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.
“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.”
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.