A Place at the Table
The Dinner Party is a monument to women’s history and accomplishments. It is a massive triangular table—measuring 48 feet on each side—with thirty-nine place settings dedicated to prominent women throughout history and an additional 999 names are inscribed on the table’s glazed porcelain brick base. This tribute to women, which includes individual place settings for such luminary figures as the Primordial Goddess, Ishtar, Hatshepsut, Theodora, Artemesia Gentileschi, Sacajawea, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emily Dickinson, Margaret Sanger, and Georgia O’Keeffe, is beautifully crafted. Each place setting has an exquisitely embroidered table runner that includes the name of the woman, utensils, a goblet, and a plate.
The Dinner Party was intended to be exhibited in a large, darkened, sanctuary-like room, with each place setting individually lit, making it look as though it is composed of thirty-nine altars. The 999 names, written in gold, gleam softly, suggesting a hallowed or liminal space. Five years in the making (1974-1979) and the product of the volunteer labor of more than 400 people, The Dinner Party is a testament to the power of feminist vision and artistic collaboration. It was also a testament to Chicago’s ability to create a work of art that spoke to people who had not previously been a part of the art world. When the exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco in March of 1979, it was mobbed. Judy Chicago’s accompanying lecture was completely sold out.
Although critics praised the table runners, they ignored or disparaged the plates. These ceramic objects, which become increasingly three-dimensional during the procession from prehistory to the present in order to represent women rising, look somewhat like flowers and butterflies. They also resemble female genitalia, which many people found disturbing. Writing for the feminist journal Frontiers in 1981, Lolette Kuby was so taken aback by the plates’ forms that she suggested that Playboy and Penthouse had done more to promote the beauty of female anatomy than The Dinner Party ever could.
Kuby’s distaste for pudenda was echoed more forcefully a decade later, when Chicago attempted to donate the artwork to the University of the District of Columbia. Chicago was forced to withdraw her donation after the U.S. Senate threatened to withhold funding from UDC if they accepted what Rep. Robert Dornan characterized as “3-D ceramic pornography” and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher dismissed as a “spectacle of weird art, weird feminist art at that.” It was not until 2007 that The Dinner Party, an icon of feminist art, would find a permanent home in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
What drove Chicago to embark on such a large and controversial feminist project? She was inspired, in part, by her pioneering work in feminist education. She started the Feminist Art Program at California State University, Fresno in 1970. The following year she founded the Feminist Art Program (FAP) at the newly established California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) with the abstract painter Miriam Schapiro. The galleries were still under construction when Chicago arrived at CalArts, so the FAP had their exhibition in an abandoned mansion that was slated to be demolished shortly after. The resulting installation, Womanhouse, was a testament to Chicago’s method of teaching, which begin with consciousness raising and then progressed to realizing a message through whatever medium was most suitable, whether it was performance, sculpture, or painting.
While at CalArts, Chicago and Schapiro developed the idea of “central core imagery,” arguing in a 1973 article published in Womanspace Journal that many women artists making abstract art unconsciously gravitated towards imagery that was anti-phallic. By the time she began working on The Dinner Party, Chicago had come to believe that central core imagery, which celebrated feminine eroticism and fertility, could be used to challenge patriarchal constructions of women. For Chicago, there existed an irreducible difference between men and women, and that difference began with the genitals. Chicago would eventually put vaginal imagery front and center in The Dinner Party.
Right Out of History
After several years of work establishing various feminist art programs in Southern California, Chicago was eager to get back to making her own artwork and resigned from teaching in 1974. Her experience with Womanhouse inspired her to embrace materials that had traditionally been associated with women’s crafts, such as embroidery, weaving, and china painting. She was determined to make a monument to women’s history using china-painted plates alluding to thirteen specific figures, which she originally planned to hang on the gallery wall. However, she soon realized that there were many more women that she wished to include, and the initial conception of the piece expanded to a large-scale installation with thirty-nine place settings.
An important component of the piece was the educational material that represented the years of research that had been conducted by Chicago’s volunteer staff, led by art historian Diane Gelon. The Dinner Party was accompanied by a book of the same title (published by Anchor Books in 1979 and designed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville) that included the stories behind all 1,038 names. Filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas documented the monumental effort that it took to make this installation in her film Right Out of History: The Making of the Dinner Party.
Not Exactly Playboy or Penthouse
In order to understand The Dinner Party, we must keep in mind that the sculptural painted plates were intended to be metaphors rather than realistic representations. Take, for instance, the final place setting on the table—the one for Georgia O’Keeffe. This plate is the most sculptural piece in the installation. Pink and greenish gray swirls and folds radiate out from a central core framed by fleshy looking folds that seem to have been deliberately spread apart in order to reveal what should be a hidden entrance. The plate can be read as suggestive of female genitalia, but its forms also recall the shape of a butterfly and the reproductive organs of flowers. O’Keeffe was famous for her abstracted paintings of flowers, and and the plate is an homage to some her best-known works, such as Grey Lines With Black, Blue, and Yellow (1923) and Black Iris III (1926), both of which have a central opening framed by folds, or Two Calla Lilies On Pink (1928), which has a similar color palette to the O’Keeffe plate.
Chicago’s decision to use vaginal imagery has proven to be powerful. The Dinner Party, having survived rejection, critical dismissal, and political grandstanding, is now considered a key work of contemporary art, and is permanently installed in a dedicated space at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.
Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party: Restoring Women to History (Arnold L. Lehman, foreword. Brooklyn Museum of Art/The Monacelli Press, 2014).
Jane Gerhard, The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism, 1970-2007 (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2013).
Gail Levin, Becoming Judy Chicago (New York: Harmony Books. 2007).