Andrea Inselmann is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Johnson.

Like a lot of women artists in their eighties, Judy Chicago is having a moment right now. Her 81st birthday is July 20, 2020.

Except for the sensation that her feminist installation The Dinner Party caused in 1979, Chicago’s nearly sixty-year career was mostly overlooked until recently, including exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Last year, the first major survey of Chicago’s work opened in the UK at the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, and her first full retrospective, looking beyond The Dinner Party to explore the broad range of her diverse body of work, was to open at the de Young Museum (now scheduled for 2021).

Chicago has been best known both for work that examines the role of women in history and culture and as an educator in the first feminist art programs on the West Coast in the early 1970s. But her work included a range of styles, mediums, and themes—situating her, in fact, at the forefront of many major art movements and aesthetics in California in the 1960s and ’70s—including Pop art, minimalism, Light and Space, and body art and installation. She moved freely between textiles and needlework on the one hand, and industrial materials and processes on the other, attending auto-body school to master the airbrush and training in pyrotechnics in search of a different kind of visual language.

I first learned about Chicago’s smoke performances in the 2012 Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, show Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974. The exhibition aimed to dispel a number of entrenched ideas about the movement, including the notion that it consisted mostly of male artists. While the famous 1969 Earth Art show at Cornell broke with many traditions of exhibition making of the time, it did not challenge the gender divide.

With the generous support of the Class of 1970 at Cornell, spearheaded by longtime Museum Advisory Council member Beth Treadway, the Johnson was able to acquire Chicago’s important On Fire portfolio this year. The selection includes twelve photographs and two films documenting her collaborative smoke and firework performances, spanning from the late 1960s to the present.

Some of these works, titled Atmospheres, were intended to transform and soften the landscape by introducing a feminine aspect to the male-dominated land art movement. Other images focus on re-creating early women-centered activities like the kindling of fire or the worship of goddess figures. Immolation is probably the most widely distributed image from Chicago’s fireworks series. Shot in the California desert, the sacrificial ritual was performed by Chicago’s friend and fellow feminist artist Faith Wilding.

Thanks to the ongoing support of the Class of 1970, we have been able to add important works to our collection to represent the land art movement and tell a more balanced story of this particular art historical period. These acquisitions include a large lifetime print from Ana Mendieta’s Silhueta series in 2005 and a portfolio documenting Agnes Denes’s 1969 performance Rice/Tree/Burial in 2015.

We very much look forward to displaying Chicago’s entire portfolio in our permanent collection gallery of contemporary art in the near future.