The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum has been the permanent home for Judy Chicago’s iconic Dinner Party since 2007. The piece toured six countries on three continents before finding its home, as many of us have, in Brooklyn. In addition to housing Chicago’s groundbreaking work of conceptual feminist art, the Sackler Center is a place for education: learning when and why different forms of feminist art came into being at various times throughout history is just as important as showcasing the works themselves. In this way, Chicago’s Dinner Party does more than inundate an audience with strong imagery; it acts as a visual timeline in itself, supplementing the historical and educational goals of the Sackler Center’s guiding philosophies.
The Dinner Party features a triangular table, each side measuring 49 feet, resting on a tile floor inscribed with the names of 999 mythical and historical women. Since the installation is designed to provoke a chronology of female figures in a visually stimulating way, walking around its entirety really does register an important part of a forgotten history that the Sackler Center is trying to surface. Along each side of the table are 13 table settings, culminating in a total of 39 settings for history’s guests of honor:
Wing One of the table begins in prehistory with the Primordial Goddess and continues chronologically with the development of Judaism; it then moves to early Greek societies to the Roman Empire, marking the decline in women’s power, signified by Hypatia’s place setting. Wing Two represents early Christianity through the Reformation, depicting women who signify early expressions of the fight for equal rights, from Marcella to Anna van Schurman. Wing Three begins with Anne Hutchinson and addresses the American Revolution, Suffragism, and the movement toward women’s increased individual creative expression, symbolized at last by Georgia O’Keeffe.
Walking around the table feels like looking for friends in a crowded restaurant; eyes move from table setting to table setting searching for a familiar face. The 39 individually designed place settings are elaborate and intricate, and they provocatively evoke something deeply spiritual about the individual ‘seated’ there. The 999 names etched on the floor’s tiles, while not garnering the same amount of attention and detail, are nonetheless chronologically and ideologically located. As the eyes trace from plate to floor and from one segment of history to the next, the question inevitably arises: How did Chicago choose who to seat at the table?
Seeing an idol or personal hero relegated to a spot on the floor, opposed to having earned a spot at the table, leaves a feeling of slight betrayal. The urge to argue why so-and-so deserves a spot in the main arena bubbles up inside, at least until part two of the reaction sets in, and the viewer realizes that the anger felt at the thought of someone getting left behind or treated unfairly is exactly what was actually felt and suppressed during the times Chicago is recounting. Even though her piece serves to ‘invite’ dinner guests forgotten by history, the juxtaposition between those at the table and those decorating the floor provokes the idea that the work and fight of feminist art and ideals is far from over. More elaborate place settings at the table accompany the move from the Reformation to modernity. Just as a flower blooms in the spring, the viewer walks through time and thus traces a visual representation of a female spirit which grows more colorful and expressive as social and political climates change.
Each tile was hand-cast and hand-sanded at the China Boutique outside of Los Angeles. The tiles were repeatedly fired with rainbow luster as well as with the gold luster used for the names. The process of creating the Heritage Floor took over two years. Potential names were researched by over twenty members of The Dinner Party‘s research team, headed by Diane Gelon and Ann Isolde. Out of three thousand names compiled, 999 were selected, their inclusion decided on by three criteria: did the woman make a worthwhile contribution to society; had she attempted to improve conditions for women; did her life/work exemplify a significant aspect of women’s history or provide a role model for a more egalitarian society? The chosen Heritage Floor names correlate to each of the 39 place settings by commonality of experience, historic contribution, time period, and/or geography. The Heritage Floor serves as a visual representation of the vast contributions women have made to every aspect of history. Names of goddesses, mythological figures, religious figures, government leaders, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, musicians, actors, dancers, filmmakers, architects, scholars, historians, educators, military figures, athletes, physicians, scientists, explorers, philanthropists, activists, and suffragettes, primarily from western civilization, from prehistory to the 20th century, can be found on The Dinner Party‘s Heritage Floor.
Six woven banners serve as a procession, a welcome, into the dining room. The banners were created using the Aubusson tapestry technique after Chicago discovered that women were prohibited from using the high-warp looms at the height of the technique’s popularity during the Renaissance.
Woven into the banners are a series of phrases intended to convey Chicago’s vision for a equalized world, one in which women’s history and perspectives are fully recognized and integrated into all aspects of human civilization.
Judy Chicago “pioneered Feminist Art and art education in the early 1970s.” In the mid to late 70’s, her masterpiece, the Dinner Party, was created with the methodical research and dedicated help of hundreds of volunteers. The interaction she’s set up to foster between visitor and work begins with this ushering in by the subtle messages of the banners, before one is confronted with the large, triangular dinner table which is shocking not only because of its size, but its shape:
When Chicago began thinking of historical precedents for the table, she was immediately drawn to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, representing Christ at his last meal surrounded by his twelve disciples. As Chicago explained, “I became amused by the notion of doing a sort of reinterpretation of 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 or, in this case, from the picture plane.”4
The Dinner Party makes noise about advocating for the surfacing of a lost history while at the same time maintaining a certain silence. Despite the ornateness, the empty plates and perfectly folded napkins give rise to a certain kind of emptiness. Though we can imagine hypothetical conversations that would take place here, the stillness and perfection are antithetical to a real dinner party where conversations overlap and the sounds of silverware provide the background noise. The tragedy itself of having prepared an elaborate party for guests who never show up becomes the party’s hostess. Chicago’s successful attempt to revitalize and so propel feminist history doesn’t go without this remembrance, and perhaps regret, for a past we can only do so much to fully resuscitate.
Images courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum