Depicting place settings for 39 historical and mythical women, Chicago calls her opus, The Dinner Party, “a monumental installation that is a symbolic history of women in western civilization—or, as I sometimes describe it—a reinterpretation of ‘The Last Supper’ from the point of view of those who’ve done the cooking throughout history.”
This Sunday, Chicago and all her glory are on view during a talk at the New Mexico Museum of Art presented in conjunction with Through the Flower—a nonprofit feminist art organization founded by the imagemaker in 1978. Aptly titled “From Controversy to Canonization,” the event consists of a dialogue between Chicago and historian Jane Gerhard—author of the new book The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism.
“This book is an analysis of the impact of The Dinner Party—internationally,” Chicago explains, adding that the tome’s genesis was a fluke.
“[Gerhard] was doing research in the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard, Radcliffe—which is where my paper archives are,” Chicago says. “She was researching something else that caused her to go into my archives, where she discovered all this vitriolic art criticism of The Dinner Party along with equally vitriolic criticism by early feminist theorists.”
Side-by-side with the harsh comments, Chicago says “thousands and thousands” of letters of support were also archived. This dichotomy, she says, has been her career’s sine qua non.
“Now that so many years have passed, I can say that I’m not the first artist in history that shocked the critics,” Chicago points out in a tongue-in-cheek way. “It’s just that when it was happening, it was not fun.”
Party was first exhibited in 1979 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it became the institution’s main attraction, to the point that, Chicago says, the museum was forced to purchase a computerized cash register—which they dubbed “Judy”—to keep up with attendance.
A touring schedule was then set for the installation, but word quickly spread about the piece’s controversy and, one by one, museums cancelled. So, Chicago says, the piece “went into storage, and the artists went into shock.”
“An unprecedented grassroots movement” began, and quickly, the triangular table and all its poignant accoutrements achieved cult-like status. It toured for nearly a decade, was stored a couple more times, and landed a permanent home in 2007 at the Brooklyn Museum, where it’s the centerpiece of their Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
“It attracts a third of the museum’s audience,” Chicago boasts.
Reflecting on its impact, Chicago says she thinks “it’s historic because we’ve come to a point where The Dinner Party has proven itself after all this controversy.” Her fans now include Queen Sonja of Norway, whom Chicago recently led through a personal tour of Deflowered, her first Scandinavia solo show.
Highs and all, the artist admits criticism can be “difficult and painful.” Still, the 74-year-old badass continues to move forward with her own brand of “honest art” that, by her own account, because of its subject matter, oftentimes “gets people bent out of shape.”
“I certainly do not set out to provoke people or rub them the wrong way,” Chicago reflects, quickly adding with a laugh: “Some of them, I rub the right way, like my husband of 28 years.”
2 pm Sunday, June 9. Free.
NM Museum of Art, 107 W Palace Ave., 476-5072