Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party premiered when my son was 9 years old, and now I am here visiting him in New York City for his 44th birthday, finally about to relish the experience of the famous artwork. A long time I stand silent at the entrance, knowing that it will change me. Lights like stars in a black ceiling seem to reflect endlessly from each of the triangular walls of the room before me. The architecture of the room, designed and built specifically to house the permanent installation, gives a sense of great space around the triangular table. The effect is one of outer space and inner space merging. I’m held here at the entrance by this effect, and by something else. As women are unaccustomed to receiving honor, this art that honors women is art to which I am unaccustomed, honor which, in its unfamiliarity, can daze.
Then I move along the three wings of the open triangle, to view the sumptuous place settings that give tribute to thirty-nine individual women, thirteen place settings per wing. The website for The Dinner Party describes the settings thusly:
The “guests of honor” commemorated on the table are designated by means of intricately embroidered runners, each executed in a historically specific manner. Upon these are placed, for each setting, a gold ceramic chalice and utensils, a napkin with an embroidered edge, and a fourteen-inch china-painted plate with a central motif based on butterfly and vulvar forms. Each place setting is rendered in a style appropriate to the individual woman being honored…Chicago specifically chose to use vaginal or “central core” imagery for each of the plates in order to demonstrate that the one thing that united these forgotten historical subjects at the table was that they all had the same genitalia. Her aim was to reclaim and celebrate that mark of women’s “otherness,” replacing connotations of inferiority with those of pride, and to create a “new visual language” with which to express women’s experience.
Though they have not before been included at the table of history, the honored guests seem present in their place settings. Or is it their absence, which Judy Chicago makes so palpable that it becomes presence? Chicago has also invited and transported to The Dinner Party the 999 women whose names are inscribed in gold luster on 2,300 hand-cast porcelain tiles on the triangular Heritage Floor, providing the foundation both structurally and metaphorically for the table. Her monumental celebration of female achievement brings me a harsh and startled recognition of how very much has been missing.
Some names/plates catch my heart more strongly: HATSHEPSUT, ahead of her time in multidimensionality, a Queen, yes, and also a King and a Pharaoh, her plate a stunning raised relief surface symbolizing authority, the shapes and tones of the image on the plate breath-taking; SAPPHO, innovator of lyric poetry, whose academy I can now actually imagine attending, her name on The Dinner Party runner embroidered “in an eruption of color that identifies her poetry as a “burst of female creativity”; The Celtic warrior queen BOADACEIA with swirling golden patterns on both plate and runner; ETHEL SMYTH, the twentieth-century British composer and a champion of women’s rights and female musicians, whose plate is a grand piano with raised lid and a stand with notations from her famous opera The Boatswain’s Mate.
After one slow journey around the table, I am filled with the sense that Judy Chicago has indeed conjured these women, both human and mythological. And it is the juxtaposition of so many astounding women that radiates The Dinner Party’s power! Many journeys around the table would be required to satisfy the hunger for that power, to savor the quenching of such a long and unrecognized thirst.
When I walk away after viewing The Dinner Party, I am a different woman from the one who stood silent at the entrance. Erasure, that process which women throughout history have known so well, now feels impossible. And because of the transformative power of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, what feels possible is a new imagining, an authentic hope for a future of full humanity. As Chicago writes on the six woven entry banners to the installation, one line on each banner:
And She Gathered All before Her
And She made for them A Sign to See
And lo They saw a Vision
From this day forth Like to like in All things
And then all that divided them merged
And then Everywhere was Eden Once again
The experience of personal viewing of the art can be extended by visiting the website for The Dinner Party, http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/home.php , where one can browse each place setting individually and read the fascinating research about each honoree, including the 999 named on the Heritage Floor. Please don’t mistake this for the experience of firsthand viewing of the groundbreaking installation at its permanent home in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.