Judy Chicago returns to New York.
Oct 21, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 06 • By THOMAS M. DISCH
IF YOU'RE OLD ENOUGH to have voted for Bella Abzug or Ronald Reagan, then you may remember the great to-do surrounding the unveiling, in 1979, of Judy Chicago's cause célèbre, "The Dinner Party." That assemblage of thirty-nine vulviform table settings was denounced and hosannahed, the standard to whose bright stripes partisan armies marched to their Kulturkampf. After years of wandering the desert, the work has at last found a permanent home in the Brooklyn Museum, where it now appears in conjunction with a Judy Chicago retrospective from Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Curiously, to see "The Dinner Party" these days is to realize what a mild and simple thing it really is--and always was. It's gorgeous enough that any resemblance of its crockery to women's sexual organs is as little cause for taking umbrage as phallic metaphoric power is reason for deploring the Eiffel Tower or Churchill's cigars. Though Chicago wants us to read her designs as shorthand for the whole panoply of things womanly, the real question is whether her distinctive variations reward sustained and close attention.
To judge by the work's cumulative million-plus attendance figures, the answer seems to be yes. Chicago has consistently asserted that "The Dinner Party" is not just a work of art but a political act, a kind of one-woman parade for the cause of all Womankind, especially those female geniuses who have been denied their place at the table where money, immortal fame, and other such perks are handed out. Her thirty-nine-woman pantheon is meant to begin to correct that age-old imbalance by giving equal time to worthy women, beginning with the nameless "Primordial Goddess" and concluding with Virginia Woolf and Georgia O'Keeffe.
One must applaud Chicago's good intentions, observing at the same time the ways in which she has stacked the deck herself: Among the famous ladies who don't have a place at Chicago's table are Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Catherine the Great, Clara Schumann, and Nadia Boulanger (bumped by Ethel Smyth for the chair in Music), the two Georges (Sand and Eliot), Jane Austen, and Lady Murasaki. Chicago has a reluctance to include women whose fame derives from their association with famous men, whether by way of marriage, motherhood, or murder (although the biblical Judith does find a place).
But as the political agenda has faded, what remains is the work itself. And, without the old culture wars raging around it, the viewer can now see how superbly Chicago's teams of ceramicists and needlewomen realized her designs. The museum's gift shop should offer replicas of the individual pieces. I would get a whole set of the faux majolica platters made for Isabella d'Este. I'd also be tempted by the quatrefoil array of colored goop (like the squeezings of tubes of paint) that honors Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Each plate rests on its own placemat, and many of those are equal to plates they support, especially in the earlier centuries, when the cloths offer their own droll tributes to the arts of the loom and the needle.
One of the least-remarked features of "The Dinner Party" is its sense of humor. Her old culture-wars opponents and supporters adopted Chicago's own official tone of earnest preachment. But up close, "The Dinner Party" is a steady succession of little jokes and sly allusions as the artist and her atelier do their riffs on the history of Western Art (as the omission of Lady Murasaki might suggest, the women of the East are kept in purdah still). There is a further drollery in the work's sheer overweening ambition, which is nothing less than to replicate the entire project of World Art, to reappropriate it, so to speak, from the hands of usurping men. But drollery at that level of ambition is the stuff from which Divine Comedies are made--another long-term project notable for its sheer chutzpah.
A SECOND REASON for non-indigenes to venture out to the Brooklyn Museum is the show that recently opened in the adjoining gallery. Early reviews of "Exposed: The Victorian Nude," the paintings and sculptures sent on tour by London's Tate Gallery, indicate that the exhibition has touched the same nerve as "Sensation," when that show opened in Brooklyn two years ago. This time the critics are upset that mid-century Victorians don't measure up to the standard set by "Courbet, Degas, and Renoir" (the complaint of Jerry Saltz in the Village Voice).