The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and Jane Gerhard at the Brooklyn Museum


Judy Chicago and Jane Gerhard in dialogue with Saisha M. Grayson at the Brooklyn Museum with an audience of over 200. Photo by Donald Woodman.

Millennials find themselves in a limbo of progressive ideals, caught in the ebb and flow of the tide of identity politics.

On one hand, the ever-expanding fields of queer and transgender theory have thrown all sexualities and genders into a productive disarray; organizing human life with terms such as "gay" and "straight," or "man" and "woman," has become increasingly and necessarily complicated. On the other hand, second-wave feminism and the feminist art movement focused on finding an outlet of expression for women, an aim that has long been under scrutiny. Feminism that seeks to blur gender lines and feminism that seeks to empower women seem to run parallel to each other in a way that doesn't allow for reconciliation.

Many art historians and students only understand the feminist art movement as a short-lived campaign with no implications for the present day, as a result of the movement's focus on physical sex as the primary representation of female marginalization. As a result of new inquiries into intersectionality, some think that we are in a post-feminist, post-sex, post-gender age, which can ignore the contributions of women who specifically fought for equality in the art world, and did so for women as women. Isn't it morally and conceptually reprehensible to dismiss those feminist activists whose own femininity was a rallying cry for change?

We have not reached a more enlightened understanding of gender and sexuality. In fact, we live with the same issues brought to light in the 1970s and 1980s, and it is essential to understand feminist artists' unanswered questions in order to ask new ones.

Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, installed in its permanent home at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. Photograph by Donald Woodman, 1979, Mixed media. Collection of the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY, © Judy Chicago, Photo © Donald Woodman.

Enter one of the most venerated and divisive works of modern art: Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party. The piece consists of an enormous triangular table, 48 feet per side, that contains meticulously crafted vulva-like shapes as place-setting markers for 39 real and mythical famous women. (Countless other names are inscribed on the installation's tiled floor.) The Dinner Party must be experienced to be understood, an opportunity afforded us by its permanent installation in the Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

On July 11, Judy Chicago joined Jane Gerhard, author of the new book, The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism, 1970-2007, and Saisha M. Grayson, assistant curator at the Sackler Center, where they discussed Chicago's legacy and Gerhard's groundbreaking research.

It is no mistake that Chicago remains a figurehead of what many call second-wave feminist thought. She founded the first feminist art program in the United States, and in so doing, gave rise to the term "feminist art" itself. Her work is too important and relevant to be relegated to a discrete historical moment. Explaining why she decided to conduct research on the piece, Gerhard said that The Dinner Party, "vividly displays the struggles women have today." Indeed, Chicago, Gerhard, and Grayson's talk was nothing short of extraordinary, providing a provocative examination of the nature of history, and Chicago's revolutionary exposure of a world of uncertainty.

Doubtless aware of contemporary feminist thought and activism's controversial relationship with earlier generations, Chicago made the point that she and her colleagues cast the conversation about feminist art, "along gender lines, and we should have cast it along values." This reflection has vast implications for our understanding of feminist art in 2013. It is clear that no history is entirely secure; instead, history is always subject to countless revisions and additions, each building upon but never obliterating the rest. Chicago went on to note that her work tells a "story of erasure," a sentiment echoed by Gerhard, who considers The Dinner Party to represent "the erasure of women." Can one create a history of absence, a story of nothingness? In pointing to the millennia of omissions that have dictated historical memory, Chicago created not only a women's history, but also an entirely new "history." She dared to venture into unknown territory in 1979, and the map she charted has led us into the present.

Judy Chicago and Jane Gerhard in conversation with Juliet Meyers, one of the original studio members for The Dinner Party. Photo by Donald Woodman.

This inquiry into feminist artistic practice unsettles the most fundamental method of categorizing human experience: history itself. In speaking that which cannot be spoken, Chicago and her contemporaries enabled our current understandings of feminism and the arts.

We are still contending with the complexities uncovered by works like The Dinner Party. The enduring value of the feminist art movement lies in its multivalent presentation of identity as a bodily, conceptual, communal, and precarious space. We haven't, by any means, moved past the principles that inspired women like Juliet Meyers to drive across the country to work with Chicago. To assert that we have devised "better" feminisms is to say that the conversations begun by The Dinner Party have ended.

The search for a new history, if that word is even applicable, continues with the same urgency today. We must still answer Chicago's call to utter the name of our collective and individual experiences.

All photographs are under copyright and used by permission.