Twenty-two years after its blockbuster opening at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1979, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party has been donated and permanently installed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Should I admit that I attended the installation of The Dinner Party in Chicago in the early 80s? Waiting in a line that stretched around the block and walking single file around the large apostolic table, I associate such crowds during those years only with the exhibition of Tutankhamun’s tomb at the Chicago Field Museum. So as I think back to that formative moment in the history of the women’s movement, I realize that my memories still only encompass an art world created after The Dinner Party. The entrance of The Dinner Party to the level of a national event opened many doors of the art world to women artists, even as its exhibition coincided with the eve of the Reagan era when a wave of conservatism still managed to assimilate the strengths that the feminist movement offered.
Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974-1979. Ceramic, porcelain, textile. 576 x 576 in. (c) Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum and the artist.
The main tenet of Chicago’s aesthetic is the celebration of a female iconography. With its 39 settings of porcelain plates, each representing a mythic or historical woman, the piece can alternatively read as corny or as seductive. Seen in the context of the museum’s reinstallation of its American wing, The Dinner Party becomes an example of a peculiarly American idealism, one that embraces a broad audience through its spectacular technique and a nostalgic yet authenticated collective practice. Think of Chicago’s studio in Benicia, California, where women with a penchant for adventure showed up at her doorstep and began to live a new chapter in their lives.
If one would take The Dinner Party outside the feminist experiment it could be placed alongside the concerns and processes of William Morris. Both artists shared a passion for applied medieval practices aimed at bringing a high level of artisanship to an era of industrialization. Chicago apprenticed herself to a master porcelain maker to study porcelain techniques. Chicago’s research into the Middle Ages also suggested the idea of providing dependable visual symbols for a greater public than the art world, with its strident emphasis on purely aesthetic values. She then structured her studio practice on a medieval guild model and expected high levels of craftsmanship from her work force of worker/pilgrims who sewed, molded, and carved for her.
The production model of The Dinner Party included weekly meetings and consciousness raising that brought women together to grapple with the complexity of their social and biological formation. Women who were college-educated but who encountered a low glass ceiling in their professions acknowledged a collective memory by embroidering with needles, thread, and cloth. By doing this they discovered the possibilities for iconographic and social progress. One precedent comes from the Netherlands where the depiction of a woman doing needle work was “an emblem of a well run home, domestication, and the commonwealth.” Even so, paintings by Vermeer portrayed women as self-reliant subjects while he sensitized the painterly aspects of material and surface. Needlework was challenged by Erasmus of Rotterdam, a humanist who satirized it saying, “The distaff and the spindle may be tools for women to avoid idleness, but it would be better if they were taught to study for study busies the whole soul.” Vermeer’s contemporary Judith Leyster portrayed a needle worker in “The Proposition” who resists a sexual invitation, thus representing an ambiguous narrative in a society that placed moral virtue in the home, yet where brothels thrived as it acquired more wealth.
The Dinner Party is historical, highly formal, and allegorical. On each side of a triangular table 13 figures in chronological order are represented by a place setting. The imagery of each plate, based on flowers, vulvae, and womb shapes is placed on elaborately embroidered tablecloths, under which gleam the names of so many forgotten women who were unable to stand on the shoulders of preceding generations. Chicago’s use of the lips which surround the vagina begins with, as Natalie Angier has pointed out, “an enfolded pillow around its darkened slit, a pause between the declarative sentence of the outside world and the mutterings of the viscera.” As the work logically progresses from goddesses to religious mystics and thinkers, from doctors to writers and through generations of women who successively pursued their potential for individuation, it reflects so many glimpses, examples, and vignettes from the makers of the Bayeaux Tapestry to Jane Austin hiding her writings beneath her embroidery when visitors arrived. With its darkly charming reference to da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” The Dinner Party’s popular appeal challenged a hierarchy of materials as it opened one of the doors to the vast exploration of installation art that derives from and thrives from it today.
On the academic forefront of the 1970s, Chicago and Miriam Shapiro were surprised to receive funding and institutional support to teach a new program in feminism at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. A year later they and their students formed Womanhouse, a women’s collective that not only experimented in creating a female iconography, but raised questions about women’s self-authorization, like how and where to find space and to exhibit. As a self-critical audience, they tested their ideas through trial and error providing the role of intellectual support for one another. To conceptualize women’s role in the field of art they make vastly different aesthetic choices in relation to the canonical authority of art history, especially in terms of subject matter. If you visit The Dinner Party you’ll be introduced to the ghosts of new and vital personalities, from Hildegard Bingham, who argued with kings to Anna van Schurman, a participant in the republic of letters, from Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school to Caroline Herschel, who found comets in the skies.
Rachel Youens is a painter, writer, and teacher who lives in Brooklyn.