The Nevada Museum of Art’s recent acquisition of Judy Chicago’s complete Fireworks Archives, announced earlier this week, marks a major addition to the museum’s extensive land art collection and initiates the NMA as one of now four institutions tasked with the stewardship of Chicago’s work.

Though Chicago’s legacy is often pinned to her most famous piece “The Dinner Party” (the feminist installation that sets an elaborate banquet table with place settings for historical and mythical female figures), the artist’s earlier, site-specific, air-and smoke-based works from the late ’60s and early ’70s are equally significant—though often overlooked in the shadow of her male, earthworks-heavy counterparts. 

“Birthday Bouquet for Belen Smoke Test” is an image from Judy Chicago’s archive. Image: Courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.

“Instead of digging in the ground she’s in the air,” said William L. Fox, the director of the Center for Art + Environment at the NMA, over video chat. “She’s doing something impermanent, she’s doing something ephemeral. Instead of being—I hesitate to use the word “egocentric” but being an artist who grew up thinking that to achieve the highest place you can get to in the art world was to be a solo artist and make a heroic gesture. …That was the model of achievement. This was the person that said, ‘No, we’re going to do this as a collaborative effort.’”

In the past eight years, contemporary art institutions’ inclusion of Chicago’s atmosphere works in recent exhibitions such as The Getty’s “Pacific Standard Time” and LA MoCA’s “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974” have sparked a reconsideration of the artist’s place in the Land Art canon. A forthcoming de Young Museum retrospective on Chicago, postponed due to the COVID-19 shutdown, will also feature pieces from this period of work.

“Pink Atmosphere” is an image from Judy Chicago’s archive. Image: Courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.

Given the NMA’s comprehensive land art collection and the research scholarship of The Center for Art + Environment, Chicago’s Fireworks Archives make sense in Nevada. They are comprised of 45 dry ice, colored smoke, and fireworks projects spanning 53 years. These works—which have the effect of softening and “feminizing” both the natural and built landscape—are, because of their temporary nature, preserved in the form thousands of photographs, film, letters, maps, drawings, press materials, garments, and digital images, including some of Chicago’s own iPhone photos. A set of 12 limited edition Atmospheres prints will be available to the museum for lending. Pieces include well-known works like “Immolation,” “Bridge Atmosphere,” and images of Chicago’s butterfly-shaped firework pieces—as well as some unknowns. 

“There are numerous images that have never before been seen,” JoAnne Northrup, the curatorial director and curator of contemporary art at the NMA, told Double Scoop in a recent phone call. “So really you’ve been seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

In October 2021, the museum will make parts of the archive public with a debut exhibition “On Fire: Judy Chicago’s Atmospheres Archive” in conjunction with the Art + Environment Conference, “Land Art: Past, Present, Futures.”

“Smoke Gun Atmosphere” is an image from Judy Chicago’s archive. Image: Courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.

In the meantime, the NMA is busy going through Chicago’s materials, uncovering new revelations about an artist that most people think they have fully figured out—an artist who knew she would have to be immaculate in documenting her work because, as she told Dazed magazine in 2018, “It is not unusual for it to take decades for people to understand my work.” 

As Northrup goes further into the archives, she finds herself sitting front-row for Chicago’s long-view. “The depth, the richness, and the incredible organization of this material surprised me. Then when I gave it some thought, I realized this was an artist who, since she was very young, knew that she would be famous, and took all the trouble to organize her materials because she knows she deserves a place in history. And now she’s got it. She was right.” 

To learn more about Judy Chicago’s entire body of work, visit the Judy Chicago Research Portal and the Philipp Kaiser 2019 NMA interview with the artist.

Josie Glassberg

Posted by Josie Glassberg

Looking at art is Josie’s favorite thing to do, followed closely by writing about it. After attending St. Olaf College for printmaking and exhibiting her own work for several years, Josie began writing for different publications and has only looked back, like, twice. More at www.josieglassberg.com.

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