From Brooklyn to Clear Lake
Your last chance to get to The Dinner Party: Feminist power, sexuality &controversy on the menu
Don’t be late for dinner. For Judy Chicago’s iconic installation The Dinner Party, that is.
Chicago’s ground-breaking feminist work took the art world by storm in 1979, and a quick trip to Clear Lake will allow you to peruse a selection of test plates and drawings central to the creation of that work. These works are on view in an exhibition called Setting the Table now in its final week on view at University of Houston Clear Lake. An informative website details both Setting the Table and aspects of the original installation of The Dinner Party. The exhibition culminates with a final reception on Saturday from 6-8 p.m. in the Neumann Library, Bayou Building. The Dinner Party itself is in the Brooklyn Museum of Art where it has been part of the permanent collection since 2007.
Of course, this is not the first time The Dinner Party has cast its shadow over the area, thanks to Houston-based feminist curator Mary Ross Taylor. She was instrumental in bringing The Dinner Party to UH-Clear Lake in 1980. Although controversial, The Dinner Party has visited multiple national and international venues and has been witnessed by at least one million people.
But what’s so special, so iconic, or even so feminist about a dinner party? Isn’t a certain vision of the 1950s dinner party with Stepford Wives as hostesses a nightmare from which feminists struggled to awake?
The Dinner Party represents a massive act of revaluation. It is a monumental work composed of a triangular table, each side measuring roughly 48 feet. Each side of the table features 13 place settings, reminiscent of the Last Supper, which notably did not include any women. Each setting is for a woman of historical or mythic importance.
Each setting is composed of napkin, utensil, goblet, cutlery, and plate, with a table runner embroidered with the accomplishments of the 39 featured women. The plates feature butterfly or flower-like sculptures or designs that served as symbols of female power and sexuality. Likewise, the vivid use of traditionally feminine “crafts,” such as embroidery and china painting, was meant to recognize these forms as arts.
At first sight The Dinner Table overwhelms with its sheer magnitude, a feature very intentionally designed to grant to women a heroic scale historically reserved for the accomplishments of men. But if you spend any time considering the detail involved in the creation of this work, scale becomes relevant in a whole new way. The Dinner Party was a non-hierarchically organized collaborative work of more than 400 ceramicists, needleworkers, researchers, and other volunteers.
The project took six years to complete, at a cost of roughly $250,000, which would be over $650,000 in today’s currency.
The 39 women featured are a veritable Who’s Who, from the goddesses of prehistory and Elizabeth I to Georgia O’Keefe. But these aren’t the only honorees. A series of white tiles beneath the tables are covered with the names of 999 other notable women, from Heloise to Gaspara Stampa to Willa Cather. In the quiet of the space around The Dinner Table, you might begin to imagine that you are not alone and that the presences you sense are not other visitors to the exhibition.
The Dinner Party has not been without its detractors. Some modernist-leaning art critics decried the work as propagandistic and even vulgar. And while many feminist artists and art critics have found it intensely moving, others have been quite critical of the limitations of its imagery or even its particular attitudes to the women it celebrates in the imagery of each setting.
While it’s hard to know how you might respond to The Dinner Party, Setting the Table will allow you to get an insider's look at the genesis of a historically critical work of art and the collaborative process by which it came about. The aesthetic value of some works will never be settled, and while opinions on Chicago may vary, the historical importance of The Dinner Party is undeniable, and Houston’s part in that history is all too easily forgotten.
Whether you find The Dinner Party awesome, funny, moving, prophetic, dated, or otherwise, you’re sure to be in good company at Setting the Table.