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If You See Smoke Coming from Golden Gate Park, Don’t Worry—It’s Art

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Older woman holds sticks with green and yellow smoke coming out.
Judy Chicago, 'On Fire at 80,' 2019; Archival inkjet print. (© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; Jessica Silverman, San Francisco; and Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles; Image provided by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

If you see colorful smoke rising from Golden Gate Park this October, there’s no cause for alarm. It’s art, and you might want to make sure you’ve got a clear view of its source.

In conjunction with feminist powerhouse Judy Chicago’s current retrospective at the de Young Museum, the artist helms a new performance atop a 27-foot-high scaffold that creates clouds of ephemeral color manipulated by the wind. The museum is vague on the material specifics of Forever de Young (as the performance is punnily titled), but promises “spectacular color effects.”

Chicago began creating her Atmospheres in the late 1960s in the deserts of Southern California, at a time when Land Art was a male-dominated field, often characterized by physically excavating the earth with heavy machinery. Working with friends, she and other women released clouds of colored smoke in dramatic landscapes, sometimes nude, with their bodies painted to match. When a performance was over, only the documentation remained.

“I’ve always been more interested in my smoke pieces as a gesture of liberation—although I don’t think I understood them as that in the late 1960s,” Chicago said in a 2020 video interview with the Nevada Art Museum, which recently acquired her dry ice, smoke and fireworks archive (now on view in Reno through June 12, 2022).

Woman with green skin sits in a cloud of orange smoke.
Judy Chicago, ‘Immolation,’ from the series ‘Women and Smoke,’ 1972. Fireworks performance; performed in California desert. (Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco. © Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy of Through the Flower Archives; Image provided by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Forever de Young is part of a fairly recent return to this body of work, which started in 2012 with the installation of A Butterfly for Pomona on Pomona College’s football field (a takeover of traditional male space that Chicago particularly loved). Before that, her last Atmosphere was commissioned by the Oakland Museum of California in 1974. Commercial fireworks and road flares arranged in the shape of a butterfly burned for about 17 minutes on the edge of Lake Merritt, a smoldering, yet delicate symbol that appears often in Chicago’s work.

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It’s fitting, then, to see Chicago’s “paintings” of colored smoke return to the Bay Area. And while the Music Concourse is by no means a natural landscape, it has emerged as a powerful setting for political and artistic action, especially since protesters targeted several now-removed statues during summer of 2020. There, Dana King’s Monumental Reckoning installation currently surrounds the base of the former Francis Scott Key statue.

Chicago views her Atmospheres as a “kind of gift.” Their beauty lies in their ephemerality, which encourages a lighter, more complementary relationship to the land and a present-tense appreciation of a finite experience.

‘Forever de Young’ begins at 5pm on Saturday, Oct. 16 outside the de Young Museum, with remarks at 5:30pm and the performance starting at 6pm. The museum will also livestream the event. Admission is free. Details here.

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