12:00 AM, Oct 14, 1996 • By PIA CATTON
Judy Chicago has written her second autobiography, Beyond the Flower (Viking, 282 pages, $ 27.95). If you missed the first, don't worry; Beyond the Flower has everything you could possibly want to know about her. Chicago (nee Cohen) is best known for The Dinner Party, an "installation" that made headlines when she first displayed it in 1979. Although she produced a number of works before and after it, The Dinner Party is the work that simultaneously put her on the map and has kept her off it since. In Beyond the Flower, Chicago explores the central question of her career: why The Dinner Party remains without a permanent site even though nearly one million people have seen it. She thinks the homelessness of her masterpiece is an example of the way in which feminist art has been discriminated against by the art world.
The Dinner Party is a table featuring place settings for 39 women, running the gamut from significant historical figures like Mary Wollstonecraft to mythical creations of feminist ideology like "Primordial Goddess." (Enlightened classicists will recognize her as the queen of the Land Before Patriarchy.) They vary from the truly influential -- Queen Elizabeth I -- to the truly obscure -- Natalie Barney, a turn-of-the-century lesbian who established a gay-friendly salon in Paris.
Chicago's choices of whom to represent in this festival of gynocentrism are nowhere near as objectionable as the way she represents them. Each woman is commemorated by a ceramic plate and cloth runner. The runners depict scenes from the woman's life or "story." And each plate contains an image Chicago feels is the "physically defining characteristic of woman in an almost metaphysical sense" -- an image of the vulva. The vulva can be "dark and molten," as Chicago writes of the image for Primordial Goddess, or trimmed with pink lace, as in the case of Emily Dickinson, but whichever way she shows it, the vulva is always there.
Just how does the vulva define women "metaphysically"? Chicago gives several answers in Beyond the Flower. There's the highfalutin answer: " The vulval image could act . . . as an entryway into an aesthetic exploration of what it has meant to be a woman -- experientially, historically, and philosophically." There's the robot-feminist answer: The vulval image "was just one way of demonstrating that the oppression experienced by the women represented at the table was a result of their gender." There's the revolting answer: "Rippling out from their tiny centers is the insistence that female sexuality is to be celebrated and embraced, not hidden away, purchased, excised, or despised."
When The Dinner Party debuted at the San Francisco Museum of Art, it caused quite a sensation. Five thousand people flocked to the opening. Mother Jones and Life reported the show favorably. NPR's All Things Considered featured Chicago in an interview with Susan Stamberg. Later, when the piece traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, CBS News and People covered it.
Chicago was invited to the Today show and the Bill Meyers Show.
But not all the attention she received was congratulatory. Hilton Kramer, then the art critic of the New York Times, wrote a particularly biting review of the piece in 1980. "For its principal image, The Dinner Party remains fixated on the external genital organs of the female body," he said. " Its many variations of the image are not without a certain ingenuity, to be sure, but it is the kind of ingenuity we associate with kitsch."
A decade later, when Chicago planned to donate her work to the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), the explicit sexual imagery caused a tumult in Congress. The school needed a $ 1.6 million grant from Congress to renovate the building in which The Dinner Party would be housed. In 1990 the House voted to withhold the funds; during the debate Rep. Dana Rohrabacher dismissed the work as "weird sexual art."