“For decades, the feminist artist was pushed to the sidelines.
Relevant once again, she can no longer be ignored.
IN A LARGE, low-lit room is a triangle-shaped table arranged with 39 place settings, the site of a distinguished gathering. It is laid with plates that rise a few inches off the table, as if levitating, each one sumptuously painted with wings or petals or licks of flame emanating from a glowing center: variations on the vulva. As you move along the table, which is 48 feet long on each side, the plates become small sculptures, bulbous and gleaming. Beneath them are runners embroidered with elaborate designs and names in gold thread — women of accomplishment who are familiar and unfamiliar, mythical and rarely spoken of: Sappho, the ancient poet; Anna Maria van Schurman, the 17th-century artist, thinker and theologian; Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in the United States. The whole assemblage stands on a floor of luminescent triangular tiles covered in more gold — 999 names of other heroic women written in curling letters. The room is like a temple — a holy place, distinct from the everyday.
When Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” opened on March 14, 1979, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, no one had ever seen anything like it. It was theatrical, audacious and definitively feminist: a work of stark symbolism and detailed scholarship, of elaborate ceramics and needlework that also nodded to the traditional amateurism of those forms, a communal project that was the realization of one woman’s uncompromisingly grand vision, inviting both awe and identification. It caused an immediate sensation. But that was only the beginning of its tumultuous life.”…
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