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Judy Chicago, “The Dinner Party” (1979), collection of the Brooklyn Museum, gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation (© Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society, ARS, New York; photo © Donald Woodman/ARS NY)

Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” (1974–79) has been the focus of combative discourse for nearly 40 years, heralded as revelatory by some, labeled “vulgar,” by conservative critics like Hilton Kramer, and challenged for its racial politics (or lack thereof) by others. Recently, Chicago challenged a recent assessment of the work by Esther Allen, who accused the artist overlooking Latin American figures like La Malinche and Frida Kahlo.

Judy Chicago (American, b. 1939). The Dinner Party (Heritage Floor; detail), 1974–79. Porcelain with rainbow and gold luster, 48 x 48 x 48 ft. (14.6 x 14.6 x 14.6 m). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography (via Brooklyn Museum)

The Dinner Party,” considered by some to be the nucleus of second-wave feminist art, found its permanent home in 2002, in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum (where it was first shown in 1980). Inside the grand matrix sits a three-sided dinner table topped with 39 place settings, most crafted to recall vulvas, and all dedicated to a mythical and historical woman from history. The table sits atop and around the triangulated Heritage Floor, which inscribes the names of 999 additional women.

Alice Walker, the author of “The Color Purple” and architect of the term “womanist,” was one of earlier critics of “The Dinner Party’s” racial dynamic, saying:

I was gratified … to learn that in the “Dinner Party” there was a place “set,” as it were, for black women. The illumination came when I stood in front of it. All the other plates are creatively imagined vaginas … The Sojourner Truth plate is the only one in the collection that shows-instead of a vagina — a face. In fact, three faces. … It occurred to me that perhaps white women feminists, no less than white women generally, cannot imagine that black women have vaginas.

Other critics have decried the work’s conflation of genitalia and gender identity. Facing critiques including these, Chicago told W Magazine in 2017 that it is “an incredible advance that we’ve begun to understand the complexity of identities.”

Installation view, Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, Brooklyn Museum, April 13, 2018 through July 22, 2018 (photo by Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum)

Recently, Judy Chicago responded directly to a new criticism of “The Dinner Party,” made by Esther Allen, a writer and translator, in her review of the Brooklyn Museum’s Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, located next to the installation. In the article, “Returning the Gaze, with a Vengeance,” Allen notes, “It’s now quite hard to keep from noticing that none of the thirty-nine Great Women granted a place at Chicago’s elaborate table is from Spain, Portugal, or any of those empires’ former colonies in the Americas.”

Chicago says that while she is not in the habit of responding directly to reviews, she published a letter with the New York Review of Books in dialogue with the criticisms, saying some of the artists featured in Radical Women studied with her, and many of the suggestions made by Allen are etched on the Heritage Floor. She argues, “At the time I was working on The Dinner Party, in the mid-1970s, there was little or no knowledge about any of these women. The prevailing point of view was that women had no history. It is important to remember that our research was done before the advent of computers, the Internet, or Google search.”

See the entirety of the exchange, including Esther Allen’s response, on the New York Review of Books.

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Jasmine Weber

Jasmine Weber is Hyperallergic's news editor. She is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, particularly interested in Black art histories and visual culture....

3 replies on “Judy Chicago Responds to Criticisms About the “Dinner Party””

  1. Since there were going to be a finite number of places at the table, it was certain from the beginning that some people would crank about the selection. What Chicago should have done, then, is constantly make new settings, replacing some of those already there, which would go into storage for possible reappearance at a later time. Now the number of places and the selection of the persons would be indefinitely large. This wouldn’t stop the cranks, of course — they could crank about the order, for instance — but it might give them pause. They might even find something else to crank about for a while.

  2. I don’t get. Can we not pay more attention to the nomenclature of our body parts? How is it possible that someone with the literary fame of Alice Walker doesn’t know the difference between a vagina and a vulva? Writers, in particular, ought to pay attention to the words they use, even although the misapplication of the word ‘vagina’ is repeated by others, and far too often. Words have meaning. Let us mean the words we use.

    For the record, according to my online dictionary:

    Vulva: the external parts of the female genital organs

    Vagina: a canal in a female mammal that leads from the uterus to the external orifice of the genital canal

  3. This is why I have stopped making identity/gender themed art. Someone is always going to get their boxers/panties in a twist over what you said/what you didn’t say and what you included/didn’t include. Much of my work prior to Obergerfel in 2015 was themed on Marriage Equality and equity in the system. The shelf life of my work and its reviews apparently ended in 6/2015. It was fun while it lasted but now I am just tired with all the discourse. I applaud Chicago and her work and its timeliness back in the day. Its current state with all the pundits makes me sad.

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