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Judy Chicago’s Desert X art got canceled. Will the same happen at the de Young?

Judy Chicago ’s smoke test for “Living Smoke: A Tribute to the Living Desert.”
Judy Chicago’s smoke test for the now-canceled “Living Smoke: A Tribute to the Living Desert,” 2020.
(Donald Woodman/Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society, New York)

It’s official: The two-month-long Coachella Valley biennial known as Desert X will not include a relocated Judy Chicago piece, the artist has told The Times, and the cancellation of the work is threatening a smoke sculpture planned for San Francisco’s de Young museum in mid-October.

Chicago’s Desert X smoke sculpture and performance, “Living Smoke: A Tribute to the Living Desert,” was supposed to take place in April over 1,200 acres at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. The Palm Desert organization, which had approved the work, canceled it after activist, longtime local resident and former Times staffer Ann Japenga raised concerns about the artwork’s effects on the animals in the region.

Chicago adamantly maintained that the work, made with colored pigment that resembles smoke when lighted and dispersed in the air, is environmentally safe. She had been searching for a new location with hopes of presenting the work before the biennial ends May 16. She considered the Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert last week and said that Palm Desert’s Art in Public Places Commission “welcomed the work.”

Ultimately, however, there were too many challenges at the new site, Chicago said. She would have had to quickly reconceptualize site-specific work that typically takes a year to design and plan. The site also was adjacent to residences. There wasn’t enough time to get the proper notifications to homeowners and others living nearby, said Chicago’s longtime partner on pyrotechnic performances, Chris Souza of Pyro Spectaculars.

“I’m devastated,” Chicago said. “We worked so hard on this — so many people — and it upsets me beyond belief that it’s not happening. I can’t bring what I do to thousands of people around the world [via live-streaming] and share the beauty and fragility of the planet on which we live. That’s what my smoke sculptures are about.”

Just as concerning, Chicago said, is the possibility that the Desert X cancellation might affect a future smoke sculpture she’s working on.

“Even though we tell everyone they’re environmentally friendly, nontoxic smokes, that’s been called into question,” Chicago said. “It’s blocking my next planned piece.”

That would be at the de Young museum in San Francisco, which is presenting the first institutional retrospective of Chicago’s work. The exhibition was supposed to open in May 2020 but was delayed because of the pandemic. It’s now scheduled to open Aug. 28.

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An “integral” part of “Judy Chicago: A Retrospective,” curator Claudia Schmuckli said, is Chicago’s smoke sculpture “A Garden Bouquet,” which the museum hopes to stage in mid-October in the Golden Gate Park Music Concourse between the de Young and the California Academy of Sciences.

Schmuckli said the museum does not have concerns about the environmental safety of the work. “We’ve been assured that the smokes are environmentally safe and we’re confident we’ll be able to proceed,” Schmuckli said. But because the piece will take place outdoors in the park, the museum must work closely with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. The museum and city agency are working together on securing permits, said the de Young’s associate director of communications, Helena Nordstrom.

The canceled Desert X work might have complicated that process.

The parks department — over two years of discussions with the museum about the Chicago work — has shared Japenga’s concerns about the work’s impact on the environment, parks spokesperson Tamara Aparton said via email. News of the Desert X cancellation, Aparton said, “added to our concerns.”

“We have told [the museum] we will need to get a valid scientist to confirm it will not damage the trees or wildlife,” Aparton said. “That would be the next step.”

Schmuckli said the smoke sculpture is important to the upcoming exhibition because it bridges Chicago’s early fireworks performances with what she’s doing today.

“The ‘Atmospheres’ were an incredibly relevant body of work that she made in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that really repositioned the notion of land art or earth art,” Schmuckli said. The new piece, she added, “showcases her entire reach as an artist and how it translates from the ‘70s into current times.”

Chicago’s canceled Desert X smoke sculpture included a robust youth educational program sponsored by the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation. It included a Judy Chicago coloring book with context on her career, busing in grade school and high school students to the Living Desert over four weekends, and curriculum materials for 500 art teachers in Riverside County.

“Jordan was working with Palms Springs Life Magazine and Think Together, an educational organization in Coachella Valley, to do educational programs for children, particularly from disadvantaged communities,” Chicago said. “Twelve hundred children, 500 teachers in the Coachella Valley, live-streaming all over the Coachella Valley and the world — all coming to a screeching halt.”

Schnitzer said he has been in discussions with de Young Director Thomas P. Campbell about funding Chicago’s smoke sculpture at the museum, should it go forward in October. He’d also like to fund educational activities related to it.

“They have a big educational department there and we’ll see how we can add to it,” Schnitzer said. “We want to break down these elitist walls that art is for someone else — it’s for everyone.”

Chicago said democratizing art was always part of her goal with the Desert X work.

“My role as an artist has always been in service of larger issues. In this case: bringing art to a broad and diverse audience,” she said. “We were also trying to bring some positive energy and beauty after this awful period we’ve all been through. Art can be so enlightening and inspiring and empowering. Now it’s not happening. Gone. I feel terrible.”


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