Update: After this publication, the dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn of Salon 94 informed The Art Newspaper that Chicago's work was pulled from the Sotheby's live auction after receiving institutional interest. While negotiations are ongoing, Rohatyn says the gallery "will make this important work available for in-person viewings."
Women’s access to reproductive healthcare is once again under threat as the Trump Administration attempts to fill the late liberal US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s seat with the conservative, pro-life judge Amy Coney Barret before the president’s term is up in November. Many suspect the Affordable Care Act and the landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling may be the first agenda the court will overturn should Barret be confirmed. After decades of pushing for the expansion of women’s right, the feminist activist artist Judy Chicago refuses to take this potential judicial reversal lying down.
“I’m of the generation who fought for abortion rights, and the idea that the younger generation will have to fight for it all over again in the face of a misogynistic Supreme Court with right-wing attitudes is horrifying,” Chicago says. “But of course repetition is also a part of women’s history, unfortunately.”
A work from the artist’s seminal Birth Project series, donated to Denver’s Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains in 1983, is being offered in a virtual sale and party hosted by Sotheby’s this evening to benefit the non-profit reproductive healthcare organisation. Chaired by Cecily Brown, Amy Cappellazzo, Lisa Dennison and Amy Sherald, the sale also includes works by Pat Steir, Marilyn Minter, Laurie Simmons, Rita Ackermann, Jeff Koons, Sol LeWitt and more.
Chicago's 14 ft-wide Trinity Birth Quilt (1983) combines tie-dye and quilting and is being offered with an estimate of $250,000-$350,000—a price that may set a new record for the artist's work at auction, which currently stands at $288,000 for one of her painted car hoods from 1964 that sold at a Los Angeles Modern Auctions sale in 2007. The proceeds from the quilt sale will be split equally between the chronically underfunded Planned Parenthood and the artist’s non-profit organisation, Through the Flower, an institution that works to empower women artists while managing Chicago’s extensive archive.
Chicago produced the Birth Project series between 1980-85, creating more than 80 works combining needlework and painting that depict childbirth in an effort to “challenge the lack of images of birth and motherhood in Western art”, she tells The Art Newspaper.
Works from the series are held in various major museum collections and also other institutions like the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where one piece is installed in a room where seminary students of Muslim, Christian, Jewish and other faiths come to discuss the “divine feminine”. But still there is a dearth of images depicting childbirth, according to Chicago says. “As I understand it, even in this Sotheby’s auction that will benefit a reproductive rights organisation, my work is the only image of birth, which you must admit is a little odd.”
The artist and more than 150 needleworkers who collaborated on the Birth Project series gifted the works to Through the Flower in the 1980s, after the pieces separately toured over 100 venues. When the tour ended, the Chicago’s organisation launched a permanent placement programme for the works, which involved donating the pieces to birthing centres and other institutions with the stipulation that the works could not be deaccessioned and would be returned to the organisation if the institution dissolved or removed the work from public view.
“When I was approached by Sotheby’s [about Trinity Birth Quilt], it made sense that this piece that provisionally lived in Denver could serve both Planned Parenthood and Through the Flower, which is a small organisation that, like all arts organisations, has been dramatically impacted by Covid-19,” Chicago explains.
She adds: “Besides benefitting these organisations that are struggling to survive, the piece is also a means to highlight what’s happening right now around women’s reproductive rights.
Chicago’s work has remained perennially relevant as issues of gender, race and climate justice have come to the fore in recent years. She currently has exhibitions of her print work on display at Salon 94 in New York and Turner Carroll in Santa Fe, which commemorate the acquisition of her print archive by the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation.
Jessica Silverman Gallery in San Francisco is also hosting an exhibition that explores Chicago’s involvement with ecological and climate justice issues, and previews a recent series of porcelain works. In 2021, the De Young Museum in San Francisco will hold Chicago’s first career retrospective, which was scheduled to open this year but was postponed due to the pandemic.