Visiting the United States in 1947, Simone de Beauvoir was puzzled by the institution of the dinner party. Busy as she and Jean-Paul Sartre were, inventing existentialism and tending to the world’s revolutions, she had little patience for minding the canapés. “She wondered,” her biographer Deirdre Bair wrote, “why women chose to devote so much time and energy to serving others when it was so much easier to meet in a bar for drinks and then go on to a restaurant.”
One tries to imagine what the author of The Second Sex would have made of The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago’s monumental, didactic, and deeply moving installation, which has finally taken up permanent residence at the Brooklyn Museum after some 23 years of homeless peregrinations. Its elements are by now well known. Like a séance programmed by a radical feminist, The Dinner Party conjures up the spirits of 39 mythical and historical women, seating them around an immense triangular banquet table. At the center of each place setting is an elaborately painted plate (sometimes sculpted in three dimensions), resting on a runner embroidered with the woman’s name in gold thread, and richly decorated with scenes from her life or symbols of her power and achievements.
An accompanying brochure provides brief biographical descriptions of the invited guests: ancient celebrities such as Ishtar (“great goddess of ancient Mesopotamia”) and Sappho (“Greek poet and lover of women”); medieval personalities like Hildegarde of Bingen (“visionary German nun”) and Trotula (“Italian physician specializing in obstetrics and gynecology”); and some more familiar moderns, including abolitionist Sojourner Truth, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and Virginia Woolf. Each one is meant to be representative of thousands, and before you begin carping about favorites who may have been forgotten, check the glistening white floor of triangular porcelain tiles. It’s inscribed with the names of 999 others, De Beauvoir included.
The Dinner Party, which Chicago began alone in 1974, took five years and eventually the labor of over 400 volunteers to bring to completion. She meant this magnum opus to function both as a work of art and a pedagogical tool—a powerful symbolic representation of women’s contributions to civilization, operating within the halls of a culture that had relegated them to the sidelines for over two millennia. You reach the “dining room” through a corridor hung with banners heralding its arrival in biblical language, like the advent of a divine vision.
Yet despite this educational imperative, The Dinner Party does not go down like cod liver oil; its sensual and intellectual delights are manifold. Primary among the former are the exquisite and variegated runners, miracles of design and needlework. I enjoyed even the kitschiest ones, like that of the “Primordial Goddess,” which sports an animal skin decorated with cowrie shells. There’s a childlike satisfaction in following the rituals that Chicago has set up, and trying to match the women to their symbols: the golden velvet drapery that envelops the plate devoted to Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, the American suffragette Susan B. Anthony’s crazy quilt, or the lace doily and pearl-encrusted silks of Elizabeth I.
The backs of the runners, which hang along the inside of the triangle and can be difficult to see, often tell a darker story. The English author and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft’s runner, for example, is embroidered with the delicate birds and flowers typical of 18th-century needlework but so at odds with her passionate iconoclasm and turbulent existence. Yet the runner’s back is appliquéd with the wrenching scene of her death as she gives birth to the future novelist Mary Shelley.
The plates are sometimes less successful. Variations on the signature vulva/flower/butterfly form that Chicago began exploring as an abstract painter in the early ’70s, they can be beautifully harmonious or intriguingly iconic; the British warrior queen Boudicca’s plate, for example, suggests the architecturally unlikely combination of a vagina and Stonehenge. But the repetitive imagery becomes increasingly grotesque and overwrought as the piece proceeds. Margaret Sanger’s plate is a bloody mess, evocative of one too many surgeries.
Self-conscious icons of “cunt positivism,” celebrating women’s “multi-orgasmic sexuality,” they’re also the intellectual weak link in Chicago’s ideal society—the point where all our differences dissolve into one long cumshot. I loved, for example, the frilly plate and runner devoted to Emily Dickinson. But I had to wonder what that vulva surrounded by a mass of pink porcelain crinolines (reminiscent of the work of contemporary sculptor Cathy de Monchaux) had to do with the steely literary genius who wrote “I felt a funeral in my brain” and other masterpieces of morbidity.
Would these guests get along? What would dinner conversation be like between Sanger, a proponent of eugenics, and Sojourner Truth, who was born a slave and left behind one of the most eloquent testimonies of the need for racial equality? What would Fertile Goddess have to say to Susan B. Anthony? And what about Georgia O’Keeffe, the last place set at the table? All her long life, she adamantly refused the label “woman artist,” which Chicago so joyfully embraces.
When I was a baby intellectual (so long ago that I hardly dare mention it), The Dinner Party occupied verboten territory. Judy Chicago’s name, if it came up at all, was cited with the kind of embarrassment women in our feminist circles usually reserved for their mothers. Raised as we were on a steady diet of continental philosophy and deconstruction, we thought her West Coast populism smacked of biological determinism, an Our Bodies, Ourselves moment we had moved far beyond.
We were wrong, as people often are when they judge things without looking. But that knee-jerk dismissal seems destined to be repeated by today’s “post-feminist” generation. Catherine Morris and Ingrid Schaffner, the curators of “Gloria: Another Look at Feminist Art From the 1970s,” were partly inspired by Vanessa Beecroft’s casual disdain for earlier feminist practices when she spoke on a panel following her infamous Guggenheim Museum performance/installation.
“Gloria” (at White Columns, 320 West 13th Street, through October 20) focuses on the strain of feminist art my contemporaries might have welcomed (if they’d only known about it)—the media-savvy, often photo- and video-based practices, derived from both conceptual art and popular culture and destined to work their way into the artistic mainstream. This superb exhibition of early art by Carolee Schneemann, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, and many others, includes crotch shots (self-portraits by Hannah Wilke and Valerie Export) and bloody messes (like the one staged by Ana Mendieta on the University of Iowa campus), but the emphasis of the work has shifted from women’s anatomical essence to its uncomfortable and disarming effects upon the viewer. And the mad housewife is everywhere; in place of Chicago’s utopian dinner party, there’s Martha Rosler’s hilarious video spoof of TV cooking shows—a deadpan exploration of the potential violence of ordinary kitchen utensils.
But do we really still need to choose between rage and celebration? And is the work of a current art star like Tracey Emin, which, like The Dinner Party, combines traditionally feminine crafts such as embroidery and quilt-making with installation, and which rests on the tacit assumption that her private experience carries a deeper social meaning, even conceivable without the generations that preceded it? (Emin’s show at Lehmann Maupin, 540 West 26th Street, continues through October 19.) In fact, in its historic range and ambition and despite its flaws, The Dinner Party is still vastly inspiring—the dream of a community still to come.