Life & Culture

After The Dinner Party

Judy Chicago became notorious for creating an openly sexual installation. Now she wants to focus on Jewish themes.


Judy Chicago might be forgiven for feeling frustrated. A pioneer of feminist art, her career has spanned five decades and she has produced a prodigious body of work, but she is nevertheless often seen as a one-hit wonder, best known for her 1979 work, The Dinner Party.

This installation presents a symbolic history of women in Western civilization through a series of 39 place settings laid out around a triangular table, each one focusing on a different woman from history or mythology. It was hugely divisive. It travelled to 16 venues in six countries with a viewing audience of over one million and Chicago was named by Newsweek as one of 10 artists who "rocked the ages", listed alongside Michelangelo, Manet and Marcel Duchamp. She was also named by the Union for Reform Judaism as one of eight Jewish women who changed the world. However, some took exception to the openly sexual nature of some of the imagery. Several venues cancelled the exhibition and there was even a debate in the United States Congress about its funding.

The 72-year-old Chicago was on a recent visit to the UK where she was promoting her new book about the artist Frida Kahlo. She was also planning an exhibition in London which will be the first time her work has been seen in this country since The Dinner Party was shown here in 1984. The exhibition, which is being organised with the Ben Uri Gallery, has a working title of Judy Chicago – More than the Dinner Party. So the question to ask her is, does she ever feel typecast.

"Absolutely," she laughs, "but I know that it is very common, particularly for women artists, for much of their work to be ignored. My work has not found its way into number of major museum's collections."

She recalls the struggle she had to organise the tour for The Dinner Party. "It was not shown in a museum here but in an alternative space. I remember the ceiling leaked." But she considers it a major achievement that she has found a permanent home for the art work in the Brooklyn Museum.

One of the figures included in The Dinner Party is Chicago's namesake, the Jewish heroine Judith. "That was the first time I did research on a Jewish subject," Chicago admits. And yet her Judaism has become more and more important to her, and has in fact inspired much of her work.

Judy Chicago was born Judith Cohen in Chicago in 1939. "I can trace my family back through 23 generations of rabbis," she says. "On my father's side, I am directly descended from the Vilna Gaon, the blue blood of rabbis. This long tradition was broken by my father. He was from that generation of left-wingers who looked to communism for a new world order and disdained religion. I grew up in a secular Jewish household which was nevertheless infused with Jewish values, particularly tikkun olam, working for a better world.'

Chicago has stated that she remains "steadfast in her commitment to the power of art as a vehicle for intellectual transformation and social change, and to women's right to engage in the highest level of art production". This was something that she learned from her parents. "There was always political discussion in my family. They believed in equal rights for women. That was the model that I had."

Chicago had an early interest in art. "I started drawing at art school when I was five. I always wanted to be an artist." But she did not just want to make art, she also wanted to make a contribution to art history. "That was what I was brought up to believe in," she says. "You have to make a contribution to the world we live in. And I attended the Art Institute of Chicago every week as a child so that was the world I lived in."

She legally changed her name in 1970 in what she describes as an effort to liberate herself from male-dominated stereotypes. But was it also a way of liberating herself from immediate identification as a Jew? Chicago is outraged at this suggestion. "Everybody knew I was Jewish," she emphasises. "Indeed, some of the resistance to showing The Dinner Party had antisemitic tinges. I was regarded as an aggressive Jewish woman. And I didn't even change from Cohen."

Chicago had married and taken her husband's name, but he was killed soon after in a car crash. "I felt like I had no name at that moment," she says. "I had a strong Chicago accent and my first dealer suggested I change my name to that." She laughs as she remembers how one critic suggested she changed her surname so that would have the same initials as Jesus Christ. "That was really stupid because those were my original initials anyway."

At this point, however, Chicago admits: "I knew that being Jewish had an effect on my life and work. The Dinner Party is all about teaching. That is the rabbinic tradition coming through me, but I was not the slightest bit observant."

That all changed when she met and married Donald Woodman, in 1985. He came from a similar secular Jewish background but they decided to have a Jewish wedding and started receiving instruction from Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, of the American Jewish Renewal Movement. "I had an awakening," Chicago explains. "I thought to myself, I am in my 40s and I don't know anything about Judaism." In particular, she found she knew next to nothing about the Holocaust.

'"My parents did not tell me about it. That was a strange omission given the political consciousness in my family. My mother once went to a talk at which the situation in Europe was discussed but the message was that this was something we must not speak about or it might happen to us. That was the prevailing attitude." Viewing Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah was a turning-point. "Whenever I walk past that movie theatre, it still comes back to me. Donald and I realised that if we had been in Europe, this would have happened to us. We set out to educated ourselves. We wanted to explore what being Jewish means in a post-Holocaust world.'

She and Donald spent several months travelling in Europe, meeting survivors and hearing stories. She then worked for eight years creating art works "that look at the world through the prism of the Holocaust". The Holocaust Project opened in 1993 and travelled for 10 years. "We came out feeling rooted and with a greater understanding," she says.

The couple also increased their Judaic knowledge. "We formed a group of disconnected Jews. We started doing a Seder and found our way to an alternative egalitarian practice. We developed our own haggadah and we plan to do a book together."

This new interest led to Resolutions, a series of painted and needleworked images reinterpreting traditional proverbs. "Those pieces grew out of Jewish values," says Chicago. "Jews are united over the diaspora by shared values. This could be a model for global connection between people."

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