You have probably heard of Judy Chicago’s magnum opus, The Dinner Party, made in 1975-6, first exhibited in 1979 and now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Widely regarded as one of the high points in feminist art, it is a huge three-sided table with 39 place settings, each one commemorating a famous woman in history with an individualized plate and placemat. An additional 999 women were memorialized on floormats on which the table rested.
The exhibit toured the world for nine years, drawing huge crowds, and many of the women who saw it were moved to wish that their own favorite women could be included in the show. At some point Chicago invited submissions from anybody who wanted to make a panel. Hundreds of panels came in, and on later stops in the tour they were displayed as part of the Dinner Party installation.
The panels covered famous and not-famous women; many people honored their mothers, grandmothers, next-door neighbors and teachers. Others chose women’s organizations such as the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women or La Leche League. Some depicted fictional, mythological or Biblical characters, groups such as farm women or pioneers, or universal themes such as menstruation.
There were only two rules: each panel should be an equilateral triangle, 24 inches on a side, and around the edges of the triangle should be written the name of the honoree and her city and country. Beyond that, the format, materials and techniques were up to the makers.
After the world tour, both The Dinner Party itself and the more than 600 volunteer-made panels went into storage. Last year, Chicago’s foundation donated the panels to the University of Louisville, and the school is now grappling with the task of properly documenting them. In a moment of some kind of mental aberration, I decided that I needed to be involved with this project, so I’m spending several hours a week with the panels and a spreadsheet, helping the curators with the technical details of textile techniques and materials.
The database is supposed to include information on the panel, the woman or group honored in the panel, the maker of the panel and biographical information about her, the maker’s statement (about why she chose the honoree, how she made the panel, or whatever else she wanted to say), technical information on the panel’s condition, measurements, materials and techniques, and a detailed description of the panel. Materials, techniques and description are my responsibility, while the other fields are being checked and corrected by others on the project staff.
In my three fields, we’re finding that some panels have no information at all, while others have been incorrectly described. For instance,18 of the first 54 we went through had no information on materials, techniques and description! That’s a lot of blank spaces in the data base. But even the ones that have been filled in by past cataloguers need to be carefully checked for accuracy. The previous cataloguers sometimes confuse hand and machine stitching and use catchall terms such as “hand sewn” instead of distinguishing between hand piecing, hand applique and hand embroidery. One of the cataloguers seemed enamored of the term “partial machine construction,” which means nothing to me. “Top stitching” is frequently used as a descriptor, except sometimes it means machine applique, other times it means quilting, still other times it means embroidery.
the cataloguer thought this beautiful padded satin stitch was machine embroidered
The previous cataloguers also didn’t pay much attention to how the edges of the panels were finished — traditional quilt binding, facing, knife-edge finish, fabric from the front or back of the panel folded over the edge and stitched down on the other side, or whatever. In many cases there was no description at all of the edge, and in others it wasn’t accurate. So I inspect each panel, compare it to what the cataloguer wrote, poke and prod the work to determine what techniques were used, occasionally feel the goods with my ungloved hand to identify the material, and write my own notes. Then at home I type it all into the database; it usually takes me a bit longer to type up the notes than it did to inspect the panels.
The curators had acquired several pairs of those baggy, limp white cotton gloves to protect the quilts, but I said we needed Machingers to make it easier to work. I have a long, strong embroidery needle that I use to poke at the work and lift an edge or pull a seam open to see how it was stitched, a ruler to measure the borders and a magnifying loupe to get a better look at the stitches if necessary.
I had to gingerly poke at this one to determine that the tiny orange stitches are made with a punch needle, not french knots
I’m writing more about my adventures in cataloguing on my own blog, Art With A Needle, if you’re intrigued with this project. Next week I’ll write about an artist I discovered in the pile of panels.