In 1982 I saw The Dinner Party at the Art Gallery of Ontario as soon as it opened on its very first day. I met and chatted with Judy Chicago, and she autographed my book!
If I hadn’t gone then, I may not have been able to get in… certainly I would not have met the artist. The crowds and lineups were unprecedented and the gallery had to extend its hours. It set new attendance records at every museum in Canada and the U.S. where it was exhibited.
I had just heard about the show the previous day as host Peter Gzowski was talking about it on the CBC radio program Morningside. Was it an interview with the artist? I don’t remember. What I do recall was how much I wanted to see it, and rushing to the phone to order tickets. The only ones they had for the following day were at the opening time. The tickets were expensive and the time was inconvenient, but hardly believing my luck I said YES!
My husband thought I was crazy. I did not give in. We left Hamilton very early, taking with us our sons, then aged eleven and twelve. They tease me that their first visit to an art gallery was to see a pornographic, radically feminist display with their Mother! But it was okay, because it had embroidery.
So we were the first in to the room, walking along the corridor with the woven tapestries, through a darkened hall and narrow doorway, into that breathtaking space. It was completely silent.
This is what we saw, how we saw it, as explained in this video tour conducted by Judy Chicago…
The exhibit was not considered an artistic success. Many critics found it too obvious, too didactic, crude and unsophisticated. Since when were china plates and embroidered banners to be taken seriously as capital A, capital R, capital T… ART? Besides, the social and historical content was so provocative, to say nothing of the sexual implications of the plates. It has since been described as one of the most venerated and divisive works of modern art.
Subsequently, despite art world resistance, it toured to 16 venues in 6 countries on 3 continents to a viewing audience of 15 million. After the initial tour the collection languished in storage… no one seemed to know what to do with it. Chicago went on to develop new collections, equally provocative, even franker.
Then in 2007 The Dinner Party was reopened at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. Here is the link to the exhibit at its new permanent home where you can see the plates and read the biographical details. (Choose The Dinner Party, then Components, then Place Settings, then Browse.) Alas, you cannot see the embroideries on the back of the table… that gorgeously designed and meticulously worked archive of needlework through time. But I can. I have the book, autographed by the artist!
The New York Times had this to say when it finally opened in a permanent location at the Brooklyn Museum.
It isn’t necessary in order to showcase the only jewel in its crown, Judy Chicago’s unruly, inspiring installation “The Dinner Party,” a landmark in feminist history that occupies around 5,000 of the center’s 8,300 square feet. Made by Ms. Chicago and scores of volunteers from 1974 to 1979, this immense piece is in many ways the perfect storm of second-wave feminism and modernism: it is lashed together by pride, fury, radiating labial forms and numerous female-identified crafts, most prominently painted ceramic plates and needlework. Whatever you think about it as a work of art, it amounts to one-stop consciousness-raising and historical immersion: an activist, body-centered tribute to 39 important women. Study “The Dinner Party” close enough and your bra, if you’re wearing one, may spontaneously combust.
This article from Slate describes the second visit, after twenty-seven years, of someone who was condescendingly anticipating disliking it, and quite surprised herself.
Yes, The Dinner Party, especially the plates, is provocative. What I find particularly interesting is that critical reaction centered on the sexual imagery of the plates, instead of the tragic biographies of the courageous women they represent. What the plates provoke in me is a sense of awe at what they are and what they represent! The overall concept of the collection and the incredible embroideries leave me speechless and on the verge of tears!
What is your reaction?