Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (by Jane Davila)

I’m going to do my best with a work and artist who is near and dear to June’s heart. Feel free to jump in, June and anyone else, with more and better insights.

The work is permanently installed at the Brooklyn Museum and is now open to the public. The description of the exhibit:

The Dinner Party, an important icon of 1970s feminist art and a milestone in twentieth-century art, is presented as the centerpiece around which the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art is organized. The Dinner Party comprises a massive ceremonial banquet, arranged on a triangular table with a total of thirty-nine place settings, each commemorating an important woman from history. The settings consist of embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils, and china-painted porcelain plates with raised central motifs that are based on vulvar and butterfly forms and rendered in styles appropriate to the individual women being honored. The names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the triangular table. This permanent installation is enhanced by rotating biographical gallery shows relating to the 1,038 women honored at the table. Pharaohs, Queens, and Goddesses is the first such exhibition.

Judy Chicago The Dinner Party
The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago, 1979

According to the 20th-Century Art Book, Phaidon Press:

On a triangular, ceramic table, place settings anticipate the arrival of distinguished guests. To each is assigned the name of a famous woman. Most striking are the plates themselves, which resemble labial folds. This pivotal piece celebrates celebrates femininity and explores the symbolic meanings of the form of the vagina. Born Judy Cohen in Chicago, the artist adopted the name of her birthplace, aiming to establish an independent identity. Her work owes much to the feminist art theories of the early 1970s, in which traditional forms of women’s labour, such as sewing and quilting, were elevated to the status of art. Later, a new generation of women artists and critics, whose economic independence took them beyond the sphere of the home and family, rejected this approach. Nonetheless, the profusion of tapestries, ceramics and quilts which emerged in this period signalled a shift in emphasis from the closed world of art to a wider debate about gender and sexuality.

The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago, 1979
The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago, 1979

I have to admit, I’ve heard of this seminal piece for years and knew little of it and never looked at images of it very closely or even really realized what components and media formed its structure and parts (ceramics, sewing). Admittedly I was 15 when it was created and have lived my adult life in a post-feminist world, but I find this work remarkable now that I’ve taken the time and thought to really look at it and think about it. Not being able to appreciate fully either the cultural context of the time (only from a historical view – I can hear June snorting here) or the shock to which it was greeted, it still has an import and weight to its message not easily ignored. You can read a lot more about the artist, this work and the reaction of the critics on Judy Chicago’s organization’s website.

Judy Chicago - Emily Dickinson
The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago – Emily Dickinson

Cynthia Freeland, in “But is it Art?” wrote of The Dinner Party:

Since 1979 when The Dinner Party was first exhibited, many writers, including feminists, have criticized it as either vulgar or too political, or else as too “essentialist”. Some critics argue that art that focuses so much on anatomy and sexual embodiement ignores differences due to women’s social class, race, and sexual orientation. The Dinner Party has been called simplistic and reductive — as if the achievements of women it is meant to celebrate are cancelled out by the omnipresent and repeated vaginal imagery of each place setting.

Judy Chicago - Virginia Woolf
The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago – Virginia Woolf

More from Cynthia Freeland’s book on the topic of “feminine art”:

And when quilts, pots, blankets and rugs got into art museums, they often were described as being made by “anonymous” or “nameless masters” — even when it was known (or could have been discovered) who produced the work! This suggests that women’s art flows naturally, without struggle or training, and is too naive to exemplify an artistic style or tradition.

And further on the topic of The Dinner Party:

The Dinner Party celebrated female bodily experiences by linking visual representations to texts that conveyed women’s power and achievement rather than passivity and availability.

Another aspect of this piece worth considering is its collaborative nature. Many artists and craftspeople made the components that went into the finished work under Judy Chicago’s direction. This piece is huge, 48 feet long on each side, 13 complete place settings on each leg of the triangle. It would have taken many hands to create it. How completely fascinating it would have been to be part of this undertaking. Were all of the contributing artists women? What kinds of things did they discuss while making each individual part? The larger social aspects or the more immediate technical issues?

So, some things to think about,

Where would we as female artists be today if not for Judy Chicago and The Dinner Party?

Is it necessary to shock and possibly offend to “transcend” or “elevate” a traditional “female” medium to high art? Are there examples of this “elevation” minus the shock?

Is it important to know the gender of an artist when looking at an artwork? Could a male artist have made the same work and how would our view of it be different?

If this work were made today what impact would it have on society and on the art world?

Anyone want to join me on a road trip to the museum to see it in the flesh, so to speak?

    submitted by Jane Davila
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11 Responses to “Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (by Jane Davila)”


  1. 1 Kim Stone July 22, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    I saw The Dinner Party last weekend with my cousin, Lisa. We lingered over each place setting commenting on every detail. I am a fine artist and Lisa is a fiber artist. At 62 I can remember some of the controversy during the resurgence of the women’s movement in the early 70s. I’m sorry it took me this long to get to Brooklyn to see the exhibit. I highly recommend to all women to find the time to experience this important installation and advise going with someone who has a feminist spirit, man or women, and wants to learn a bit about the history of women not taught in text books.

  2. 2 Renee June 4, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    Jane, first I must say that I was shocked to see your name as I searched for a book on The Dinner Party! 🙂

    I was at the Brooklyn Museum on Sunday and was floored by the exhibit. Like you I grew up in a post feminist world and but when I walked into the exhibit, I had no idea of what it was about. I went to see the quilt exhibit and the recycled work of El Anatsui. OMG, was I floored. As I started around the table my eyes went to the beautiful colors and the gorgeous art. Then it hit me…. what The Dinner Party was… a tribute to women. I had no idea of the controversy until I searched for a color hardcover book here on the internet.

    AMEN to Judy Chicago, it is a fabulous work of art!

    Renee

  3. 3 Joyce Fischer December 18, 2010 at 1:24 am

    I was surprised to see this article come up when was doing a search for something else fiber art related. Judy Chicago was one of the first artist who made me aware that all the projects I’d been doing with textiles had value beyond a nice female hobby. The Dinner Party raised my awareness of the value of women in society and the fact that a different, quite feminine voice could and should be accepted as art.

    It’s a long time since there was any activity on this particular blog and I don’t know if the work is still on permanent display. If it is I do hope to see it one day. My knowledge of the work is only from photographs, but it definitely had a great impact on me. It is concept art. It’s a celebration of women unafraid to be women, and thus the female anatomy is still makes an important statement; no matter whether it is still shocking. And each of it’s individual parts bears consideration as a part of the whole. That’s a real test of a work of art. It has to make you stop and look; but then it has to make you want to go back again and again. It should speak to you on many levels and you should see something new each time you view it.

    Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party holds up to all those tests. If you ask me, there’s not question that it’s great art. I hope I get to see it in person and find out for myself if my conjectures are true.

    Thanks for posting this. It’s so wonderful that information like this stays on the internet indefinitely.

  4. 4 Gloria April 30, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    Thank you for posting information about this exhibition. I bought The Dinner Party book when I was a teenager and an active member of the EGA. It raised a few eyebrows, but I was absolutely fascinated by the stories and techniques (I still have that book). I had always hoped to one day see the exhibit in person but doubted I’d ever have the opportunity. It’s wonderful to learn that the opportunity is now available!

  5. 5 Linn April 26, 2007 at 7:55 am

    I paid several visits to The Dinner Party when it was exhibited in Los Angeles years ago.

    We were dealing with issues of feminism that seemed incompatible with textile arts at that time. Needlework used as a political statement had not yet come into its own. Seeing an art I loved used to espouse ideas I strongly felt was a revelation, an inspiration.

    I can recommend the book “Embroidering Our Heritage, The Dinner Party Needlework ISBN 0-385-14569-1 in which Judy Chicago particularly focuses on the inspiration of the needlework design of the project.

  6. 6 Bobbe Nolan April 14, 2007 at 7:10 am

    My husband and I visited The Dinner Party in Brooklyn when it was first exhibited–made a special trip from Dayton OH for this and another exhibit (which I’ve forgotten). I already had purchased and read and reread the book. It was wonderful, exciting, and so lush. What’s funny in retrospect is that most of the comments from the other visitors were of this nature: “I don’t think much of the plates. They look too much like organs. But the runners I love–I didn’t know women were still doing that kind of embroidery.”

    The ceramics seem more interesting now, partly because the renaissance in textile art has moved most of us well beyond The Dinner Party. Chicago’s own writings in the book concentrate on the ceramics, which were all her own work. She sounded a little annoyed at the attention the runners received.

    I shared the book and my impressions with my mother, who was an exquisite seamstress and needlepoint worker. She wan enchanted. She said, “I wish I had known about this. I would have gone to the workroom and donated my skills. I would love to have a been a part of something like this.” My mother–who quietly raised 6 children, didn’t raise a stir, never demonstrated politically in her life, didn’t often express opinions. How I would love to have seen her among Chicago’s work group!

    I think this was one of the early works that bridged the space between hobby needlework and message art. Using traditional craft to send the message made it a lot more accessible to real people. For me, it encouraged original design rather than copying published patterns. The door opened, and there was no going back.

  7. 7 June April 13, 2007 at 8:42 am

    However, now that I’ve been allowed my rant, I would like to hear what art critics (who actually look at the art) and those of you who have seen The Dinner Party recently have to say about it. I’m thinking that I’ve fallen into the trap that Malarky fell into, even while I’m yelling about what she said — that is, that I’m looking at the work without much description, but with a mind full of notions.

    So to back up to Terry Barrett’s — observation (description) and interpretation — outside the obvious feminist slant of the work, can anyone provide us with a close “reading” of the work?

    Jane comments on the use of many hands in its making — I’m reminded that many of the big name artists, like Koons and Chihuly and Hirst, now regularly use other’s to fabricate their art. Even Michael James and Nancy Crow enlist the hands of helpers for the stitching. So that isn’t surprising.

    Some specific visual questions that I would investigate if I were not 3000 miles away — what, besides ideology, holds this vast enterprise together? Do you sense a single vision? Do individual place setttings rise above the merely pretty (“smarmy”)? Does the piece as a whole strike you as powerful or just interesting? How do the names on the tiles work as design elements? Is this like a wedding cake — good only for a single moment in time or does it contain enough elements of great art to be for all times? Could someone without literal knowledge of the women being symbolized appreciate the art?

    I think the question of the specific shape that holds the various settings together (the vulva) is a red herring at this point — probably has been since Aconti masterbated underneath a ramp at some New York gallery in 1972. Shock is beside the point; ideology finally loses its elbows (which is what Malarky got stuck on — that and her own clever use of language). We scarcely care whether Rembrandt was protestant or Catholic, although in his time it made an enormous difference. So is it possible to see The Dinner Pary as something beyond the minor quarrels of feminism and essentialism and sexual parts? And if so, what might we think?

    I’m wondering what Jeanne Beck, our Barrett scholar, would make of it.

  8. 8 clairan April 12, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    I have always loved The Dinner Party; I love the giant pubic V of the triangular table. And I applaud the vulvae — which I think are as relevant today as they were in the 70’s when I too was protesting the Vietnam War and marching for women’s rights and civil rights for African Americans. Think of Imus! We have certainly made strides, but perhaps women, as African Americans, have not actually gotten as much social, political, economic justice as we’re always told we have.

    Think of all the phallic symbols in our world, and then put those 39 vulvae in perspective!

  9. 9 Barbara Hynes April 12, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    I had the immense pleasure of seeing The Dinner Party in the early to mid-’90s when it traveled to Los Angeles. I went with other fiber artists, and we were amazed, astounded, and impressed. It is breathtaking, and it gave me goosebumps to finally see it in person. But then, I was in high school when Ms. magazine made its debut and I heard Gloria Steinem speak at our local community college. I was protesting the Vietnam War, and beginning my work for social justice. The feminist movement had a huge impact on my life, and artists like Judy Chicago showed me that there was a place for women like me in art. (I love the vulvas. They may seem a bit over-the-top in 2007, but I think the shock value was needed in 1979 to make a statement and wake up the male-dominated art community.) Barbara Hynes, Spiraling Threads: The musings of a rebellious creative crone

  10. 10 June April 12, 2007 at 8:20 am

    Karen,

    I’m with you about the vulva stuff — the use of the image, which is elegant and organic and balanced and centered — seems really to be a way of saying, OK, these are all women, what are you going to make of that? At the first showings (I was in Kansas when I saw it in the late 70’s), it was a bit shocking. But no more shocking than Linda Hochlin’s “Turn ’em over and f… ’em” school of (obviously) male paintings. Why a lush prostituting female nude is acceptable but stout beautiful serious vulvas are not is something I cannot understand — exploitation rather than exaltation — models for the human condition?

    Both Chicago with her images and Hochlin with her writings were a big part of refusal to either pretend we were men or think of women’s selves and workings as lesser. This was of course an extension of the other great movement of the era, the Civil Rights movement, in which Black became beautiful. That too made sense to me.

    I’ve been reading some art criticism around this new arrival of Chicago into permanent housing (imagine that, not a transient any more). Maureen Malarky does a rabid dog job on her — not based on the work at all, so far as I can tell (“moribund monument to the gullibilities of identity politics”.) And Peter Schjedahl, whom I generally like, calls the work “Smarmy.”

    http://www.maureenmullarkey.com/essays/dinner.html
    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/artworld/2007/04/09/070409craw_artworld_schjeldahl

    I’m sorry, but I beg to differ with both these usually astute critics. And not just because Chicago opened up worlds to the rest of us, but because as an installation that is now permanent, The Dinner Party is phenomenal. It’s amazingly crafted in the conventional sense of the word, but also, as I’m remembering it and looking again, full of power and mystery, color and magic. What more could you want? What installations of the 21st century can match it?

    As an aside: I always think of Flo Kennedy when I think of Judy Chicago. Kennedy, a black woman from the Civil Rights camp, came to Casper Wyoming, probably around 1972, to a women’s conference that I attended with a bunch of friends. She taught us to sing our way through our anger; she also told the story of, in 1968, being turned down for Columbia Law School. Too bad she was a female, she was told; if she were a male, her achievements would have gained her instant recognition. It was that experience that turned this civil rights movement veteran to organizing women.

    OK, I’ll stop showing my age now.

  11. 11 Kathy N April 12, 2007 at 7:44 am

    If you haven’t seen it in real life, then you need to see it. All the pictures in the world don’t mean a thing when you see it in person. Personally, I’ve been accused of reducing women to nothing but their uteri (no offense to those who have lost theirs for any reason), so I think the “vagina” argument is bullshit (and it’s actually the vulva we’re looking at…the vagina is deep inside). I think this piece is amazing in the amount of research, thought, and communal work that it took to create. Then again, I did a great amount of research on it in college. She took the one thing all those women had in common, no matter what, and she went from there.

    The people who helped Chicago with this and with her other works (The Birth Project, for example) had mostly positive reactions to working on these projects. They did seem to mostly be women (although I’d have to go back and pull the books to check for sure). There is a book on the Dinner Party (The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago, 1979, ISBN 0-385-14567-5 paperback), one on the Birth Project (The Birth Project, Judy Chicago, 1985, ISBN 0-385-18709-2 Hardcover, ISBN 0-385-18710-6 paperback), and another just on Chicago (Judy Chicago: An American Vision, 2000, Edward Lucie-Smith, ISBN 0-8230-2585-3). There’s another one that is her earlier stuff too, but I can’t find it (ex-husband probably took it! Ha!). Yes, I’m obsessed with her work, especially the Birth Project work, where she used embroiderers and quilters and weavers and sewers of all kinds to help get her images made. She also has a Holocaust piece. I give you all that book info, because most libraries have at least one of her books. I happened to pick up almost all of mine at used book stores, which is nice (because I am poor and can’t afford art books).

    I think the important part about knowing gender is one that really affected me growing up. I knew I was an artist, but was fairly limited in my role models…it was Mary Cassat (a lovely artist, for sure, but…) and Georgia O’Keefe. That was it. And the textbook for my first art history class (taught by a woman) didn’t even have those two artists. I realize that has changed, but I know in my personal art that Chicago was a great influence, not in imagery itself, but because she was trying to tease out what being a woman was through the years, what things were important to a woman’s life might be completely irrelevant in a man’s life. When I did my senior thesis, it was entirely based on the uterus…as soon as the eggs start arriving, as soon as a woman gets her period, she spends years trying to NOT get pregnant, then years trying TO get pregnant, and then years again trying NOT to get pregnant until the whole thing shuts off and leaves you…well, I don’t know that yet. My art may change completely when that happens.

    Anyway, I ramble. Go see the exhibit. Read (or look at the pictures in) the books. Enjoy.

    I do often wonder what Chicago is like as a person. Her writing style is very…um…not friendly, is the best way I can think to describe it. I did write her a letter at one point, and she never answered. I remember thinking then that she had to be a people person to work with all the collaborators that she used in the various exhibits, but her writing seems to imply that she is not a people person. Feel free to disavow me of this notion at any time.


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