Sunday, August 9, 2020

"The late '60s and early '70s was a period of tremendous investigation and questioning and experimenting for me. I became focused on creating a feminist art practice along with a feminist art education to meet the needs of female students."

Artist, author, educator and noted feminist Judy Chicago spent six years, from 1974–79, creating her monumental offering The Dinner Party. Presented as a symbolic history of women in Western Civilization, Chicago and numerous volunteers, artists, craftsmen and students spent countless hours working in sculpture, needlework, ceramics, painting and drafting, amongst other media, to create the room-filling artwork.  

In 2017, an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum where The Dinner Party is permanently housed examined for the first time Chicago's creative process and explored the feminist studio environment she established. An interview in the catalogue with curator Carmen Hermo sheds light on Chicago's work as an artist and educator during the period; the lack of research and resources available in higher education on women's history in Western culture, specifically on black, indigenous, queer and other minority women; and how representation for women has changed in the last fifty years. 

The catalogue was published by Salon 94 with the Brooklyn Museum on the occasion of the exhibition Roots of The Dinner Party: History in the Making and was designed by Pacific. 


Judy Chicago in Conversation
with Carmen Hermo

Carmen Hermo  You started making The Dinner Party in the early ’70s when women’s studies courses at colleges and publications about women were just getting off the ground. How did your work with the Feminist Art Programs in California lay the groundwork for what would eventually become The Dinner Party?

Judy Chicago  The most important thing my programs contributed to The Dinner Party was in how clear they made it that there was a big audience and deep hunger for female-centered art – and that was something I really saw with the response that grew out of Womanhouse, which was a project of the CalArts Feminist Art Program. I was also compiling a feminist art history archive from slides that I gathered as I traveled or shot from books, usually black-and-white crappy little shots, because there was almost nothing available. Later, I got my students working on that project – which educated them about the absence of information about women artists.

The late ’60s and early ’70s was a period of tremendous investigation and questioning and experimenting for me. I became focused on creating a feminist art practice along with a feminist art education to meet the needs of female students. The two goals intersected; I was helping my students develop professional art skills without having to do what I had been forced to do, i.e. excise all elements of gender from my work. This helped me to reconnect to my early impulses and laid the groundwork for my decision to create openly female-centered imagery.

By ’71, I had met Anaïs Nin, who was really my mentor. I was talking to her about questions like, Do women have a different voice in art and literature? Is there such a thing as female voice? Anaïs said, “Yes, there is a female gaze in art, and it involves being able to see through to the deepest level of the psyche.” I have never forgotten that comment. I was also in dialogue with the poet Adrienne Rich, the designer Sheila de Brettville and the art historian Arlene Raven, who were my peers at a time when I had very few – the Los Angeles art world was so male-dominated then.

CH  But at the beginning, especially in its first year and a half, you were working on The Dinner Party on your own, seven days per week, and multiple ten- and twelve-hour workdays. Did bringing so many willing collaborators to the project eventually change or influence your working style? Of course, it helped you solve the problem of The Dinner Party and getting it done.

JC  First of all, The Dinner Party studio was not my first collaborative effort. I had always been interested in collaboration. In the ’60s, I did collaborations with Lloyd Hamrol and Eric Orr, like The Feather Room (1965). I also organized these artist performance events in Pasadena where we’d all go to one of the parks there, which is where Sam Francis and Jim Turrell did a skywriting thing. However, I always found it difficult with the guys, they were often resistant. I had worked on Mark di Suvero’s huge Peace Tower (1966), I worked on a Claes Oldenburg happening – and of course my Atmospheres (1968–74). Actually, I would say that my Atmospheres were probably a model for my later collaborative projects.

As Diane Gelon [Project Administrator] said, contrary to popular belief, The Dinner Party studio was not a collective. It was always clear that The Dinner Party was my concept. People came to work on my piece, but that’s what people did with my Atmospheres. My friends and I would go wherever I decided to go – Santa Barbara Beach, Mount Baldy, Brookside Park – and everybody would help me do something: light the flares, take pictures, bring food. The only things different about some of my later collaborations with women were that: one, it was easier because it was mostly women; and two, there was always great food [laughs].

CH  That’s an important part of any collaboration – the sustenance!

JC  For some aspects of The Dinner Party, there were group decisions made. For example, there were group decisions made about the women on the Heritage Floor, but I always had the ultimate say. That’s what happened in that wonderful session where we selected the 999 names from the 3000 we had assembled. We were literally making herstory. People would argue for their favorite woman, and then there would be a discussion, and then I’d say, “Yes, I think so” or, “No, I don’t think so.” 

CH  It was like you had a built-in focus group. 

JC  And the group dynamic influenced me, too. Until then, I had always worked alone. Over the course of my career, I’ve gone back and forth between solo work and collaborative projects. For instance, before The Dinner Party, I worked for two years on Pasadena Lifesavers (1969–70) and nobody saw them until I finished them, so working out in the open for The Dinner Party was a little scary for me. But I made this incredible discovery. Although I can neither stitch nor sew, it turned out that I have this ability to design for needlework. Once I decided to put the plates on tables with tablecloths (instead of on the wall, which had been my first idea), I started to research needlework because I wanted to embellish the cloths. That’s when I really needed a lot of help because needlework is slow.

My discovery of ecclesiastical embroidery led to the runners. At first, I just put the plates on pieces of fabric and extended the plate design with paint. Then once the needleworkers began to translate my designs into thread, I was blown away because it was clear that I had this talent that I had no idea about! 

But that’s what making art is for me; it’s a process of discovery. You start down a path and you go where the path leads you. You’re in service to that journey and you do whatever you have to do to get to the end and the realization of that path. So it took five years for The Dinner Party – who expected that!? I’m hopeful that the “Roots” show will lead to a greater understanding of my practice, which has always been a process of discovery. It’s why I’ve done so many projects that take years – each journey has unfolded in its own way. 

CH  I’d love to look at your personal discovery of china painting as a medium and how this way of making art appealed to you as a way to talk about feminist issues.

JC  I had actually used materials and techniques outside of the mainstream from the beginning of my career. My interest in china painting and then needlework – although they’ve been extolled as my interest in elevating female crafts – fit into an approach to my practice that I had started earlier. And no one had commented on my having explored what we call “masculine crafts,” did they? Like auto body painting, fiberglass or plastics.

This was the first time in my life that being a woman was a definite advantage in terms of learning a technique. The way porcelain painting was taught, the teacher and her students would sit around a table drinking coffee and painting a baby rose and talking about their personal lives. It was a completely different environment for me. And I, who had separated myself from the world of women in order to be accepted into the male-centered art world, I’m there thinking, “Wow. This is really interesting.” I really appreciated it as an alternative environment with a different set of values. I was also amazed at the size of audiences at china- painting shows as they were in the thousands – what a contrast to the elitist art world and its assumption that the art audience is small.

CH  With the needlework runners, you borrowed the language of ecclesiastical trappings to convey a kind of visual authority. How important was it for you to create your critique of this historical, patriarchal, Judeo-Christian narrative within a framework of that very same narrative? I would love for you to talk about this specific context of The Dinner Party, critiquing a certain perspective by delving really deeply into it and unfolding it from within. 

JC  I’m glad you brought up the canon. It was very popular among some feminists of my generation to be critical of efforts to canonize women artists: They would say, “Oh we have to get rid of the canon!” and I’d say, “In your dreams.” I am a very practical, realistic person. I do not believe that, within our lifetime, the carefully constructed canon of Western art is going to end – in fact, what we are seeing is an intense fight to preserve it. There is a huge amount of intellectual, financial and societal capital invested in maintaining a history of Western civilization that privileges upper-class white men (and allows in a few upper-class women). I do not feel that I am powerful enough to change that. End it? Maybe these peers of mine feel like they can do it, but I don’t. So what can I do? I can attempt to subvert it. 

Now, it’s interesting that many of the anti-essentialists of the ’80s felt that it was impossible to challenge the representation of women. I actually think that is possible by making an alternative or oppositional set of images – that’s what I’ve tried to do. But many feminist theorists argued that the best way to subvert male art was by critiquing it. To my mind, that simply keeps male-centered art as the focus, which was not a strategy that I was interested in. I wanted to challenge and subvert the history of Western civilization as it’s taught, replacing male heroes with female heroes. I used this same structure to create The Dinner Party, which is a symbolic history of women. You could use it to tell the history of African Americans or the history of Native Americans. In other words, you can subvert history and thereby call it into question. That is as much as I felt was in my power as an artist to do.

CH  I’d like to introduce the question of representation in The Dinner Party with a lot of empathy. I can really understand how for women or people of a marginalized community, it is extra valuable for them to be able to see themselves in an artwork. We have both come across people who feel uncomfortable with the Sojourner Truth plate and the representation of her as a person which, for many, appears to be so different from the other plates on the table. There’s an openness to The Dinner Party that invites you to see yourself in it: and then somebody finds fault or feels that they and their background are not being represented. I do hear that from people who come into the galleries, and I do try to identify with them; we talk about it, and the context of the piece, and the limits to research and translation. To me, there’s an interesting friction between what you did do and what you could do in the ’70s, and how people approach it today.

JC  Having to think a lot about this – representation and our conversations about what viewers bring in terms of information, or not – has made me come to the position that this issue of who is and who isn’t represented is not a question that I can address. As I said, I used the structure of the history of Western civilization – that is, the version of that history that I was taught – as the framework for The Dinner Party. So in that structure, Native Americans entered the story with the colonization of the Americas, which is when the Sacajawea plate appears along with all the native women grouped around her place setting. African Americans didn’t appear in standard history until they were brought in chains from Africa, which is when the Sojourner Truth plate is presented along with other heroic African American women and abolitionists whose names are on the Heritage Floor

Ultimately, The Dinner Party is the piece I made. Sorry if it disappoints viewers in some ways, and I think these questions are worth discussing and debating, but I believe that they should be discussed and debated within the structure of the institution through the education department, through the curatorial department; it is not really my discussion. What am I supposed to say? “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I mean, what am I supposed to say? I’m not perfect, my work of art is not perfect.

Also, I’d like to bring up another point which has to do with this expectation of perfection from women, and the way it’s overlaid on the expectations of The Dinner Party. Why do we have to be perfect? Why does our art have to be perfect? The Dinner Party is a symbolic history of women in Western civilization. It isn’t a symbolic history of women in the world. I never attempted that. I did my best at a time when information about women generally was extremely hard to find, much less, scholarship on minorities. Moreover, as the great singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen said, “There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

CH  It’s interesting because your work, even though it’s from the ’70s, feels so recent that I think that’s also what people are responding to. In contrast, something like a Michelangelo, or what have you, feels so distant.

JC  It also doesn’t empower the viewer, right?

CH  Exactly. Whereas with The Dinner Party, it takes a lot to really experience it, to identify with the women, their stories, the way they’re represented – especially on the plates and runners.

JC  So then you feel empowered and what do you do with your power? You attack the source that empowered you.

CH  Well, maybe we could recontextualize that as an attack but maybe also as a defense. People feel empowered to defend themselves, and I think that’s probably a positive way to look at it. I think part of what makes people want this idea of “perfection” in representation – of seeing themselves in the work – is just the power of art and the power that art gives us. It’s not statistics, and it’s not a history class, but it’s something that can be more nuanced and responsive. Reading the comment books of the people who visited the Brooklyn Museum [during the 1980–81 stop on The Dinner Party tour], their response is, “Where am I?” And I think that that’s really valid, and I think it’s valid to say that your work brings those questions up, which are important questions for art, overall. Of course, you are the unfortunate subject of the attacks so it’s difficult for you. But curatorially, I do think about the way that it allows visitors to kind of step up and voice their reactions, their perspectives.

JC  I actually think it’s a really interesting institutional challenge: how to help viewers choose to work for change with their sense of empowerment, rather than attack the work of art that empowered them. As I’ve also said many times, The Dinner Party is an invitation; the museum should help people see it as an invitation to help change all the things they’re feeling, which are real! They’re all real! I think it would be much more empowering for the viewer and much more productive if the institution could find a way to help channel those feelings into action. 

It would be much more productive to talk about The Dinner Party and my intentions, our intentions. The Dinner Party is intended as an invitation to take up the challenge of changing the culture, changing the way history is written and presented, changing the representation of women, and changing the world in which we live so that everyone is acknowledged, everyone is respected, everyone’s contribution counts. That’s what The Dinner Party is. It is an invitation to help change the world. It is not about whether it’s a flawed work of art. That is not the conversation The Dinner Party should actually stimulate. Of course it’s a flawed work of art, of course it’s an imperfect work of art! That’s who we are as human beings. We’re flawed and we’re imperfect. You could focus on that or focus on The Dinner Party as an invitation to step up to the table and make change like all those women did!

Pacific is a New York-based publisher and creative studio with a focus on contemporary art and culture.

Instagram: @pacific_pacific

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16 Powers Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211

Artwork: Irving Ramsey Wiles (1861–1948), The Reader, c. 1900
Images of Judy Chicago: Courtesy Through the Flower Archive

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