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Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party
"The Dinner Party" (1974-79)Courtesy of Judy Chicago

That time artist Judy Chicago served vulvas for dinner

In 1979, the feminist artist unveiled what would become her most influential work – here she tells us the full story behind it

When Judy Chicago unveiled “The Dinner Party” in San Francisco in 1979, she turned the art world upside down with the first epic work for the Feminist Art movement. Around an equilateral triangle table, she crafted elaborate place settings for 39 female figures from the history of western civilisation, beginning with the Primordial Goddess and ending with Georgia O’Keeffe. Along the way, viewers encounter Ishtar, Hatshepsut, Sappho, Theodora, Elizabeth I, Sacajawea, Soujourner Truth, Emily Dickinson, and Margaret Sanger, travelling from prehistoric times through the women’s revolution.

For each woman given a seat a the table, a place was set, her name embroidered on a table runner accompanied by symbols of her accomplishments. Then, for the piece de resistance, Chicago served up handmade plates of china, meticulously painted with the main dish: a vulva reminiscent of a flower or a butterfly. The table is situated on The Heritage Floor, composed of 2,000 white triangle-shaped tiles that bare then names of an additional 999 women who contributed to history.

“(In the 70s), the idea was that here had never been a great woman artist, and I started to discover that all those ideas were fiction” – Judy Chicago

When I first learned of the work in a “Women in Art History” class, the professor asked for reactions. Everyone was silent, agog or agape, lost in thought. But not me. My hand shot up and I blurted out, “The work is about going down – eating out – and I support that.”

The class tittered. My teacher blushed and quickly changed the subject, focusing on how “The Dinner Party” embraces the textile arts (weaving, embroidery, sewing) and china painting, all of which were traditionally relegated to the realm of crafts or, more plainly, women’s art. At the time of “The Dinner Party”, these modes of production had not been accorded parity with the male-dominated realm of drawing, painting, and sculpture, which were considered superior as forms of “fine art.”

In 2007, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art opened at the Brooklyn Museum with “The Dinner Party” as its foundation. Now, to mark its ten-year anniversary, the Museum introduces Roots of The Dinner Party: History in the Making (October 20-March 4, 2018). The exhibition provides insight into the making of this historic work, which took six years to complete, and involved the work of nearly 400 women and men.

Featuring more than 100 objects including rarely seen test plates, research documents, ephemera, notebooks, and preparatory drawings, we are lead inside the creation of this phenomenal project. In conjunction, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., is exhibiting Inside the Dinner Party Studio, now through January 5, 2018. Chicago speaks with us about “The Dinner Party”, which has become her most influential work and one that, decades on, continues to inspire and provoke a wide array of responses from people from all walks of life.

I’m interested in your thoughts on the art world’s insistence on creating a hierarchical distinction between “high” and “low” art. What do you see as the function of this practice?

Judy Chicago: With Jeff Koons, you could say that distinction became extinct. However, historically, those distinctions maintained a structure where when men did it, it was art, and if women did it, it was craft. It had to do with the perception dating back to the Renaissance, there was this idea that women were incapable of infusing a design with life, only men could do that. Therefore women could not be important artists.

Some of that continues to exist but not like it used to. Ever since the Feminist Art movement in the 70s began to challenge those hierarchies, they have really begun to give way.

How did you conceive of the function of “The Dinner Party” within this paradigm – as a disruption, an expansion, a response, a reaction, a revolution?

Judy Chicago: (Laughs). My first two decades of professional practice were spent in southern California, which was an incredibly macho scene. I was told all the time, “You can’t be an artist and a woman, too.”

I wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, which is what the goal was before people thought they could make a lot of money. In order to achieve that I had to excise any gender references from my work. I did that for the first ten years. My work became much more minimal and I got fed up with it. I also got fed up with having to constantly confront all of this gender bias at a time when it was impossible to even talk about it.

I started wondering if there were any women before who encountered similar challenges. I started looking back into history and discovered this huge amount of information, knowledge, art, and literature by women that I knew nothing about even though I had a Masters Degree and a minor in humanities and philosophy. 

At the time, the idea was that there had never been a great woman artist, and I started to discover that all those ideas were fiction. It got me really upset and I wanted to challenge the prevailing ideas about women, about what it means to be a woman, and what women have done. I wanted to demonstrate that we had a rich and important history because learning about it empowered me and I wanted to share that empowerment with others.

I was a young, idealistic artist trying to make a difference and a contribution to art history. I decided I would try and teach women’s history through art. That was my initial impetus. All by myself, I was going to overcome the erasure of all these women I was learning about — talk about the naïvety of youth! Me and my paintbrush!

“‘The Dinner Party’ offers how to see one’s self in the long history of women, women’s contributions, and women’s struggle for equity and justice” – Judy Chicago

It’s naïve, yes, but the idea and the intention and the will! What’s really great about youth is they are keen to fill in the blanks from the erasure of history.

Judy Chicago: The institutions are not doing their job in terms of transmitting the history. Young people are still coming up without much knowledge about the history of women, of African Americans, of slavery. There are a lot of histories that are still left out, and that was one of the other things I was trying to do with “The Dinner Party”, which is the symbolic history of women in Western civilisation.

I structured it the way I had learned about western history, which was through a series of different male heroes who represent different epochs or moments or changes like Luther and the Reformation or Plato and Aristotle. I wanted to replace those male heroes with female heroes. I wanted to cast doubt on history represented as an accurate and full or universal history; it is a very partial history. I figured if they could write history entirely from a male point of view, history could be written entirely from a female point of view.

How did you decide who would be given a seat at the table?

Judy Chicago: It took years of research. That is one of the things the exhibition is going to demonstrate and show. It’s amazing that it’s taken 40 years until there is a show looking at my creative process. The place settings for Sojourner Truth and Mary Wollstonecraft are going to be highlighted.

There’s going to be sketchbook pages from research on different women and I am trying to figure out how to take that information and create an image based on it, and the tests and the drawings trying to figure out what form the table would take. At first, I was going to make it a circular table so it would be egalitarian because that’s what feminism is about – but I couldn’t get all the women at that table and I couldn’t represent the different periods in western civilisation in that configuration.

What is the first thing when you think about a table (in art history)? It’s “The Last Supper”. So there were 13 people at “The Last Supper”, so I started with the idea of 13. The more I did research on these women, the more I realised I couldn’t fit the history of western civilization into 13 women (Laughs). That’s how I ended up with an equilateral triangle.

I also liked the idea that 13, which is associated with Jesus and the disciples, and a holy number, is also the same number of witches in a coven. It’s really interesting that the same number that represents holiness for men represents evil for women. That’s what the exhibition is going to show – what went into it technically, philosophically, and creatively.

There’s so much depth, so much layering, to the symbolism.

Judy Chicago: That’s why I structured “The Dinner Party” the way I did. There’s a famous story about when “The Dinner Party” was in Boston. They set up a black space in the middle where the piece was and all the documentation panels were outside that space. There was a group of middle-class needleworkers who came out of the darkened centre, having seen it when all the controversy was raging about the imagery and some journalist said to them, “What did you think of the plates?”

They said, “Plates? What plates?” because they had come with their magnifying glass to look at the runners!

People hone in on what speaks to them. It’s so intense and extensive that you’d have to spend a lot of time with it to perceive it in its fullness.

Judy Chicago: In the old days, before Instagram, people did spend a lot of time.

Before media pulled your attention in a million directions, you could be very present in the moment.

Judy Chicago: You can help people think about how much they miss by not allowing themselves to have deeply immersive experiences, especially with art.

Also, not having technology mediating the experience. I know some people believe, “You should do what you want,” but I don’t love selfies with art. I don’t feel like it’s me in the picture; it’s me experiencing the picture and allowing it its space.

Judy Chicago: One of the issues the museum is contending with in terms of younger audiences who are focused on “me” and they walk into “The Dinner Party” and they can’t see themselves in the place settings, and says, “Ohh, this isn’t about me. Where am I?”

They can’t identify with a larger history of women. One of the reasons I did “The Dinner Party” was to help women see beyond the personal because we get trapped in the personal. “The Dinner Party” offers how to see one’s self in the long history of women, women’s contributions, and women’s struggle for equity and justice.

“I wanted to cast doubt on history represented as an accurate and full or universal history; it is a very partial history. I figured if they could write history entirely from a male point of view, history could be written entirely from a female point of view” – Judy Chicago

I think there’s something to be said for having diversity in representation, but not all things are possible at all times.

Judy Chicago: I never set out to do a definitive history of women. I always said it is a symbolic history of women and the 1,038 women represented are just that, a symbol of the hundreds of thousands of women who have gone unrecognised.

Erasure is still ongoing and we’re a long way from a level playing field, but I see a whole burgeoning group of activists coming up. I think that if you have been here long enough to see a paradigm shift and see the young people who come up in a world where that shift already existed, it’s quite a rude shock that it could all be lost in the throes of President Trump, and I’m hoping that is going to mobilise young people to stand up and come together and fight for the world they want to see.

What would be your advice for people today? 

Judy Chicago: Don’t give up!