Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago

by Robert Boyd

One of the things I saw while I was in New York earlier this month was The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago. After reading her autobiography, I was really intrigued to see it. It's an enormous work. When it was created in 1979, it ended up touring for nine years. But after that, it stayed mostly in storage until 2007, when the Brooklyn Museum created a permanent display for it.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party detail ("Primordial Goddess"), 1979

The piece is installed in a dark room with dramatic lighting. The table is shaped like an equilateral triangle. It's huge--48 feet on each side--and features 39 place settings for famous women primarily from history (with a few from myth, like the one above). The table rests on a tile floor on which are written the names of 999 additional notable women.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party detail ("Sappho"), 1979

It was first displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, whose director, Henry Hopkins, likely knew Chicago from their days in the L.A. art scene. But the next stop on its nine year tour is still kind of surprising to me: Houston. Even more surprising, the University of Houston: Clear Lake.
Months before The Dinner Party opened in San Francisco, CA, Judy Chicago addressed a sales conference of publishing representatives, describing the epic project that she documented in The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage (1979). In the audience was a young woman from Houston, Evelyn Hubbard, who had worked for U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan before becoming the first African American sales rep in the huge Doubleday firm. Impressed by Chicago's presentation, Hubbard told feminist bookseller MaryRoss Taylor, "We need to get this show to Houston as a follow-up to the International Women's Year Conference." Taylor called The Dinner Party studio in Santa Monica and formed a committee of local art professionals to help a handful of feminist activists in the quest for a venue. Calvin Cannon, then Dean of Humanities at University of Houston - Clear Lake, said "Yes," and the show opened there in 1980 to enthusiastic reviews from local art critics and the public. "Where did we go wrong?" wailed feminist activist Helen Cassidy, "We thought we were starting a revolution, but they love it!" (Through the Flower)

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party detail ("Theodora"), 1979

Now for those not from Houston, let me tell you how odd this is. Clear Lake is a master-planned suburb on the south side of Houston on Galveston Bay.  For Houstonians, I think the thing they think of when they think of Clear Lake is NASA. Many of the people who live there work for NASA, NASA contractors, or other aerospace firms in the area. It is far from the museums and art galleries in town, both in terms of physical distance and in terms of cultural distance. But in 1980, with the help of a lot of volunteers, the piece was installed at the University of Houston's Clear Lake branch campus.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party detail ("Atemisia Gentileschi"), 1979

Critical reaction was not surprisingly mixed. And there was a bit of political controversy--ultraconservative California Congressman Bob Dornan denounced it (but it would have been disappointing if he hadn't denounced it, in a way).  But what is more interesting is how it stands now. It's been over 30 years since its debut. But in my mind, it has been somewhat ignored by art history. It doesn't easily fit into some of the conventional narratives. One of the arguments one hears against it is that it is essentializing--all these women are included because they are women, not because of their individual uniqueness. The fact that each place setting is an abstracted ceramic vagina further essentialized the subjects. This is an inherent problem when someone makes a work (whether a piece of art or work of history or whatever) that makes an effort to recognize a group of people who were marginalized in the past because of some common feature--their gender, their race, their nationality, etc. Such work is often denigratingly called "victim art."

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party detail ("Mary Wolstonecraft"), 1979

This is one of the many problems of political art, and why it is so difficult to make good political art. Chicago, I think, tries to overwhelm this inherent problem by creating something so dazzling and huge and beautiful that such nagging complaints are just blown away. In this sense, think of it as the equivalent of great church spectacles--architecture, sculpture and painting coming together in brilliant form. When you see the Ecstasy of St. Theresa by Bernini, you don't think of the Inquisition. Whatever objections one might have to the idea behind the piece get swept away.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party detail ("Sojourner Truth"), 1979

I admit I was swept away. My reaction was highly emotional. I reveled in the work. But at the same time, I know that this was the result of its magnificence--a magnificence created by the overwhelming quantity of beautiful objects, the fantastic staging, and dramatic lighting. It's like when you are watching a big Hollywood movie and you get all choked up at the emotional climax. Those Hollywood directors are master manipulators. My old art history professor Thomas McEvilley used to call this "psyching out the working class"--that productions from Bernini's sculptural tableaux to Hollywood movies were instruments of control by the ruling class. But obviously that's not the case with The Dinner Party. Chicago seems to be using all those tricks and theatrics for the opposite purpose.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party detail ("Emily Dickinson"), 1979

 Anyway, I'll leave those arguments for others. I love The Dinner Party.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party detail ("Susan B. Anthony"), 1979

Thirty years ago, The Dinner Party was in Houston. Now they are having a thirtieth anniversary celebration. In February, UH Clear Lake is putting up a 30th anniversary exhibit of drawings, test plates, and maquettes for the piece, along with seminars and lectures.  Looks like a good excuse to visit Clear Lake.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party detail ("Virginia Woolf"), 1979

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party detail ("Georgia O'Keefe"), 1979

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