DINNER WITH JUDY CHICAGO

       Sometime in 1974, a little-known artist attended a dinner party.  Sometime that evening, she entertained an idea, one that would offend legions of men yet inspire women around the world.  But first, dinner.

       “The men at the table were all professors,” Judy Chicago recalled, “and the women all had doctorates but weren’t professors. The women had all the talent, and they sat there silent while the men held forth.  I started thinking that women have never had a Last Supper, but they have had dinner parties…” 

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       Born Judith Cohen, she changed her name — first for marriage, then for art.  In 1968, swept up in the Women's Movement, she turned her birthplace into her identity.  As Judy Chicago, she became known for overtly “feminist art.”  She felt no need to apologize. 

       She had been rejected “as a woman because I am aggressive, outspoken… as an artist because my subject matter has been considered non-essential.  We’ve had to deal with rejection too much, especially women.  I want to affirm the female experience, to tell women that their point of view is vital and all-important.”

       Home from dinner, Chicago began planning her own soirée.  It would be more than a Last Supper.  It would be a huge banquet table with place settings for “a panoply of the greatest female figures, mythological, historical, fictional—all of whom were crucified by the fact of their sex.”

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       Chicago had trained all her life for this project.  From the age of five, deciding she “never wanted to do anything but make art,” she had been drawing, painting, absorbing images.  After graduating from UCLA, she studied the “macho arts” of fiberglass and auto body work.  She was soon doing ceramics and painting, flirting with the floral/genital motifs of Georgia O’Keefe but still trying to be “one of the boys.” She made a living, barely, by teaching, but she lived for her time in the studio.  Then throughout the mid-1970s, while America battled over the Equal Rights Amendment and who should do the housework, Judy Chicago set her table.  But she did not work alone.

       Speaking at art institutes, she attracted volunteers to the party.  She needed the help.  “I’ve never taken on as much as this Dinner Party,” she wrote in her journal.  “All I ever do is think about it.”

       While 100 volunteers — including a dozen men — researched women’s history or did design or needlework, Chicago puzzled over the problem facing all hostesses.  Who to invite?  She soon cut her list to 39 women at a triangular table 40-plus-feet per side.  Major figures who didn’t make the cut would fill the Heritage Floor, 999 names in porcelain tiles.  “The Dinner Party” grew… and grew.

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       On March 14, 1979, lines at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art stretched around the block.  Five thousand attended the opening.  Wandering along the table, people were shocked, amazed, inspired, repelled. Here was the setting for Emily Dickinson, her name stitched on a pink mantle, her plate filled with a floral collar surrounding… well, it looks like female genitalia.  And here was suffragette Susan B. Anthony, whose plate held flowers encircling…

       Not all those invited were served symbolic sexual fare.  Some plates — Sophia, Greek goddess of Wisdom, the mathematician Hypatia, the abolitionist Sojourner Truth — featured striking floral patterns.  But the dominant motif was clear and critics were divided.

       “An ambitious paean to feminism…” — Newsweek

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       “She invites women to acknowledge a common heritage but gives us forms that are aggressive, willful, and off-putting.” — Village Voice

            Nearly 100,000 saw “The Dinner Party” in San Francisco but the festivities almost ended there.  A scheduled tour was canceled.  Too controversial, too cumbersome.  Chicago, dealing with both rejection and divorce, descended into depression.  “The male art world didn’t want my art and men didn’t want me.”  Then onlookers at the party began to speak up. 

       “It was like visiting the cathedrals of France,” one woman said.  “She made these women into something holy.”

       Over the next decade, while museums remained aloof, women raised money, lobbied smaller venues, and brought “The Dinner Party” to Houston, Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto. . .  Its imagery filled books, slide shows, and imaginations.  Decades later, the installation has been seen by 15 million people in 16 countries.  It is now on permanent display at the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art in Brooklyn.  And Judy Chicago, still making art at 78, remains unapologetic about her (ahem!) imagery.

       “All over the country, every day and every night men are ogling Playboy, Penthouse… Finally, we women are taking control of our own bodies, claiming them for ourselves, celebrating our sexuality. . . And STRENGTH.” 

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