Until I stood before it in the Brooklyn Museum, I didn’t understand it fully. I had seen individual plates in books and on the internet, I had read Chicago’s biography where she describes the process of making it and showing it, but until I saw and felt it in its wholeness, I had not experienced Judy Chicago’s groundbreaking feminist art installation called The Dinner Party.
To say I was moved and overwhelmed is an understatement. While I was both of those, a more apt word is awe. I was in awe of it. There was so much I had not understood until I stood before it: How powerful it is to see the 39 women represented in full place settings at banquet tables forming a triangle, facing one another and lined up over linear time; to view up close the vestment cloths underneath the plates — the fine details of the stitching and embroidery—portraying images and facts from each woman’s individual lifetime. Most compelling: to see the “backs” of the vestment cloths of the women sitting across the way from the point of view of another woman’s position looking toward them. (See image below) That was something I had not understood or considered until I was in the room with it. The attention Chicago gave to every detail is stunning.
Then there were the names, handwritten in gold on the white tiled floor, extending under the tables to reveal whose “shoulders” each woman stood on or those she had inspired.
The room was dark with lighting that gave it a glowing and luminescent appearance. In this post are photos I took myself at that exhibit.
What is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (created from 1974-1979)
It all began with a painted plate in a window that she saw on a trip up the North Coast of the Western U.S. in 1971. She liked the effects of what is called “China or Porcelain painting” and decided to learn the technique.
As with other media Chicago would take up and elevate, the art of porcelain painting had fallen into the realm of what is called “crafts.” Crafts are often not considered to be high art and therefore relegated to a “lesser” designation. Throughout her career, feminist artist Chicago would take up and attempt to elevate artistic mediums that had fallen into the designation of “craft” mostly because of the gender (female) of the person who was creating them.
Read our other posts on the career and work of Nasty Woman Artist Judy Chicago: Judy Chicago’s The Birth Project (1980-1985): The Power of Parturition and Textile Arts and Judy Chicago: Feminist Art, Collaborative Works and Changemaker
In her series of “Rejection Drawings” (prismacolor and graphite on paper), Chicago began peeling back layers of women’s history, experience and representation, revealing what she came to call a vulval form. The vulval forms at first frightened her. She felt she had tapped into something very powerful and pressing; something wanting to be exposed and expressed. Wanting to have voice and position, wanting to be heard and seen. She did not set out to focus on revealing the stories of women through a body part but when she listened to the women she was researching, as well as her own inner voice, this part wanted to speak. And so she listened and with her art allowed them to tell their stories.
“When I go into my studio, I do not think, ‘I am a woman.’ I approach art as a whole human being whose sex and gender make up part of my identity. But when my art goes into the world, it collides with social attitudes toward the female person. It is because I have a vulva that this happens.
Wanting to understand how this physical characteristic has shaped women’s lives across history helped to fuel my research into women’s history and also influenced my decision to start with the vulval form. …
I wanted the vulval image to act as a visual symbol for the physically defining characteristic of the female in an almost metaphysical sense; that is, as an entryway into an aesthetic exploration of what it has meant to be a woman experientially, historically, and philosophically. Moreover, I hoped that my choice of this form would allow me to challenge some of the prevailing definitions of the vagina as being inherently passive”(123).
The vulval forms on the plates are only one component of the installation. There are so many more. Each element emerged out of a conscious choice and decision and further layers of listening and exposure. The decision for each woman at the table to have her own plate put them all on equal footing. Chicago realized that the motif of a table was perfect “to point out the ways in which women’s achievements—like the endless meals they had prepared throughout history—had been ‘consumed’ rather than acknowledged and honored”(128).
Though some art critics dismissed it as “vaginas on plates,” and some feminist theorists criticized it as “essentialist” (female defined by their genitals), Chicago maintains:
“I think it’s a waste of energy to argue about whether gender is biological or cultural . . . Of course femininity is a construct as is masculinity. I certainly think most gender differences are cultural, but there’s also some intersection between culture and biology. Also, when I became aware of the debate years later, I could not figure out how seemingly erudite women could completely miss the point—understood by so many less sophisticated viewers—that The Dinner Party celebrates women’s sexuality, history and crafts”(191).
The project evolved out of years of research into women from history and women who had made history. Even deciding who received a seat at the table was a series of painstaking choices. The work was one of collaboration and participation with many other artists, both male and female. It took over five years to complete.
“By early 1977, there were anywhere from twenty to thirty people working in the studio at any given time, generally in teams focused on a particular task. Each team had a leader, selected on the basis of talent, commitment, and the ability to take responsibility”(140).
Chicago decided to make the plates that sit later in time more complex by having them “rise up,” in relief, as a metaphor for “women’s long struggle for liberation” (130) and then to set the whole thing upon a Heritage Floor made of porcelain tiles with the names of 999 women from history, hand inscribed in gold paint “to suggest that the accomplishments of each individual female figure on the table were best understood against the background of a much larger history”(131).
“In creating The Dinner Party, my intention was to challenge the male-centered view of history—traditionally presented through the accomplishments or exploits of men like Plato or Richard the Lionhearted—by focusing on female heroines who could stand for these same periods; Eleanor of Aquitaine, for example, would take the place of Richard as a symbol for the High Middle Ages. This substitution in the context of a dinner party was intended to commemorate the unacknowledged contributions of women to Western civilization while simultaneously alluding to and protesting their oppression through the metaphor of places set upon and thus “contained” by the table”(130).
Then came tablecloths and the “vestment” runners underneath the plates with the names of the women and details about their lives and work, highlighting another of women’s unseen and invisible art forms: the long history of stitching, sewing, embroidery, quilting, felting.
This part of the project inspired Chicago to begin to study the history of needlework, attracting many women who were willing to carry out the stitching of her designs.
“I soon decided that, in addition to raiding art history for the plate imagery, I would also turn around needle techniques on behalf of women by incorporating the needlework style of each woman’s time for the runner designs. My aim was to imply that history should be seen as belonging just as much to women as to men, while also paying homage to needlework, which, like china painting, was—by this time—primarily a female craft. In addition I very much liked the idea of telling “herstory” through techniques that were considered “womanly”(136).
Read a NWW piece on the history of women and textiles: #NastyWomenWeavers: Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work, the first 20,000 years.
Once on display, The Dinner Party was met with popular support and excitement by those in attendance. The openings and shows were widely attended but the critics were not always supportive of Judy Chicago. In fact she was largely panned by the art world especially the New York Art Critics whose praise is essential to any lasting and continued work. Chicago suffered greatly from her mistreatment in the art world. In her autobiography, The Flowering, she discusses the stress this caused to her.
Because of their disrespect and outright hostility to her work, she was not invited by museums to show The Dinner Party. Instead she was forced to promote it in public venues and transport it herself. She also did not receive funding for further work as most artists who create such groundbreaking works do automatically.
“In sharp contrast to what happens to many male artists, who are usually besieged with offers from major dealers after an important museum show, I received no phone calls of interest or invitations to lunch followed by polite inquiries about my future “career plans.” And it wasn’t just the dealers who were uninterested: no other American museum would exhibit The Dinner Party after its New York showing, no matter how much community pressure was brought to bear”(190).
Chicago kept on going. It’s amazing that she continued to accomplish so much, but it is also important to acknowledge that she should not have had to suffer the way she did. She should not have been made to work overtime to continue her work, and jump through extra hoops while struggling to fund her art. It makes one angry and sad to read about the hurdles and obstacles that were put in her way when she has offered so much to feminist arts and the art world in general.
In spite of this, The Dinner Party was exhibited worldwide in other venues to much acclaim from those who went to see it. Finally in 2007 it was given a permanent place in the Brooklyn Museum in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
Go see it if you can.
Judy Chicago is a Nasty Woman Artist.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Featured Photograph by Collier Schorr. Styled by Suzanne Koller
Chicago, Judy. The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago. Thames and Hudson, 2021.