Judy Chicago

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–The long search for a permanent home for “The Dinner Party” is over. The iconic multi-media installation by Judy Chicago that celebrates the achievements of women in Western civilization will no longer be left to languish in storage between showings. It will soon take up residence at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where it first appeared not long after its 1979 debut at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Chicago’s extravaganza, designed by her buthelped in its execution by 400 volunteer hands, consists of three “dinner” tables arranged to form a triangle. Each table contains 13 place settings, each commemorating a particular goddess, historic personage or other significant woman over the centuries. The settings include a china plate, sculptured and painted with images suggesting flowers, butterflies or female genitalia; ceramic flatware, a ceramic chalice and a napkin with an embroidered gold edge.

“The Dinner Party” has generated controversy from the get-go, in part because its main symbolic image is the vulva, albeit “transmuted and layered,” according to Chicago. But the charged feminist content of the work is welcomed by The Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, which seeks to raise awareness of women’s cultural contributions. The foundation is donating “The Dinner Party” to the museum, which will exhibit the work in a four-month show beginning today before moving it to newly renovated space in 2004.

“The Dinner Party’s” settings sit on elaborately embroidered runners, bearing each woman’s name at her place, done in needlework techniques based on their respective eras. The tables rest on a Heritage Floor, composed of more than 2,000 white luster-glazed triangular tiles inscribed in gold, with the names of 999 other woman worthies painstakingly selected by a research team.

“It is beautiful, elegant, alive,” Elizabeth A. Sackler said of the work. “The flow, the interaction of the different elements is exquisite.” She added: “It is a never-ending education for women. And I wanted it to go to an institution that would commit to educational programming around it.”

Sackler, 54, is a trustee of the museum and has been a collector of Chicago’s work since the late 1980s. She added that she worked well with Arnold Lehman, Brooklyn’s feisty director, who brought to the museum three years ago the raw “Sensations” show of new work by young British artists that disturbed then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Installation Has Been a Magnet of Controversy

Her intention, Chicago says in her 1996 book about the making of “The Dinner Party,” was “to create a work of art that could symbolize the immense amount of material about women’s history that I was discovering,” and to call into question the male viewpoint from which history has been written. A significant aim was to promote as role models the strong achievers among women throughout history. Another was to ennoble some of the crafts long dismissed as mere women’s pursuits.

Since it was first presented in 1979, “The Dinner Party” has been seen by nearly 1 million people at 15 sites in six countries, including the United States. But while it has been popular with female audiences, drawn a positive response from the mass media and attracted support from grassroots groups all over the country who have helped to arrange for its exhibition, it has also been a magnet for controversy.

It has been attacked by prominent art critics as unaesthetic and too political; one New York reviewer called it “kitsch,” and other described it more or less as “vaginas on plates.” It has been cited as pornographic by right-wing religious spokesmen and conservative politicians; a congressman described it as “weird sexual art;” another as offensive to “the sensitivities and moral values” of communities.

‘A Thrilling Moment’ for Chicago

With few exceptions, “The Dinner Party” has been shown in this country only at alternative spaces, attracting little if any major institutional support. In 1990, it was on the verge of acquisition (as a gift from Chicago) by the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C. But a budget-blocking move by conservative members of Congress, which controls the institution’s fiscal affairs, and turmoil on the campus defeated the proposal.

Between exposures, the work has lain in storage, where mildew has already damaged the delicate table runners, requiring expensive conservation work.

At Brooklyn, “The Dinner Party” will appear from Sept. 20 through Feb. 9 in the Cantor galleries on the fifth floor rotunda, a space reserved for the museum’s collection of Rodin sculptures (currently on view in Japan). From Oct. 11 through Jan. 5, a separate show, “Judy Chicago,” comprising more than 90 works from the 1960s to the present, will appear at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., which cannot accommodate “The Dinner Party” permanently in its existing space.

In 2004, newly renovated space on the Brooklyn Museum’s fourth floor will permanently house “The Dinner Party” within the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Arts. “It’s a joy for me and all of us,” says Chicago, referring to the large corps of volunteers–women and men–who worked with her on the piece. “A thrilling moment.”

Grace Glueck has been an art reporter, editor and critic for The New York Times since the 1960s.

For more information:

Brooklyn Museum of Art
Judy Chicago–The Dinner Party:

Judy Chicago
Through the Flower Homepage:

National Museum for Women in the Arts:

The New York Times
“For a Paean to Heroic Women, a Place at History’s Table”: