May 5, 2018
At the Judy Chicago Exhibit, The Dinner Table, in the Brooklyn Museum
I felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke free on the open sky.
—from the poem Poetry, by Pablo Neruda
I noticed her and her mother walking alongside the triangle table, talking. A pixie-sized girl with straight brown hair, she looked to be about four or five. Her mother was carefully explaining each name listed on the cloth at each place setting: “Kali, a Goddess; Sophia, a real person.” The daughter seemed entranced and was listening carefully, asking questions as they went. I was surprised she had such a sustained interest. By the time they got to the middle of the second side, I made up my mind to give them the little booklet that gave the details about each name. I stood silently by their side for a bit at first, listening, as the daughter gave her ideas about why all these women were being honored together.
“I think these are great lights,” she said, “and we’re trying to remember them.” She went on: “I remember them. I remember when they were stars next to me, before I was born.”
Her mother looked at me and said, “I didn’t tell her this. She started explaining this at 18 months old, that she was a light, a star, and that she came down from the stars through a hole in the top of my head and went into my belly.”
She filmed her, quietly, as her daughter went on to explain: “I’m younger than you two,” she said, “ so I remember. I’m four and a half.”
I said, “Yes, but maybe you’re an old soul.” The mother smiled.
“Everyone has light,” the little girl said. “Like rays of the sun. They come out from the middle of you, and I can see them. I can see their rays, too,” she said, nodding to the table featuring 39 women represented by the feminine place-settings and the 999 women honored on the platform underneath them, names hand-written in gold, in a feminine script.
“Maybe,” I said, “We’re old so we’ve forgotten about the light but you can help us remember.”
“Yes,” she said. “I think so.”
I left the book with them and went back to my own daughter, waiting for me in the next room. I hoped I’d be able to see her light, and that would still be able to see mine.
This is the good work that mothers and daughters and artists and mystics can do in the world.
In the garden.
More on The Dinner Party, from the Brooklyn Museum Exhibit
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-79) is an icon of 1970’s American feminist art, and one of the most important artworks of the 20th century. The installation celebrates the achievements and lives of 1038 historical and mythical women while paying tribute to all women whose stories have been lost to history to erasure or suppression.
The Dinner Party consists of a corridor of welcoming Entry Banners, a massive Heritage Floor, and a dazzling ceremonial banquet arranged in the shape of an open triangle, which here symbolizes equality. Each of the 39 “guests of honor” is individually commemorated through and intricately embroidered runner executed in historically specific techniques, as well as a unique 14-inch ceramic-painted plate with a central motif based on butterfly and vulvar forms. Gold ceramic chalices and utensils, and embroidered napkins accent each place setting. Painted on hand-cast tiles, the names of 999 additional women, correlating with the contributions, experiences, eras, or regions of the 39 place-settings, spread out across the heritage floor.
Chicago’s installation was the first monumental American artwork to survey the contributions of women to Western culture. In addition to sharing knowledge of forgotten historical figures, the artist was invested in a feminist reclamation of craft techniques traditionally associated with women: embroidery, needlework, ceramic painting, and ceramics. Chicago used “central core” or vulvar imagery as an unprecedented symbol for the struggles and achievements of women. The artist began work on The Dinner Party in 1974 and it took five years and the help of hundreds of volunteers to realize her vision.
The Brooklyn Museum was an early stop in The Dinner Party’s original tour, and nearly 100,000 visitors came to Brooklyn to see it in 1980. Chicago’s aspiration for the work was “to end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.” In 2002, Elizabeth A. Sackler generously donated The Dinner Party to the Museum, ensuring a permanent home for the artwork. In 2007, The Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art opened with The Dinner Party as its central installation, inspiring viewers to question history and carry the work’s feminist legacy into the future.
Women represented in the place settings
The first wing of the triangular table has place settings for female figures from the goddesses of prehistory through to Hypatia at the time of the Roman Empire. This section covers the emergence and decline of the Classical world.
The second wing begins with Marcella and covers the rise of Christianity. It concludes with Anna van Schurman in the seventeenth century at the time of the Reformation.
The third wing represents the Age of Revolution. It begins with Anne Hutchinson and moves through the twentieth century to the final places paying tribute to Virginia Woolf and Georgia O’Keeffe.
The 39 women with places at the table are:
Wing I: From Prehistory to the Roman Empire
1. Primordial Goddess
2. Fertile Goddess
5. Snake Goddess
Wing II: From the Beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation
15. Saint Bridget
18. Trota of Salerno
19. Eleanor of Aquitaine
20. Hildegarde of Bingen
21. Petronilla de Meath
22. Christine de Pisan
23. Isabella d’Este
24. Elizabeth I
25. Artemisia Gentileschi
26. Anna van Schurman
Wing III: From the American to the Women’s Revolution
27. Anne Hutchinson
29. Caroline Herschel
30. Mary Wollstonecraft
31. Sojourner Truth
32. Susan B. Anthony
33. Elizabeth Blackwell
34. Emily Dickinson
35. Ethel Smyth
36. Margaret Sanger
37. Natalie Barney
38. Virginia Woolf
39. Georgia O’Keeffe
Women represented in the Heritage Floor
The Heritage Floor, which sits underneath the table, features the names of 999 women inscribed on white handmade porcelain floor tilings. The tilings cover the full extent of the triangular table area, from the footings at each place setting, continues under the tables themselves and fills the full enclosed area within the three tables. There are 2304 tiles with names spread across more than one tile. The names are written in the Palmer cursive script, a twentieth-century American form. Chicago states that the criteria for a woman’s name being included in the floor were one or more of the following:
- She had made a worthwhile contribution to society
- She had tried to improve the lot of other women
- Her life and work had illuminated significant aspects of women’s history
- She had provided a role model for a more egalitarian future.
Accompanying the installation is a series of wall panels which explain the role of each woman on the floor and associate her with one of the place settings.