“I started doing colored smoke pieces at the end of the 1960s,” Judy Chicago recalled to a sold-out crowd of Miami’s hippest. Years before she began to assemble her iconic “Dinner Party,” the woman who is the godmother of feminist art lined the streets of Pasadena with smoke machines and set off blazing colors on beaches and desert stretches throughout Southern California.
Now, on a bright and balmy evening, 80 degrees in February, the petite artist who, hard to believe, is now 79, in a purple shirt and big sunglasses, was about to set off a smoky ode to Miami. Or maybe unleash the Furies.
We were gathered on the asphalt ground of the outdoor sculpture garden at Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), waiting for her to set off “A Purple Poem to Miami”—a one-night extravaganza in the midst of “A Reckoning,” a four-decade retrospective of her work that ICA is showing through April 21. Here in Miami’s sleek Design District, at least half of the spectators would not have been born when Chicago began taking on the male art establishment in the 1960s; but feminist art, so long stuck in a niche, has found a home in the mainstream in the wake of #MeToo.
Chicago was circumspect that night about her struggles as an artist and a woman. She did talk about how she wanted, back in the 1960s and 1970s, to be a pyrotechnician. “There were no female pyrotechnicians at that time.” She said she had to stop the pyrotechnic series she called “Atmospheres” in 1974, without elaborating on why, but last year she told Vulture Magazine that it was partly lack of funding and partly that while she was apprenticing with a fireworks company, the head of the company sexually harassed her.
But she has brought “Atmospheres” back; this was the sixth performance in seven years, always an explosion designed to fit the surroundings.
Chicago was standing on a platform behind four tiers of wooden frames, with flares burning on the outside—better to keep a respectful distance-- and jars that looked deceptively like they might contain fresh-scent-for-a-gracious home candles. It resembled a minimalist altar. Before she brought the altar to Miami, Chicago and her pyrotechnic crew tested it on the Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino.
You can see A Purple Poem in its 11-minute entirety on YouTube. But Chicago is an artist for a three-dimensional world; you had to be there to ponder what it means to have a rainbow of smoke engulf you. Rather like a living triangle of rebirth, apocalypse, and hope.
She has always said that some of the smoke art in the Atmospheres series was meant to soften the environment and fill the space with beautiful colors—a purple smoke installation in Santa Barbara in 1969 that you can find on the Internet has a look of ethereal lilac bushes on a moonscape—while others, more radically, re-created women’s activities like the kindling of fire or the worship of goddess figures.
Now, in Miami, where the sky can be perfect blue one day and hurricane noir the next, the purple smoke began to roll out from the altar, and it felt like a majestic warning. The smoke grew into an opaque cloud, roared out to the audience, picked up wind. It stung like teargas, like a surprise revolution.
Yes, for a moment it seemed as if the world might change forever-- in good hands.
But recall that Mao Zedong infamously understated, “The revolution will not be a dinner party.” Still, as I thought on my first viewing, this dinner party would be a cacophony if they all sat down and talked. Together the women were monumental, by virtue of size alone. The installation took up a whole wing of the museum. (It has a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum now.)
In Miami, it occurred to me that a revolution could be filled with smoke. The smoke grew mauve, then indigo, then orange mingled with red, then the color turned coral as the wind shifted direction.
If the Atlantic Ocean were to rise and swallow an urban population, it might look something like this beneath the fatal waves. Just seven miles across Biscayne Bay, Miami Beach lies less than a foot above sea level, and the water is rising. Besides the glimmer of revolution, Chicago’s smoke poem to Miami felt like a tough-love letter, a roaring update to her 1980s installation called “Powerplay,” in which she depicted grotesque male figures bringing fire and destruction to the environment, some literally pissing on nature.
A gauzy violet haze covered the crowd before a finale with orange and purple fireworks. Something rumbled. The smoke subsided. It was still light outside, still summer in February.
“Before this is over,” said Chicago, “let me tell you that one of my goals with these pieces was to soften and feminize the environment and show the world what it would look like if we were all kinder and more generous with each other.”
But just because it’s feminized doesn’t mean it isn’t ferocious.
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