The Dinner Party

Every time I spend time in Brooklyn, I make a pilgrimage to see The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum, and every time I go, I recognize more and more of the women’s names listed within.

It was a real treat to read Judy Chicago’s account of the making of The Dinner Party alongside Lerner’s Feminist Consciousness because I kept coming across women cross-referenced in both, like Christine de Pisan, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hrosvitha, Hildegarde of Bingen, etc. I was also eager to get more acquainted with the women behind the work, and the women of the work.

Idiotically, I hadn’t considered the effort required by Chicago and a huge team of people (over 400) to execute the piece. This book details the years of struggle to find funding and the rotating team of players who donated their time and skills to help bring it to life. It is so much more than the dinner plates carefully crafted of the 39 women who sit at the table. It is the research into each one, and into culling over 3,000 potential names into the 999 who line the tiled floor. The plates themselves were a challenge, cracking and cracking and breaking until they finally mastered the art. And the runners under each plate were handwoven to illustrate some component of the woman’s life.

Chicago includes excerpts from her journal of the time, giving us insight into the stresses of the project, from freaking out about working around people (she was used to working alone) to trying to find money to dealing with the presence of one or two men on the project to Thursday night consciousness raising sessions that left everyone exhausted and exhilarated.

The book also gives greater detail about the 39 women at the table along with depictions of their plates. As you go around the table, the plates start to rise up, floating up and away from the confinement of the ceramic. Another huge section of the book includes snippets about the 999 women whose names are carved in the floor, including Mary Lou Williams (yay!) and (surprisingly) Katharine Hepburn. (The complete list of women is here.)

The project was begun in 1974 and wrapped up in 1979, then made the rounds of the art circuit until 1996 when it was stored due to wear and tear. Installed permanently in the Sackler Center for Feminist Art in 2007, it finally found a home.