The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum, New York

by India Nicholas, March 2012

Upon entering the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in the center of the Brooklyn Museum, you are overcome with anticipation. The centerpiece of the gallery—and what, no doubt, draws you to it in the first place—is Judy Chicago’s famous piece The Dinner Party, on permanent display since 2007. Hidden behind walls of darkly tinted glass, the installation, created over a five-year period in the 1970s, consists of a gigantic triangular table adorned with distinctly different place settings for thirty-nine historically noted women. The settings begin with a deer-skin table runner and a simply painted plate for the Primordial Goddess and progress around the table chronologically, with the artwork becoming increasingly more detailed and robust. The settings conclude at Georgia O’Keeffe’s seat, whose plate blooms three dimensionally into a vulva-like flower.

To be fair, O’Keeffe’s is not the only plate wrought with feminine genitalia. From the start, one can pick out symbols in the shapes of the plates. Butterfly wings, peeling petals and triangular patterns are obvious from the first glimpse. What might now read as blunt bordering on the obvious, one must remember, debuted in 1980 as one of the first pieces of art by a woman that addressed the importance of the female in a historical context. Highlighting feminine or feminized crafts—such as textile creation, china painting and cooking—Chicago brings attention to the lack of appreciation for women’s efforts in fine art, an area dominated by men.

The detailing of each place setting is exquisite. With each plate, the shapes become more exuberant, flourishing up and out of the setting, the themes of which point towards the woman represented in a blend of obvious connotation and abstract imagery. The spot reserved for Sacagawea, a Native American guide for explorers Lewis and Clarke, is strewn with primary colored bead work, a papoose emerging from the back of the plate, the accompanying napkin folded to resemble a baby’s bonnet. Poet Emily Dickinson’s plate opens in folds of delicate lace, the layers resembling anineteenth-century petticoat, its pale pink lending credence to the vaginal resemblance. Susan B. Anthony’s is efflorescent, so boisterous in its shape and volume, one can almost hear her screaming for suffrage.

Together, the thirty-nine settings—thirteen on each side of the table, representative of the thirteen men present at The Last Supper—form a powerful image of subtle strength. Bound together by gender, the women represented have more than sex in common. The struggle towards recognition in their respective fields—because even the Primordial Goddess is often overlooked when placed next to the masculine Greek gods like Eros or Uranus—bands these women as a pack of lone wolves fighting for equal respect and recognition. Why is it that we still bypass the value of sexuality and gender when discussing feminism as an intellectual practice?

With the recent attention paid to women’s reproductive rights and professional health care benefits due to Obama’s birth control mandate, viewing Chicago’s The Dinner Party takes on a new meaning. Even more than thirty years later, the installation stands as an important test of America’s ability to acknowledge the female professionally and artistically. Is a woman’s right to family plan any different than, say, Theodora’s right to perform theater for the Byzantine Empire, or Elizabeth Blackwell’s right to receive a medical degree? On the surface, yes, of course, but Chicago’s point remains as valid now. So often, women’s achievements must be amplified to heroic scale to match the notoriety of men’s.

Layered in gold paint on white ceramic, The Heritage Floor rests below The Dinner Party. Chicago painted the names of 999 other noted female figures to serve as the base of the piece. These names circle the dinner party quietly, perhaps waiting for their turn at the table.

The Dinner Party
Long-term installation
Brooklyn Museum
New York