When Judy Chicago was a young artist in Los Angeles, a prominent male art critic offered her a friendly word of advice. "You know, Judy," he said, "you have to decide whether you're going to be a woman or an artist." She spent the rest of her career proving him wrong. Chicago, who was born Judy Cohen in 1939, started out making luminous geometric paintings and pastel-hued Minimalist sculptures in the mid-1960s. By the early 1970s, she was incorporating overtly feminist iconography into her work—hollow, rounded forms and symmetrical motifs that evoked flowers, butterflies, and vulvas. She was also a pioneer of feminist art education, founding unprecedented programs for women at California State University at Fresno and, with artist Miriam Schapiro, at the California Institute of the Arts.
But Chicago's crowning achievement, her great contribution to feminist art and education, is her iconic installation, The Dinner Party, which has just taken up permanent residence at the Brooklyn Museum as the centerpiece of the new Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Housed in a specially designed glass enclosure, The Dinner Party serves as a grand historical anchor for this season's flotilla of books, exhibitions, and symposia on feminist art. At the moment, these include WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, a brilliant overview of feminist art from the 1960s and 1970s at Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; Global Feminisms, an international survey of art by women from the 1990s to the present, also at the Brooklyn Museum; and Gail Levin's worshipful new biography, Becoming Judy Chicago.
Chicago began working on The Dinner Party in 1974; it took five years and the labor of 400 volunteers to complete. The installation consists of a massive banquet table in the shape of an equilateral triangle—an emblem of equality. Along each side are 13 place settings, a reference to Christ and his 12 disciples at the Last Supper. Chicago said she wanted to reinterpret "that all-male event from the point of view of those who had traditionally been expected to prepare the food, then silently disappear from the picture."
The 39 settings commemorate significant women from myth, legend, and history, from "the primordial goddess" to Georgia O'Keeffe, with stops along the way at Sappho, Sacajawea, and Virginia Woolf. At each setting there's a large ceramic plate that rests on a cloth runner embroidered with the woman's name and lavishly decorated with symbols of her life and achievements. The plates are painted with vaginal forms, some rising up in high relief, and are also customized with symbolic attributes of the women they honor. The gleaming white-ceramic tile floor beneath the table bears the names of another 999 women painted in gold.
The first time I saw The Dinner Party was in 1980, when it traveled to the Brooklyn Museum after making its debut in San Francisco. I was a starry-eyed, 14-year-old feminist with a growing set of convictions gleaned from Our Bodies, Ourselves, de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, and a friend's mother's late-night rants at the kitchen table. I made the pilgrimage to Brooklyn by subway and joined the crowd in a slow, counterclockwise procession around the table, carefully studying each place setting and reading the brief biographies in the accompanying brochure. I was spellbound: Who knew that Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh, donned a fake beard and reigned over ancient Egypt for more than 20 years? Or that Trotula, an 11th-century Italian physician, was the world's first gynecologist? Even at my fairly progressive high school, this stuff was not on the curriculum. I realized, for the first time, that women's achievements had been systematically forgotten, buried, or written out of history—and it struck me as infuriatingly unfair. After several hours, I stumbled out of the show, newly radicalized.
Twenty-seven years later, I considered a second visit to The Dinner Party with some trepidation. For one thing, I'm not 14 any more, and my taste in art and most other things has changed. But more importantly, feminism—and my understanding of it—has evolved in fundamental ways. By the time I got to college, the body-centered, second-wave essentialism of Judy Chicago's generation was out, and a more fluid conception of gender identity was in. In feminist theory seminars, we learned that sex and gender are cultural constructs—"performative identities," if you will—and that womanhood is not a natural essence but a masquerade, a role we are born into but never fully inhabit. At around the same time, artists like Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Laurie Simmons were using photography and ironic references to Hollywood heroines and fashion magazines to "perform" feminine identity in their art. Their style was cool and cerebral and had little to do with the earnest, craft-oriented creations of the previous generation.
In light of these changes, how could The Dinner Party—with its hokey symbolism, its fertility goddesses and porcelain vaginas—be anything more than a relic, a nostalgia trip, an embarrassing failure of taste? As I rode the subway out to Brooklyn a few weeks ago, I was ready to dismiss Chicago's project as historically significant kitsch. But when I entered the darkened gallery and began to make my way around the table, I changed my mind.
Certain works of art, like this one, have a physical presence that is far more persuasive than any verbal description or explanation of "what the artist is trying to say." The Dinner Party is, as Chicago intended, a powerful pedagogical tool meant to raise awareness of women's contributions throughout history. Like a great teacher, she gets her point across by appealing to the senses and the imagination, by entertaining, provoking, and engaging the viewer in a pleasurably interactive learning process.
Much of this pleasure comes from deciphering the symbols, historical references, and period styles and techniques. The cloth runner for the "primordial goddess" is decked out in calf skins and cowry shells (an ancient symbol of female fertility). The plates also vary in style—Byzantine Empress Theodora's plate evokes the glittering tiles of a mosaic; Emily Dickinson is done up in Victorian-era pink lace—though here the forms are limited by Chicago's strict adherence to her signature flower-butterfly-vulva motif.
The repeated use of vaginal forms—Chicago prefers to call it "central core" imagery—is, of course, the most contentious and easily ridiculed aspect of The Dinner Party. Chicago was one of the first artists of her generation to embrace "central core" imagery as a metaphor for the essence of womanhood, but she was not alone, nor was she the most provocative. In a famous performance in 1975, Carolee Schneemann pulled a 40-inch-long scroll from her vagina and read it aloud to a rapt audience; the same year, Tee Corinne printed and distributed the graphic C__t Coloring Book. (You can see these works and many more like them in the Los Angeles show WACK!) Making your way around The Dinner Party table, you can almost forget you're looking at stylized pudenda. Almost. As you approach the age of women's suffrage, the labia-petal-butterfly-wings begin to rise up off the plates ("a symbol of women's desire to be free," says Chicago), and there you are, staring down at Susan B. Anthony's vagina in all its 3-D glory.
So, is The Dinner Party great art? Well, not by the standards of today's art world. It's too middlebrow, too literal, and its earnestness is out of step with today's endlessly self-ironizing sensibility. And its pudendal imagery, once radical, looks silly and heavy-handed today. But as an emphatically populist work with a clear set of political and educational imperatives, The Dinner Party has held its ground. It's nervy, ambitious, uncompromising, and—unlike most recent art, feminist or otherwise—truly original.
In her autobiography, Through the Flower, Chicago wrote that she created The Dinner Party "to end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record." Now, with her magnum opus enshrined in Brooklyn, ready to receive a new generation of budding feminists, Chicago can finally claim her own place at the table.