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Sassy Judy Chicago Throws a Dinner Party, but the Art World Mostly Sends Regrets

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Take your lumps, Leonardo! Judy Chicago has reset the table, and this time the guests are all women. “It’s a reinterpretation of the Last Supper from the point of view of the people who have done the cooking throughout history,” says Chicago, 41, of her monumental installation, The Dinner Party, which is on exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

The Dinner Party, which took five years to finish and cost $250,000, is a feminist manifesto that has boiled over into a lively art controversy. “Fascinating, awesome, one of the most ambitious works of art made in the postwar period,” gushed critic Lucy Lippard in the monthly magazine Art in America. “Vulgar, crass, solemn and single-minded,” huffed the New York Times’ Hilton Kramer. Most traditional critics tend to agree with his grouchy assessment.

The focus of the uproar is a triangular table 46½ feet on a side, with place settings that commemorate historical women like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf and Georgia O’Keeffe and mythological figures such as the goddess of fertility. The table rests on porcelain tiles inscribed with the names of 999 other worthies (e.g., Mary Magdalene, Harriet Tubman and Sonja Henie). Chicago and 20 researchers spent two years compiling the list.

Although the artist worked on The Dinner Party alone from 1974 to 1976 (she painted all the plates and designed the elaborately embroidered mats), 400 men and women volunteers ultimately helped on the project. Its point is to celebrate the achievements of women and to honor their traditional domestic skills as art. But Chicago’s recurring motif, which she calls a butterfly and which appears on most of the plates, is seen by many as female genitalia. That enrages some viewers. “My images are about struggling out of containment, reaching out and opening up, as opposed to masking and veiling,” she responds. “If there is an affirmation of femaleness in my work, what’s wrong with that, given all the phallic imagery around?”

Born in Chicago as Judy Cohen, the daughter of a labor organizer and a doctor’s secretary, she found her life’s interest at 6 when she began classes at Chicago’s Art Institute. She graduated from UCLA with a master’s in painting and sculpture in 1964. Although a successful West Coast minimal sculptor in the ’60s and a well-known feminist artist in the ’70s, Chicago is not represented in any major museum. The Dinner Party marks her first New York show.

Judy lost her first husband in a 1963 auto accident. Ironically, her absorption in Dinner Party contributed to a 1979 divorce from her second husband, sculptor Lloyd Hamrol. She adopted the name Chicago in 1969 “because it was not affiliated with any man.” Today she lives alone in a San Francisco Bay Area apartment and keeps a studio in Santa Monica.

Chicago is concerned that The Dinner Party has not yet found a permanent home. Although large curious audiences have turned out to inspect the piece in San Francisco (where it premiered in March 1979), Houston and Boston, several museums have turned it down as “not art” or “too political.” But she is determined. “I want to show how women’s experience can be a metaphor for human experience,” Chicago says. “Most people are like women, not free.”