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Feminist Pioneer Judy Chicago’s Seminal Fireworks Art Heads to Nevada

Judy Chicago’s impact on art history has been vast and manifold, but she’s still known best for one work: The Dinner Party (1974–79), a large-scale sculptural installation that imagines a convening of notable female-identified figures from throughout the ages. “I used to say I hope I lived long enough to come out from behind the shadow of The Dinner Party,” Chicago told ARTnews last year, when plans were revealed for a career-spanning retrospective of her work at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.

As the whole of her legacy comes more fully into focus, a major museum has snatched up an important archive of materials related to lesser-known works by the feminist pioneer, who last year turned 80. A group of photographs and films related to iconic fireworks pieces—which involved setting off firecrackers, arranging dry ice in ziggurat-like structures, and releasing plumes of lushly hued smoke, sometimes with performers included—is headed to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. To toast the acquisition, the museum will host an exhibition of the materials in October 2021.

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The archive will serve as an essential resource for Chicago’s legacy in relation to a kind of Land art that has most commonly been associated with male artists such as Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, and Walter De Maria. Partly as a retort to Land art (as well as Minimalism—she was one of three women included in the 1966 Minimalism survey “Primary Structures”), Chicago began creating these artworks in an attempt to “feminize” the landscape.

“The Nevada Museum of Art has one of the most significant Land art archives in the world. For this reason, I could see no better home for my fireworks archive,” Chicago said in a statement. “The museum is in the process of subverting and expanding the mainstream definition of Land art, which historically has been extremely male centered.”

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Judy Chicago, Santa Barbara Museum, 1971.
©Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Courtesy Through the Flower Archives

According to William L. Fox, director of the museum’s Center for Art + Environment, the works were intended to be temporary and in every way different from those of Chicago’s male colleagues. Speaking of a New York destination where those artists hung out, Fox told ARTnews, “She was almost at the opposite end of the spectrum of all those guys at Max’s Kansas City.” A sense of gleeful anarchism was even sometimes involved—for one work, fireworks were set off in front of the Santa Barbara Museum in California that made it appear as though the institution were on fire.

Chicago stopped making her fireworks pieces in the mid-’70s, after she felt that she was being diminished by her pyrotechnics trainer. But she has recently taken them back up, performing them at prime venues such as the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. JoAnne S. Northrup, the Nevada Museum of Art’s curatorial director and curator of contemporary art, told ARTnews that the sudden outpouring of praise for these works may have something to do with recent environmentalist concerns—a realm of thought that Chicago engaged long before many artists of her day.

“She’s a passionate advocate for nature and the environment,” Northrup said, “and that had a major role in defining how she would interact with the land. She would see the works of her male peers, and it really disturbed her—she felt they really gave no thought to preserving nature and its glory.”

Northrup continued, “Times have really changed, and we’ve caught up with Judy Chicago.”

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