Unashamedly personal … How Will I Die? #2 from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2014). Photo: Judy Chicago, New York Picture, Donald Woodman / ARS, New York City
Judy Chicago tends to pull back the curtain on things we prefer to keep secret. Curtain hoops clatter and material swoosh continue with childbirth death the arrival of death, the examination of a battered body.
To be painted, photographed, sketched, stitched and hung on the walls of the gallery for Chicago. In dinner party conversation, it seems likely that she would fill the lull with a question like: “Will I die in pain?”
But the interest of Chicago is not to make us squirm. Then, in all her gory agony and glory, she is fascinated by what it means to be alive on this planet. The survey of her 50-year Baltic career is intimate as well as universal; the voice that narrates the fears anxieties and pleasures of Chicago finds an echo in my own head. And presumably all of us have wondered how we will greet death.
The exhibition is booked by our arrival and eventual departure from Earth, opening with a tapestry of four meters portraying the world’s start from a female perspective.
Dark folds turn a flushed vaginal pink slowly and all the components of Earth rush out in colorful stitches: the sun, the sea, the birds and the beasts. The handcrafted hanging is the reaction of Chicago against a narrative of creation that credits a male god with creating man.
It would be like removing ingredients from a baked cake to try to remove element from the creative culture of Chicago. From the beginning of her work to her final declaration, women are present:
The subject the hands behind the materials on the wall. The Creation is part of the Birth Project, a collection of tapestries, drawings and educational panels made in the early 80s which illustrate the birth-giving process – a moment that is often enveloped in mystery.
Chicago is facing the other end of the timeline in her 80s, a topic she doesn’t shy away from in her latest series, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction. The first part includes paintings of the “six stages of dying” structured around the stages of grief of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
A woman clamps her fists clamps her head and eventually opens her hands to the inevitability of the coming of death. A sparkling nude with Chicago’s allled red hair looks at different ways of dying in the second section. A blond hair man cradles a cold figure in a particularly moving frame under the words: “Will I die in my husband’s arms?” These sketches are immensely personal and unexpectedly Chicago – the man is her artistic husband and collaborator Donald Woodman.
Chicago moves to that of the natural world from her own death. The final painting collection details the decline of penguins, polar bears, wolves and birds.
An elephant bleeds to death on the ground with much of his face hacked away for the ivory trade, while a finned shark looks out to an ocean where he will soon suffocate without his swimming ability.
The struggle for equality in Chicago spreads to all life. She forces us to do the same by placing her own death on a par with that of the environment and animals, transferring the soul-splitting desperation of grieving a loved one to the imminent climate catastrophe.

No smoke without fire … Purple Atmosphere (1969). Photograph: Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Chicago’s art vulnerability is totally disarming. She has no fear of taking us behind her own home’s curtains, flinging all her photo albums and logbook open.
She defines being hit by a truck while running out in My Accident. She includes naked and injured photographs of herself, confessing: “I felt humiliated at having my new husband see my battered body.” Chicago presents 140 paintings for a Year’s Autobiography which show her innermost thoughts. Often she is “utterly drained” and sometimes she is maintaining “that free female spirit”.
The strength of Chicago’s art is testament to the fact that this show does not feel sparse. Compared to the original explosive multicolored series, it was inevitable that photos of her smoke performances would appear lackluster.
We’re graced with just seven snippets from the Birth Project in a series of 85 pieces. Only the preparatory sketches are the works in The End, not the final spectacular glassworks.
And the reduction to an informative video of her most important work, The Dinner Party, was always going to be a disappointment. But still pack a punch on these shimmering snapshots. The one who has undressed may be Chicago, but I am the one stripped of pretence and facing the reality of my life.
Judy Chicago is from 16 November to 19 April in Baltic, Gateshead.


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