In this set of ceramic plates executed over six months, Chicago meticulously charts various glazes and palettes, echoing her earlier abstract color wheel paintings and drawings. In the almost scientific investigation she notes chromatic ranges, firing difficulties, and the subsequent results. This experimentation was part of Chicago’s apprenticeship with master china painters in order to become an expert in the technique. Her intensive training added to an already extensive range of techniques, as she had studied plastics, auto body painting, and pyrotechnics in the 1960s, when she was usually the lone woman in the courses.
This unique test plate displays Chicago’s material concerns as well as the personal toll taken by the multiyear work on The Dinner Party project. She notes the firing temperature on the plate, which is carved with various abstract gestures to explore how these forms would hold up in the kiln. The colors differ from the final palette of The Dinner Party: the underglazing technique seen here was replaced by the more resplendent overglazing for the final plates. Chicago also marks time passing: “I have been working on the Dinner Party for 3 years and 7 days.”
Utilizing the form of the illuminated manuscript typical of medieval book arts, Chicago developed distinct honorific embellishments for each woman. This selection of drawings illustrates the formal progression of the illuminated capital letter adorning the place setting for the artist, theologian, and author Anna van Schurman (Dutch, born Germany, 1607–1678). Chicago’s butterfly motif appears as a patterned backdrop before receding, and is then replaced by curved, egg-like forms. In the final letter, Chicago settles on a lace and stitched edge surrounding the letter’s fertile core.
Chicago and her workshop adapted to the difficulties of creating the plates at the center of each place setting, mastering the ceramic carving, layering of paint, and multiple firings it took to complete a single plate. In these collages on paper, Chicago assembled snippets of relevant quotations, material samples, and plate design sketches so that studio workers could envision the completed object and effectively capture the spirit of the woman being honored. Modernist author Virginia Woolf (British, 1882–1941) is evoked in this collage, which details her strength in the face of societal oppression.
The writer Mary Wollstonecraft (British, 1759–1797) is one of the key figures in the development of modern feminism. Chicago’s drawing for the Wollstonecraft place setting runner traces major moments in the activist-author’s life: from her early role as a teacher and advocate for women’s education, to her writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), to her death from complications giving birth to her daughter Mary Shelley (British, 1797–1851)—the author of Frankenstein and whose name appears on the Heritage Floor below her mother’s place setting. Wollstonecraft argued that the democratic ideals that inspired the French Revolution of her time were hollow if not applied to the liberation and education of women.
The Wollstonecraft plate is the first on the table to rise up with a three-dimensional wing, and there is a purposeful tension between the plate (which represents the woman) and the runner (which represents her social milieu and cultural conditions). The needlework is executed in a stumpwork style, considered by some to be a trivial, unserious technique; it uses cartoonish forms and padding to model figures and decorations. Chicago creates a frilly, ironically feminine backdrop for Wollstonecraft, illustrating the circumstances that restricted her life and influence.
Part of a series of twenty-nine artworks exploring twisting, turning, and flying vulvar forms, Flesh spreading her wings and preparing to fly is a powerful, muscled adoption of Chicago’s central-core imagery. Chicago worked out her interests in subverting male-dominated culture with forms echoing female anatomy, using the female genitals as a metaphor for a positive, forceful female identity. The primary motif among the plates of The Dinner Party is the vulva-butterfly form, fusing female power and potential.
Chicago’s Great Ladies series was one of her first attempts at applying to feminist subjects the abstract, minimal imagery she had developed early in her career. Each airbrushed painting in the series depicts a historical figure using one of Chicago’s key motifs: a composition focused on a strong central core surrounded by concentric forms to create a metaphorical allusion to the constricted lives of even the most notable women.
Six woven banners were added to The Dinner Party in its final stages, in order to signal entrance into the reverential space of the artwork and herald the hope for equality between genders. Chicago painted and designed the cartoons (or weaving patterns) that were executed by volunteers who apprenticed with the San Francisco Tapestry Workshop, the first U.S. workshop to provide training in the Renaissance-era technique of Aubusson weaving.
As with those who embroidered the runners, Chicago wanted the banner weavers to assert their agency when completing her vision. Destabilizing the centuries-long tradition of weavers completing designs while sitting behind the cartoon, Chicago worked with industrial designer Ken Gilliam to design a new loom that allowed weavers to work from the front, making it possible for them to see the design as it unfolded. The empowerment of the weavers echoes the text, composed by Chicago, which uses heraldic language paired with symbolic abstract forms to call for the integration of women’s history and perspectives into civilization.
Roots of “The Dinner Party”: History in the Making
October 20, 2017–March 4, 2018
Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, 4th Floor
Since the 1970s, Judy Chicago has been a pioneer in the development of feminism as an artistic movement and an educational project that endeavors to restore women’s place in history. Her most influential and widely known work is the sweeping installation The Dinner Party (1974–79), celebrating women’s achievements in Western culture in the form of a meticulously executed banquet table set for 39 mythical and historical women and honoring 999 others. One of the most important artworks of the twentieth century, and one of the most popular in our collection, upon its public debut in 1979 it immediately became an icon of feminist art. The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art was established in 2007 with The Dinner Party as its foundation.
Roots of “The Dinner Party”: History in the Making is the first museum exhibition to examine Chicago’s evolving plans for The Dinner Party in depth, detailing its development as a multilayered artwork, a triumph of community art-making, and a testament to the power of historical revisionism. Chicago’s ambitious research project combatted the absence of women from mainstream historical narratives and blazed the trail for feminist art historical methodologies in an era of social change. It also validated mediums traditionally considered the domain of women and domestic labor, as the artist studied and experimented with China painting, porcelain, and needlework.
The exhibition presents rarely seen test plates, research documents, ephemera, notebooks, and preparatory drawings from 1971 through 1979 alongside The Dinner Party, encouraging exploration of its formal, conceptual, and material progress.
Roots of “The Dinner Party”: History in the Making is organized by Carmen Hermo, Assistant Curator, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.
This exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Arnold Lehman Exhibition Fund, MaryRoss Taylor, Lawrence B. Benenson, Salon 94, the Antonia and Vladimer Kulaev Cultural Heritage Fund, Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte, and Kathy and Doug Landy.
Roots of “The Dinner Party”: History in the Making is part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, a yearlong series of exhibitions celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.