Roots of “The Dinner Party”: History in the Making

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Judy Chicago in “The Dinner Party” China Painting Studio, 1975. Courtesy of Through the Flower Archive

NEW YORK—Roots of “The Dinner Party”: History in the Making is the first museum exhibition to examine the formal, material, and conceptual development of Judy Chicago’s feminist artwork The Dinner Party (1974–79)—the artist’s most influential work and a signature highlight of the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection. From October 20, 2017, through March 4, 2018, the exhibition presents never-before-seen objects that illuminate the installation’s development as a multilayered artwork, a triumph of collaborative art-making, and a testament to the power of revising Western history to include women. Roots of “The Dinner Party” is the final exhibition in A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum-wide series of exhibitions that present voices from the history of feminism and feminist art in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

Presented in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, alongside The Dinner Party, the exhibition features more than 100 objects, including rarely seen test plates, research documents, ephemera, notebooks, and preparatory drawings from 1971 through 1979.The exhibition is presented chronologically, with sections introducing Chicago’s vision for The Dinner Party and her material study of China-painting, porcelain, and needlework—including focused case studies of the Mary Wollstonecraft and Sojourner Truth place settings. It continues with research documents and ephemera from Chicago’s studio, highlighting the workshop and research project behind the artwork, and its eventual worldwide tour. Roots of “The Dinner Party” adds depth and context to the visitor’s experience of The Dinner Party, revealing the thought process, creative evolution, and history behind the work, while unpacking some of the misperceptions surrounding this controversial artwork and its critical reception.

Exhibition curator Carmen Hermo,Assistant Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, remarks: “The Dinner Party is a milestone in the art of the last century, and continues to inspire and inform those who come to see it at the Brooklyn Museum, read about it in art history books, or use it as a model for questioning history.This signature piece in our collection is a vital resource for sparking conversation about feminism, political art, and diverse representation.”

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Judy Chicago Designing the Entry Banners for “The Dinner Party,” 1978. Courtesy of Through the Flower Archive

About The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago 

The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago was created to rectify the absence of women from the dominantWestern historical narrative, while also reestablishing the importance of materials and techniques like ceramics, China-painting, and textiles, traditionally considered the domain of women and domestic labor. Chicago involved nearly 400 women and men in a vast studio workshop to complete the installation. The Dinner Party comprises a massive ceremonial banquet, arranged on a triangular table with a total of thirty-nine place settings, each commemorating an important historical
or mythical woman.The settings reflect the life of each honored woman, and consist of embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils, and China-painted porcelain plates with motifs based on vulvar and butterfly forms. The names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the triangular table, symbolizing the long history of achievement represented by each place setting.

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Thursday Night Potluck with “The Dinner Party” Workers, 1978. Courtesy of Through the Flower Archive

After five years of work and preparation, The Dinner Party debuted at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979, drawing in approximately one hundred thousand people during its three months on view. For many, the artwork’s alternative view of Western history and culture marked the first time they learned of the achievements and experiences of the 1,038 women named in the artwork. Despite its popular appeal, The Dinner Party was controversial, with some perceiving it to be pornographic and kitschy. Critics also argued that the work marginalizes women of color, reflecting the biases of the largely white and middle-class second- wave feminist movement.

After its debut in San Francisco, The Dinner Party went on a nine-year tour to fourteen international venues as a result of fundraising and planning by local communities. Each exhibition of the work attracted large crowds and continued the public conversation about feminism and history that Chicago sought to visualize through her artwork. Still, The Dinner Party struggled to find a permanent home, which was Chicago’s goal from the beginning.The work faced an ambiguous future until Elizabeth A. Sackler acquired the work in 2001 and gifted it to the Brooklyn Museum in 2002.The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art opened in 2007 with The Dinner Party as its foundation.

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Judy Chicago and Others Working in “The Dinner Party” Needlework Loft, 1978. Courtesy of Through the Flower Archive
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