cover of the hardcover edition of Becoming Judy Chicago: A Biography of the Artist shows a now iconic image of the artist. The photo, Judy Chicago as a Boxer, was staged to announce her name change and show at Cal State Fullerton in 1970. The book’s introduction tells more of the story.

Excerpt from the introduction: What’s in a Name?

Photograph by Jerry McMillan

The figure draped on the ropes wears a sweat shirt emblazoned “JUDY CHICAGO.” The natty manager is her art dealer, Jack Glenn. The alluring trainer is Alona Hamilton Cooke. Glenn orchestrated the photograph to advertise both a coming show of Chicago’s art at California State University in Fullerton, and a change in her name, leaving Gerowitz, inherited from her late husband for Chicago, where she was born.

For the Fullerton show, she declared: “JUDY GEROWITZ hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and freely chooses her own name JUDY CHICAGO.” By legally changing her name, Chicago publicly embraced her female identity in growing awareness of issues of gender and sexuality as the Women’s Liberation Movement gained momentum.

Other factors also favored the change. “I’m a nice Jewish girl from Chicago,” she told an interviewer, who added: “She chose the name Chicago because friends tended to identify her as ‘Judy from Chicago’ (‘I couldn’t avoid it. I had a very distinct Chicago accent.’).”

Credit for the new name may belong to her previous dealer, Rolf Nelson, who had given her a solo show in 1966, her first, when she was just twenty-six. Struck by her pronounced mid-western accent, he began calling her “Judy Chicago.” At the time, it was an in-joke among L.A. artists to use “underground names,” such as “Ben Luxe” for Larry Bell; “Eddie Russia” for Ed Ruscha; and “José Bueno” for Joe Goode. Some, like Chicago, even listed the pseudonyms in the telephone book, though she alone went on to make the legal change.

The change and defiant manifesto fit the character still recalled by Cooke: “Judy was very grounded. . . .she would stick up for whatever she thought. . . .she wouldn’t back down.” Cooke, who studied art and industrial design at Cal State Long Beach, met Chicago through mutual friends, the artists Laddie John Dill and Chuck Arnoldi, then Cooke’s boyfriend, who recalls her as very good looking; he fantasized that “Judy had the hots for Alona.” He describes Judy as “huggy and feely and touchy; she had lots of energy; her ambition was kind of a pain in the ass … very aggressive. She was really trying to make a name for herself.” Cooke recently reflected that Chicago “was a minor thorn in the side of these guys, but I have the impression that they really respected her. . . .They respected how hard she worked.”

The idea of posing Judy as a boxer came from the photographer, Jerry McMillan. They had met through his sometime model and her friend and neighbor, Janice Johnson, when both women lived in Topanga Canyon in the early 1960s. “I was at the deli up the street from my studio with Joe Goode telling him I had to do something for Judy Gerowitz and that she was changing her last name to Chicago,” he recalled. “We both had known her for years, and our discussion was around what a scrapper she was – maybe I should dress her like a boxer?”

The role fit the figure she cut at the deli, Mayer’s, where she could “embarrass a sailor who had just gotten into town,” McMillan recalls, with her typical, friendly greeting, “Ah, there’s my three mother-fuckin’ artist-friends” — McMillan and his artist buddies from Oklahoma City, Ruscha and Goode, who all had studios on Western Avenue in Hollywood. “She was blunt and abrasive; that was the charm; she wasn’t mean.”

. . .

The name change has led at least one writer to accuse Chicago of a “public erasure of her Jewish identity…[switching] from the ethnically marked Gerowitz to the more ethnically neutral Chicago.” The evidence tells a different story. In the catalogue for the Fullerton show, where Chicago explained the change, she chose to include, along with her own brief statement, quotations from three women: the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, the African-American abolitionist Sojourner Truth, and the English novelist George Eliot. The latter two had also changed their names (Isabella Baumfree to Sojourner Truth, Mary Ann Evans to George Eliot).

The quote from Eliot bears directly on the issue of Jewish identity, since it comes from the 1876 novel, Daniel Deronda, which is noted for its sympathetic treatment of Jews. The novel features a crafty but generous pawnbroker named Ezra Cohen, his son Jacob Alexander Cohen, and the rest of their family. This would be an odd work to cite if trying to hide the fact that one’s family name was Cohen.

Three years later (in 1973), Chicago would manifest her regard for Eliot’s novel again in a set of drawings, which she intended as studies for lithographs and called Compressed Women who Yearned to be Butterflies. She dedicated the third drawing to Mme. Deronda and fully transcribed her bitter protest: “You are not a woman. You may try – but you can never imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl. To have a pattern cut out – this is the Jewish woman! This is what you must be; this is what you are wanted for; a woman’s heart must be of such as size and no larger, else it must be pressed small, like Chinese feet…”

This quote is obviously self-referential, implying that Chicago, too, identified with male artists who have a “force of genius” while rejecting stereotypical restrictions imposed on women, including those of orthodox Judaism. Chicago was, however, proud of having been reared in the secular Jewish culture that figures repeatedly in her memoir, Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist, published in 1975. There she recounts how, when she was still a small child, her mother’s stories of going “to the Jewish People’s Institute,” where she had mingled with “creative people,” became the context through which May Cohen encouraged her young daughter’s love of drawing and nurtured her desire to become an artist.

By adopting the name of her native city rather a familiar name with Anglo-Saxon associations, Chicago replicated a practice long traditional among Jews. Examples of city-based Jewish surnames include London and Berlin, as in the case of Meyer London, the early twentieth-century American labor leader, who became the first Socialist Party member elected to Congress; the philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin; and the songwriter Irving Berlin, to cite just three prominent examples. Though she may not have considered this parallel, she clearly did not choose a name that would mask her Jewish identity.

Chicago’s militant stance for McMillan’s photograph mingles the strains of traditional Jewish and new feminist identities, both emphasizing courage to stand up for deeply held beliefs. Her life reflects typical patterns of Jewish activists in America, as she began in the Civil Rights Movement campaigning for equality for African-Americans and moved on to the struggle for equal rights for women.

The photograph appeared not only on the announcement for the Fullerton show but as an ad in the magazine, Artforum, in December 1970, where it ran for free, since the editor Philip Leider had admired the photograph, but could not convince Glenn to pay to run it. Chicago brought a copy of the Artforum ad to a party given by Laura Lee Woods celebrating Goode’s calendar of L.A. artists, which featured various male friends whom he had photographed in their cars, Joe Goode recalls. When Goode learned that she really had changed her name, he thought she did so to seem more “macho, like a boxer.” The artist Billy Al Bengston quipped to her that she should have changed her first name, not her last. As for McMillan, he reveled in the intensity of the moment and credited Judy’s “cool sense of humor” and “quick wit” with the success of their endeavor at the gym: “Judy Chicago! What an opening punch!”


The new, paperback edition of Becoming Judy Chicago will be available in October—pre-order now online and save 30% with discount code 18W8495.

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