Roots of Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" - History in the Making at Brooklyn Museum
One of the pioneers in promoting the feminist approach to art-making, Judy Chicago has been a leader and model for an art that seeks to effect social change.
Articulating her vision not only as an artist but also as an educator and organizer, she has been challenging the male-dominated art world for the past forty years, elevating women from the margins of society and history.
Her most celebrated work, The Dinner Party from 1974-79, was not only a milestone for the artist, but also for the art of the last century, becoming a major step in the institutionalization of Feminist Art as a contemporary art movement.
A vital resource for sparking conversations about feminism, political art, and diverse representation, this piece continues to inspire and inform generations of contemporary artists.
Ever since 2007, this piece was permanently housed in the Elizabeth A. Sackler for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum as its absolute highlight.
As the final exhibition in the series A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, the renowned institution will host a show that will examine the formal, material, and conceptual development of Chicago’s acclaimed artwork for the first time.
Titled Roots of “The Dinner Party”: History in the Making, the show will present never-before-seen objects that illuminate the installation’s development as a multilayered artwork, a triumph of collaborative art-making, and a testament to the power of revising Western history to include women.
When Art Fought For Women’s Rights
For the most part of the 20th century, the majority of women artists were invisible to the public eye. The world of art was largely known as a boy’s club, and women struggled to participate in it.
Emerging in the late 1960’s amidst the fervor of anti-war demonstrations and civil and queer rights movements, the Feminist Art movement sought to change this. Questioning the authority of the male-dominated Western canon, feminist art endeavored to reflect on women’s lives, call attention to women’s roles as artists, and change the conditions under which contemporary art was produced and received.
Set to influence cultural attitudes and transform stereotypes, the movement created opportunities and spaces that previously did not exist for women and minority artists.
It was Judy Chicago who pioneered Feminist Art and art education through unique programs for women at California State University-Fresno and later the California Institute of the Arts. Through a group art practice that combined object-making, installation, and performance, Chicago’s course was focused on developing the technique and expression through the process of consciousness-raising, recognizing female identity and independence.
Soon, Chicago and her students founded Womanhouse, an art space that provided a forum for teaching, performance, exhibition, discussion, and expression. Turning her attention to the subject of women’s history, Chicago started working on her most significant and most controversial work – The Dinner Party.
“Women had always made a significant contribution to the development of human civilization, but these were consistently ignored, denied, or trivialized,” she wrote at the height of the women’s liberation movement. After five years of work and with the participation of hundreds of volunteers that were mostly women, The Dinner Party debuted at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979.
What the public saw was not just art, but a work that highlighted the then-novel idea that women had played a significant role in the history of Western civilization.
The Dinner Party – Revising the History of Western Civilization
Possibly the greatest homage paid to women ever, The Dinner Party celebrates 1038 iconic, mythical, archetypical and historical women. Chicago originally conceived it as a celebratory redress of The Last Supper from “the point of view of those who’ve done the cooking throughout history”.
The Dinner Party comprises a massive ceremonial banquet, arranged on a triangular table measuring 48 feet on each side, with a total of 39 place settings, each commemorating a female guest of honor. Each setting reflects the life of each honored woman, represented by china-painted porcelain plates, featuring an image based on Chicago’s vulvar and butterfly iconography, and intricately gold-embroidered table runners, decorated with historically significant details associated with the respective women.
The names of another 999 women of importance are inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the table. Combining the glory of sacramental tradition with the intimate detail of a social gathering, the piece elevated achievement by women in Western culture to a heroic scale. The museum’s director, Henry Hopkins, praised the work, explaining that Chicago, with deliberate irony, had employed “women’s techniques” in a woman’s context “to create a major feminist statement.”
A constellation of influences and affiliations celebrating the long and interwoven history of women’s accomplishment, The Dinner Party also reestablished the importance of materials and techniques like ceramics, China-painting, and textiles.
As often part-time and casual activities done at home, these crafts were normally identified with domesticity and women’s creativity and thus devalued and described as non-productive. The reintroduction of these practices, that were described as “feminine crafts” and demoted to the lowest rungs of the artistic hierarchy, began with the women’s empowerment movement and Judy Chicago’s acclaimed piece.
The piece drew 5,000 visitors on the opening night and a total around 100,000 people during its three months on view. Despite its popular appeal, the piece was controversial, with some perceiving it to be pornographic and kitschy. A few saw the inclusion of mythical figures alongside real feminist pioneers as unfocused, while others argued that it was hectoring and overly didactic.
Critics also argued that the work marginalizes women of color, reflecting the biases of the largely white and middle-class second-wave feminist movement, but also exploits the work of the other artists who helped create it.
Yet, the work is now described as one of the major artistic monuments of the second of the 20th century, influencing the lives and work of thousands of people.
The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum
The exhibition Roots of “The Dinner Party”: History in the Making will feature more than 100 objects, including rarely seen test plates, research documents, ephemera, notebooks, and preparatory drawings from 1971 through 1979.
Presented chronologically, it starts with Chicago’s vision for the piece and her material study of China-painting, porcelain, and needlework, continuing with research documents and ephemera from Chicago’s studio, highlighting the workshop and research project behind The Dinner Party, and its eventual worldwide tour.
For the first time, this show will reveal the thought process, creative evolution, and history behind this controversial work, at the same time addressing the misperceptions that surround it.
Curated by Carmen Hermo, Assistant Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the exhibition Roots of “The Dinner Party”: History in the Making will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art from October 20th, 2017 until March 4th, 2018.
A permanent home of The Dinner Party, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art is a nexus for feminist art, theory and activism. On Thursday, October 19, 2017, the Brooklyn Museum honors Judy Chicago at the inaugural Yes! Gala and will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and the past, present, and future of feminist art.
Judy Chicago’s masterpiece The Dinner Party is a monumental work of art conceived as a symbolic history of women in Western civilization. Strategically countering the traditional erasure of women’s achievements, The Dinner Party honours 1038 iconic, mythical, archetypal and historical women. This, the most definitive book to be published on Chicago’s masterwork, reveals more fully than ever before the art and the artist’s expanded research into the rich history embodied in the installation. In lively contextualizing sections, Chicago discusses the creative genesis of The Dinner Party, the technical processes involved, and the work’s early – often hostile – reception by the art world, and its subsequent preservation and permanent exhibition.
Featured images: Needlework Loft, 1977. Courtesy of Through the Flower Archive; Judy Chicago in the China Painting Studio, 1975. Courtesy of Through the Flower Archive; Judy Chicago – Study for Emily Dickinson from The Dinner Party, 1977. Ink, photo, and collage on paper, 23 1/8 x 35 in. (61 x 91.4 cm). National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., Purchase, Members’ Acquisition Fund, 2001.3. © 2017 Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (Photo: Lee Stalsworth). All images courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.