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Painter Judith Godwin (BFA ’52) dies at 91

Judith Godwin, a young white woman with short hair, sits in front of a pairing wearing a black shirt and grey skirt

Judith Godwin (BFA ’52), an Abstract Expressionist painter who challenged by the male-dominated art world in the 1950s, died May 29, 2021 at age 91. Godwin was a painter for more than 70 years and collectors, curators, and museums have increasingly acknowledged her achievements in recent years. She was among 12 artists included in the groundbreaking exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism held at the Denver Art Museum and curated by University of Denver professor Gwen F. Chanzit. 

In an obituary from the Berry Campbell Gallery, which represented Godwin, she was described as a “playful raconteur and a passionate advocate for women in the arts.” Godwin was also legendary at VCUarts, where her rebellious spirit led to a change in the dress code for women. Her story, told below, was originally shared in 2018 as part of the VCUarts 90th anniversary commemoration.

Judith Godwin changes the code

Judith Godwin isn’t afraid to defy convention. The Suffolk-born artist was one of the few women celebrated as an Abstract expressionist artist in the 1950s. As a young painter, she joined the Art Students League of New York and further studied under Hans Hofmann with classmates Will Barnet, Harry Sternberg and Vaclav Vytlacil. Today, her work is held in prestigious museum collections around the world and continues to be exhibited in Abstract expressionist retrospectives.

Yet, Godwin’s rebellious streak truly began in the early 1950s when she was a student at Richmond Professional Institute, the predecessor to VCU. That’s where she became known for a humble protest that changed the School of Art forever.

Every day, Godwin had to sprint between classes, all due to a policy about student attire. Godwin was allowed to work in jeans during her morning studio class. But lunch was a different story; no woman at RPI could wear jeans in the cafeteria. To follow the rules, Godwin would run from her class on Franklin Street to her room in Ritter-Hickok House, change into a skirt and hurry to the cafeteria for a truncated lunch. Then she’d return to Ritter-Hickok to change back into jeans before heading back to Franklin Street for her sculpture class.

“I thought this just didn’t quite make sense!” Godwin later said in a 2012 interview with VMFA curator Sarah Eckhardt. “And I decided that I didn’t think that was such a good idea. So, [one day,] I wore, straight from my class, jeans, and had a 20-minute lunch instead of a 10-minute lunch.”

A young woman from one of Godwin’s classes spotted her in jeans in the cafeteria and reported her to the dean. Margaret Johnson, then the dean of women at RPI, called Godwin to her office and inquired with a laugh, “Judith what have you done now?”

The young student explained her reasoning: the hassle of changing clothes multiple times a day was very hard for someone who lives several blocks from class. Johnson agreed that Godwin’s situation was unfair and soon the university’s dress code was changed to allow women to wear jeans outside of the studio.

“That changed the whole law for the school of the arts and women wearing blue jeans,” said Godwin. “That was my main, great gift I gave to RPI.”

Judith Godwin at the Anderson Gallery

In 2012, the Anderson Gallery at VCU mounted an exception of Godwin’s work. Judith Godwin: Early Abstractions traced Godwin’s ascendancy in abstract expressionism from her VCU student days through her post-graduation life in New York in the heyday of abstract expressionism.