One of the nice things about moving back to New York City is that every time you turn around something interesting is happening. So it was that I found myself in the Rubin Lobby, a huge glass enclosure at the Brooklyn Museum, on an exceedingly warm evening. Institutional air conditioning was more than welcome.Jane Gerhard, an author in the book series I co-edit, was there with Judy Chicago to do a book launch for the latest volume in our series, The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism (University of Georgia Press: 2013).
It is rare that a historian gets to share the stage with someone she has just written a book about; although as Jane pointed out, her book is really about the iconic status of The Dinner Party (on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum) within popular feminism. Anyway, Judy Chicago does a great job speaking for herself. ”What I like best about coming to the Brooklyn Museum,” she said after the introductions, “is the guards all say: ‘Hi Judy!’” The crowd laughed.
While Gerhard talked about the book, Chicago shared thoughts about her career, and her turn to feminism in a misogynistic art world. In 1970, she realized that women’s art education needed to change: “I still feel that way,” she said. She had just spent ten years trying to suppress anything about her art that was female, but to no avail. she Even though she got pieces in shows, she still wasn’t getting the rewards that men got. When she decided to focus on teaching women at Cal Arts in Fresno she was “one pissed off young woman,” and reconnected to her creativity by trying to teach other women to be artists.
Gerhard and Chicago had a lively back and forth: at one point Chicago noted that each woman on the stage had her own history of The Dinner Party, and both are true. “One’s the historian’s story and one’s my story,” Chicago explained. For example, Gerhard goes into great detail in the book about the community shows that were organized after museums backed out of their commitments following The Dinner Party‘s San Francisco debut. The community shows “created a buzz around the piece in a way a museum might not have” by keeping it in the news, Gerhard pointed out.
How did Chicago feel about this triumph of popular feminism?
“I was devastated!” she announced. “I wanted to be in museums!” She had to be persuaded by Diane Gelon, who organized the show’s exhibit in alternative spaces, to move forward with it. “The San Francisco Museum exhibit was a tremendous success and I lost everything. [The reviewers] tried to kill me,” Chicago remembered. Reviews by feminist academics were also sometimes contemptuous. One space that the show was mounted int was so poor that $90,000 worth of damage had to be repaired before it returned to San Francisco for a second showing.
But Chicago has survived and thrived: in addition to having broken through into the art world in the 1990s, she runs Through the Flower, a feminist art foundation. As the friend I attended the event with pointed out, The Dinner Party changed the curatorial outlook of the Brooklyn Museum and has made it a destination for art that is, for whatever reason, out of the mainstream (last year’s Keith Haring show, for example, was brilliant.)
In a lively Q & A, Juliet Myers, one of Chicago’s assistants from the 1970s, came on stage to talk a little about how the work had changed her life. When she heard about the project, she gave up a tenured job as an art teacher in the Midwest, jumped in her car and drove to California to volunteer.
“How many women did you hear about in art school?” Myers asked Chicago.
“The Virgin Mary!” Chicago replied.
“Yeah,” Juliette (who was wearing yellow from head to toe and a brown bow tie) responded, “but she wasn’t really making art.”
After an hour or so, Chicago declared that it was time to stop. “I’m old,” she announced (note: she looks awesome.) “You know, I once saw bell hooks, and she’s younger than me, and she came on stage and talked for thirty minutes. Then she said: ‘I’m tired,’ and walked off the stage.” Then she said: ”I’m tired.”
Chicago actually took one more question. She and Gerhard then swam through a crowd of friends and admirers to sign books which all sold out. Now that’s what I call a successful feminist event.