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Setting the Table:

Preparing Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party

30 Year Anniversary Exhibition at the University of Houston-Clear Lake is
published in association with the Alfred R. Neumann Library, UHCL on the
occasion of the exhibition of the same title presented by the Department of
Women’s Studies at UHCL, February 25 – April 30, 2011.

Setting the Table: Preparing Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is a traveling
exhibition organized by ACA Galleries, New York. Other exhibition sites
include Evansville Musuem in Evansville, Indiana and Tom Thomson Art
Gallery in Ontario, Canada.

This project is supported in part by a grant from the City of Houston

Mayor’s Special Initiative Program of the Houston Arts Alliance, Houston
Endowment, Ben Mieszkuc,Gina T. Rizzo, MD., and Michael and Ann

Copyright ©2011 by Jane Chin Davidson

All rights reserved. Published by the Alfred R. Neumann Library, University
of Houston-Clear Lake.

No part of the contents of this book may be reproduced without the written
permission of the publisher.

Editors: Jane Chin Davidson, Alisa Tutt, and Victoria Hoover

Designer: Alisa Tutt

Front cover image

Signing the Dinner Party,2008 lithograph © Judy Chicago,
photography Donald Woodman, courtesy ACA Galleries

Images copyright:
P 6, 7: photograph and article, Houston Post, 1980 © Houston Chronicle
P 3, 9, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 24, 28, 30, 34, 36, 37, 39 Images © Judy Chicago, courtesy
of ACA Galleries, New York, photos: Donald Woodman
P 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62,63, 64, 65 courtesy
of © Judy Chicago 1979
P 15, 19, 21, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 Photos courtesy of © Matthew
Linton 2011
P 42, 43 Photos courtesy of © Margarita Cabrera
P 44 Photos courtesy of © Tutt

Setting the Table: Preparing Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party

30 Year Anniversary Exhibition at the University of Houston-Clear Lake /
Edited by Jane Chin Davidson:
Essays by Jane Chin Davidson and Gretchen Mieszkowski

ISBN 978-1-4507-6160-4

Printed in Houston through Disc Pro Printing and Graphics

Caroline Herschel test plate (late)

Table of Contents

Page 6
“The Men in the Kitchen of The Dinner Party.”
Houston Post Article by Mimi Crossley
Page 8
“The Art of Dining: Remembering The Dinner Party at University of
Houston-Clear Lake.” Essay by Gretchen Mieszkowski

Page 14
Photographic tour: Preparing Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party at
the Neumann Library, UHCL campus

Page 34
“Commemorating Feminism: The Graphic Symbol and the Sign.”
Essay by Jane Chin Davidson

Page 42
Space in Between project. By Margarita Cabrera.

Page 44
Postface: Egress project. By Tutt and VA

Page 46
1980 gallery guide, The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago,
University of Houston at Clear Lake City, March 9, 1980 – June 1, 1980

Page 66
Checklist of Setting the Table exhibition


This project would not have been completed without the support of Judy Chicago and Donald
Woodman as well as Dorian Bergen and Mikaela Sardo Lamarche at ACA Galleries. The list
of names of people to thank is extensive:
Harry Stenvall
William Boatman
Shreerekha Subramanian
Mary Ross Taylor
Karen Wielhorski
Shelly Kelly
Cal Cannon
Margarita Cabrera
Gretchen Mieszkowski
Leo Chan
Johnny Young
Leslye Mize
Christine Kovic
Elizabeth Klett
Sarah Lechago
Maria Curtis
Charlotte Haney
Ma Xiaodong
Kim Case
Gaye Cummins
Nick DeVries
Earlan McChesney
Matthew Linton
Bruce Palmer
Susanne Clark
Leigh Ann Shelfer
Karma Sronce
Angela Howard
Liz Fuhrman Bragg, Evansville Museum
Sysco Corporate
Karen Fiscus
Women’s Studies Department, especially students
University Advancement, Elbby Antony, and Andrea Dunn, and Dion McInnis
Staff at the Alfred R. Neumann Library
University Archives
Art and Design Department
All the students who volunteered

This book would not have been completed without the creative diligence of Alisa Tutt.
Preface to the Exhibition

The opportunity to present the exhibition Setting the Table: Preparing It is with great pride that Neumann Library showcases the iconic
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party organized by ACA Galleries in artwork of Judy Chicago. Providing the setting for this important
New York came at the significant point in time in which the event art exhibition creates a unique opportunity for Neumann Library to
would become the 30 Year Anniversary Exhibition at the University touch our students’ lives and imaginations as an active partner in the
of Houston-Clear Lake. As we look back at the momentous occasion intersection of scholarship, community and learning. Neumann Library
when Judy Chicago opened The Dinner Party on March 9, 1980 at has always sought to advance and enrich our students’ educational
UHCL – the second site where the now famous work was ever put on experience by providing a place where they can come together on
display – the 2011 exhibition of the design drawings, sketches, and levels and in ways they might not in the classroom.
test plates serves to exemplify a process-oriented aesthetic that aligns
with the development of feminist art and women’s studies at large. Karen Wielhorski,
Chicago’s lithograph on the cover of this catalog stating “And She Executive Director, Alfred R. Neumann Library, UHCL
made for them a Sign to See” expresses the graphic arts nature of a
show that commemorates her foresight into our era of communication.
“Setting the table” expresses the metaphor for the historical processes
of feminism in view of the difficulties encountered by women artists
not so long ago, made clear by the fact that only a few institutions
had the gumption to set the stage for Chicago’s monumental artwork.
The relevance of this history brings emphasis on the function of the
location for feminist knowledge, which influenced the curatorial
decision to install the Setting the Table exhibition in the space of
the Neumann Library at UHCL. The library serves as the collective
space for knowledge, and to view Chicago’s process works as archival
objects produces a sense of establishment for the history of feminist
art. Artists today who engage in the subjects of gender, sexuality and
queer come to the discursive table that was set by early feminist artists.
And the inclusion of the video documentation of Margarita Cabrera’s
2010 Space in Between project in the exhibition provides the necessary
update to suggest that feminist art has made a tremendous impact and
continues in many different forms today.

Jane Chin Davidson, UHCL art history professor and
organizer of the 30 Year Anniversary Exhibition at
the University of Houston-Clear Lake

THE ART OF DINING: its richness drew the three parts of the great banqueting table into a
REMEMBERING THE DINNER PARTY AT UNIVERSITY whole. Ignoring the other jostling viewers, I stood there for what
seemed like a long time, drinking in The Dinner Party, full of pride
to be a faculty member of the University of Houston-Clear Lake.
From March 9 to June 1, 1980, the University of Houston-
I WILL NEVER FORGET WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO Clear Lake exhibited Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. But what
SEE THE DINNER PARTY FOR THE FIRST TIME. It had been could we possibly have been thinking of? The Dinner Party had
installed in a room we used as a theatre-in-the-round in the Develop- only been exhibited once before, from March to June of the previ-
mental Arts building, now renamed the Delta building. Thirty-one ous year at the San Francisco Museum of Art. The exhibition had
years ago, full of anticipation, in a line of impatient ticket holders, I been greeted by sensational media acclaim and was acknowledged
entered the corridor leading to the principal display area for the ex- as a huge feminist success. Nearly 100,000 people lined up to see
hibition. Six banners began the work, heralds for the rest and a taste it. Some of them waited in line for hours to get in. Newspapers and
of what was to come. They were tapestries in assertive red, gold, magazines all over the country carried features on The Dinner Party
white, and black, full of swirling, vibrant forms, at once surpris- phenomenon. By agreeing to exhibit The Dinner Party, the Univer-
ing and intriguing. Gnomic sayings were woven into them about a sity of Houston-Clear Lake had thrust itself into a national spotlight.
mysterious “She” who would yield a merged world and “Eden Once But this university had only opened its doors in 1974. In 1980 it was
again.” barely six years old.
The line moved very slowly, and when I was finally in view A SIX-YEAR-OLD UNIVERSITY IS BRAND NEW.
of The Dinner Party table itself, I was stunned by its richness. There Unlike long-established universities, we had no financial or human
were so many remarkable objects to see and details to take in that I resources to speak of. In 1974 when we gave our first classes, we
stared and stared while other eager viewers maneuvered around me. did not even have a building. We taught in a concrete facility that
The banquet table itself was mammoth, in the shape of a triangle: once housed extension courses from the University of Houston’s
three equal sides, each forty-eight feet long. Its first layer of drapery central campus; our library consisted of shelves erected in two class-
looked like an embroidered silk altar cloth, but that was only the rooms; and the faculty was relegated to an office building two miles
start. Thirty-nine place settings were positioned on the cloth, thir- away where offices that were small to begin with had been cut up
teen on each side of the triangle, complete with gold-edged napkins, into tiny cubicles for us. In 1975 we moved into the building that
ceramic goblets lined in gold, and ceramic flatware. While these would be the university’s core, but it was only half finished. I had
were undeniably handsome, the amazing objects were the abstract- been hired as one of the first faculty members, an associate professor
art china-painted porcelain plates that represented the thirty-nine of Literature, but by 1980 when The Dinner Party arrived, we were
women who were honored guests at the table. Each plate was at still worrying about whether Literature, History, Philosophy, and
once a work of art—brilliantly colored, often enigmatically shaped- Art could survive in the science-and-business-oriented environment
-and a feminist statement about the woman herself. The plates alone of Houston, Texas, this oil-and-gas city next to NASA. And yet we,
would have made this an extraordinary experience, but they were the tiny, upstart University of Houston-Clear Lake, and primarily
just part of the banquet table. They were positioned on runners, its Humanities and Human Sciences division, were exhibiting Judy
elaborately embroidered in arresting colors. I had never seen such Chicago’s nationally famous The Dinner Party.
lavish, intricate, varied embroidery before. And each runner con- I came to The Dinner Party as a feminist, intrigued at first
tinued and complicated the conception of the woman hinted at in its and then ultimately seriously impressed by the intricacy, subtlety,
plate. and elaborateness of its feminist imagery. Chicago’s Heritage Floor,
The plates and the runners were gorgeous, and I was en- which lies under the triangular banquet table, for instance, incar-
grossed by them, despite the number of people milling around me, nates visually a point we academic feminists argued again and again
but when I remember the intensity of that sensual experience of be- in the 1980’s. How tenuous woman’s hold on her place in history
ing cocooned by rich beauty, I realize it came not simply from the is! Women appear and disappear in history depending on who is
plates and the runners but from the floor as well. The banquet table looking, and under what circumstances and from what point of view
stood on The Heritage Floor: 999 white porcelain triangular tiles, she or he is looking. As light plays on the Floor’s 999 triangular
each inscribed in gold luster with the name of a woman. I could opalescent porcelain tiles, each tile inscribed with a woman’s name,
glimpse a little of The Heritage Floor around the outside of the ban- the names appear and disappear, depending on the source of light
quet table, but its real impact came from the center of the huge tri- and— this is critical—depending on your angle of sight. At the
angle. It filled that center, shimmering like the sea in sunshine, and same time, The Heritage Floor makes another feminist statement,
this one about foremothers. That floor is the underpinning for the
banquet table. The thirty-nine honored guests could not have been
the women they were without those other 999 women and their
lives. We owe who we are in part to our sisters and to the women
who have gone before us.
The most arresting feature of The Dinner Party, and the
feature that made it notorious, is the imagery shaped, carved, and
painted into the ceramic plates: clitorises, vulvas, vaginas, eggs, and
breasts. Not every plate or every image is aggressively sexual. One
plate is shaped like a piano. Others evoke a stained glass window,
a warrior’s helmet, flames, flowers, or the corridor of a royal pal-
ace. Several contain suggestions of butterflies. But the majority of
the plates, even when they’re stressing other facets of their concep-
tion, incorporate female sexual imagery. Georgia O’Keeffe, the very
popular American painter of flowers, denies that there’s any such
imagery in her iconic blossoms, swirling around their deep throats,
but Judy Chicago denies nothing at all, and her sexual imagery is
unmistakable as plate after plate opens its dark core.
OF THE PLATES SO SHOCKING that they were repelled by the
exhibition. Some denounced it as pornography. Others left in a
huff. Art exhibition attendees were undoubtedly more squeamish
thirty years ago than they are today, but I imagine that even now
many people would find The Dinner Party imagery outrageous.
We are accustomed to representations of male genitalia in art. For
centuries, male genitals have been poeticized and idealized. Think
about the phallic imagery of Greek male nude statues where the pe-
nises seem to be resting demurely in beds of curling leaves. These
poeticized penises are not limited to statues of boys; grown men
sport them as well. Greek female nudes, however, are an altogether
different story. There is no indication whatsoever of genitalia on fe-
male Greek nudes. Art historians explain this fact learnedly, but the Fig. 1. Emily Dickinson Plate Line Drawing
fact remains. Judy Chicago’s plates are the female artist’s revenge
for centuries of neglect.
Each carved and painted plate evokes the accomplish-
ments of one of the thirty-nine outstanding women at the banquet
table. Some are mythological figures: the Primordial Goddess, for
instance, and Ishtar and Kali. Some are polemically read historical
figures: Hatshepsut, for instance. I doubt any Egyptologist would
agree to the account Chicago gives of Hatshepsut’s rule as pharaoh.1
Classical, medieval, and Early Modern women appear: thinkers,
sufferers, rulers, writers, and artists. The more recent figures are bet-
ter known to a wider audience: Emily Dickinson, the great Ameri-
can poet (Fig. 1); Anne Hutchinson, driven out of the Massachusetts
Bay Colony for her religious convictions and preaching; Sojourner
Truth, the black feminist abolitionist who renamed herself after
surviving slavery; Susan B. Anthony, who fought for the vote for
women; Ethel Smyth, composer and musician who became a

suffragist when her work as an artist was ignored; Margaret Sanger fabric. Chicago, in her book about the plates, writes about the em-
who fought against the laws prohibiting the dissemination of in- broidery on Wollstonecraft’s runner (See pages 16-17):
formation about contraception; Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest
novelists of the early 20th century; and on and on; thirty-nine in all; It would be a long time before this vision [for edu-
each with her own plate. cating women, for instance] could be actualized.
The Setting the Table exhibition for UHCL’s 30th anni- In the meantime, many women buried their frus-
versary commemoration documents the process of making these trations in the needlework with which they filled
plates. Art Professor Nick J. de Vries, himself a sculptor, describes their days; they covered their pillowcases with
the extreme difficulty of fashioning them. De Vries helped set up fine stitching, did needlepoint on all their chairs,
The Dinner Party initially and later talked about the creation of the crocheted doilies for their bureaus, and made
plates with Judy Chicago and with others who carved and fired them lace for the collars and cuffs of their clothes. In
with her. Firing such substantial works was particularly precarious England a craze developed for a technique called
because the amount of clay on various parts of the plates differed so stump work, which involved stuffing tiny figures,
much. Repeatedly, the finished plates cracked when they were fired dressing them, and applying them to boxes and
and had to be recreated from scratch, sometimes six, seven, eight, or lids. Stump work covers Wollstonecraft’s runner
nine times. (These are the test plates shown in the Setting the Table as a symbol of the “silken fetters” which she pro-
exhibition.) claimed, held women in chains.3
The thirty-nine clay plates are arrestingly beautiful: sculpt-
ed, fired, and then finally painted in vibrant, assertive colors. The Embroidery, one of the few art forms traditionally open to women,
embroidered runners they are positioned on are nearly equally strik- yields the gorgeous runners of The Dinner Party, but at the same
ing, and they vie with the plates in complex feminist imagery. Some time it remains a powerful witness to women’s severely restricted
of the runner imagery is straightforward. An egg, crescent, breast- situations over the ages.
plate, and double axe, for instance, decorate the place mat of the Giving dinner parties itself is another of women’s over-
Amazon, a female warrior according to ancient Greek mythology. looked and unappreciated traditional art forms. Chicago first
The runner for Sappho, the great Greek lyric poet, depicts a Doric thought “humorously” about her work as woman’s version of da
temple. Her name “rests within a burst of color that stands for the Vinci’s The Last Supper, reinterpreted “from the point of view of
last burst of unimpeded female creativity,” as Judy Chicago writes those who’ve done the cooking throughout history.”4 Her thirteen
in her book about the plates, The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our guests on each side of her equilateral banquet table would match
Heritage.2 Other runners use special materials to match the guest’s Christ and the twelve apostles. But a more direct set of associations
life and times. African slaves in America, trying to retain memories fits much better with china painting and stitchery. Giving dinner
of their homelands, preserved pieces of weaving in their quilts. In parties, like painting plates and embroidering everything embroider-
honor of these quilts, Sojourner Truth’s runner is formed from a able in their houses, had been a primary opportunity for creativity
pieced quilt that combines strip-woven African patterns with trian- for middle and upper-class women for centuries. Unlike so much
gular sections of printed fabric. of life, The Dinner Party was securely in woman’s sphere. Early in
Women’s century-old constraints as creative artists dictate the 20th century, Virginia Woolf, one of Chicago’s 39 dinner guests,
even The Dinner Party’s principal media: painted ceramic plates and had already identified The Dinner Party as middle-class woman’s
elaborately embroidered runners. China painting and embroidery are canvas. In a crucial chapter of To the Lighthouse (1927), one of
women’s overlooked and unappreciated traditional art forms. While Woolf’s most important novels, she has her major character give
men were creating vast canvases, women were painting plates and a dinner party. Her dinner party is this woman’s work of art, and
embroidering linen. Furthermore, beautiful as their embroidery of- Woolf implicitly compares it with other characters’ paintings and
ten is, it bears witness to another set of harsher implications. The poems.
runner for Mary Wollstonecraft’s plate depicts her dying in child- When The Dinner Party opened at the University of Hous-
birth in a flood of red blood. Wollstonecraft, the late-18th-century ton-Clear Lake in March 1980, I recognized immediately what was
author of one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy, had ar- motivating Chicago. This work was fueled by rage. Its rage had
gued for making women “part of the human species” by educating been distilled and channeled into complex art, but it remained un-
them. Her runner is decorated in stump work, a very elaborate style mistakably rage, and, personally, I knew all too well where it came
of needlework which produces figures raised up from the original
from. Judy Chicago and I are the same age. We were raised dur- that what made women happy was tending fancy washing machines.
ing the same 1950’s white-picket-fence era when the ideal woman The Feminine Mystique sold three million copies, excerpts were
was to find her fulfillment bringing up three to five children in the published in some of the same powerful women’s magazines that
suburbs and keeping a decorously arranged, beautifully appointed Friedan attacked, and ordinary American women started to ques-
home for hubby to come back to after his day at the office. On tion their lives and capabilities. In 1966, with Friedan as their chief
weekends, she would give dinner parties. She would invite other organizer, twenty-eight women who had attempted to bring about
suburban families to elaborate gourmet meals where they would ad- change through political means started NOW, the National Orga-
mire her French recipes, neat children, and gracious living room nization for Women, which is still the largest and most influential
before driving away in their station wagons, and all would be well. women’s rights organization in the U.S. They fought to pass the
One popular advice book warned women, “The family is the center ERA, a constitutional amendment that no rights can be abridged be-
of your living. If it isn’t, you’ve gone far astray.” This is the life cause of gender, and though their attempt failed by three states, their
Adrienne Rich described in her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood campaign thrust before the nation the feminist demand that women
as Experience and Institution (1976), and it smothered everything in no longer be relegated to the second sex.
her that made life livable. She was already an accomplished poet, a By the 1970’s when The Dinner Party arrived at UHCL,
Radcliffe graduate who had won major prizes for her work; she had feminism was still new, and it frightened many Americans, women
“that one Talent which is death to hide,” and this white-picket-fence and men both. Its strength was on the east and west coasts, but
existence in the suburbs was spiritual death for her.5 This is the life even there it conjured up mobs of bra burners who would wreck the
Sylvia Plath satirized so brilliantly in in her poem “The Bell Jar” status quo, destroy family life, push religious teachings aside, and
(1963), and her character tries to commit suicide to escape it. If corrupt the middle class. Nevertheless the 60’s had moved the at-
you did not have the good fortune to be married to a man who could tack against the ideal woman of the 50’s from the fringes of public
support you and the family in the suburbs, you could be a teacher, an discourse to its center, and the more clearly women saw what their
office worker, or a nurse. Other professions were effectively closed society expected them to be and do, the angrier they became. This
to you. was the powder keg that Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party ignited
ACCOMPLISHING; HELPING HIM SUCCEED, but never chart- CREATIVITY and the relegation of women to the second sex. But
ing our own courses or putting ourselves first. If a family had both a why should this West Coast work of art find itself in the theatre of
boy and a girl, as a matter of course the boy was given the chance for a six-year-old university in the South? After all the hullabaloo at
higher education. Passivity, subservience, dutifulness, willingness the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the 100,000 people who had
to repress all her own needs for self-expression unless they coin- stood in line to see The Dinner Party there, why weren’t other mu-
cided with the needs of her family, these were the traits of the ideal seums offering to exhibit this work?
woman in the 1950’s, and depression was her characteristic illness. Rumor at UHCL had it that museum after museum had de-
Gradually, as the 60’s played out, women began to under- clined to exhibit The Dinner Party, including all the major Houston
stand the forces that were limiting their lives so stringently, and the institutions. Was it the media that curators found off-putting? Were
more aware they became, the more they rejected being crushed into china painting and embroidery, women’s traditional art forms, too
the mold of the ideal 50’s woman. The braless hippies who thumbed lowbrow for museums, too kitsch? Or was it the feminism? Were
their noses at societal expectations were a dismissible fringe, but the strident tone and the in-your-face sexual imagery too far out of
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, was line for the middle of the 1970’s? Or, as some grumbled, was it sim-
mainstream. Friedan, a journalist, had lived in the suburbs for ply that curators did not think that The Dinner Party was museum
twelve years raising children after being fired as a reporter for being quality work? The New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer would
pregnant with her second child. She had a degree from Smith Col- later denounce Chicago’s sculpture as “crass and solemn and single-
lege and she sent out a questionnaire to her fellow Smith graduates minded….very bad art… failed art… art so mired in the pieties of a
asking them what they thought of their lives. The resulting book cause that it quite fails to acquire any independent artistic life of its
denounced women’s role in American society and the absurd notion

own” (New York Times, Oct. 17, 1980). Or even, perhaps, was it Party will do for our university what football does for other schools.
the collaborative nature of its production? Judy Chicago was in It will put us on the map.” 8 And so The Dinner Party arrived at the
charge of every element of the project, and the host of volunteers University of Houston-Clear Lake.
who worked with her followed her drawings and mock-ups, but in FOR US WHO WERE FEMINISTS, THE DINNER PAR-
fact much of the creating was theirs. Studios full of artists, needle TY WAS A GLORIOUS EVENT, but this was the South. The new
workers, and weavers helped Chicago fashion the floor tiles, em- idea that women were capable of functioning in all areas of life was
broider the runners, and weave the banners. A team of researchers gaining ground even here, but the old notion that she should stay at
provided the information for choosing the 1,038 women honored at home and look after the children was far stronger. To many Hous-
the banquet table and on The Heritage Floor, and they also contri- tonians, The Dinner Party seemed radical and dangerous, and once
buted the historical material for Chicago’s two books on the project. the exhibition opened, their voices demanded to be heard. Letters
Like The Dinner Party‘s content, its creation was feminist in that to newspaper editors protested it. Some of my neighbors, who were
mutually supportive women, and some men, worked together.6 The the Chancellor’s neighbors as well, would not go near it, even when
Dinner Party was not the production of the isolated individual cre- I promised to smuggle them in without waiting in line. They under-
ator of traditional art. Could this approach have been distasteful to stood that it was a pornographic work of art. Vaginal imagery? Cli-
curators? Collaboration on huge projects was to become ordinary in toral imagery? They were shocked and offended that such a work
late 20th-century art, but perhaps in 1980 it could have contributed would be exhibited at UHCL, and they had no intention of looking
to a nervous curator’s reluctance to exhibit this work. For whatever at it. By June when The Dinner Party left, we faculty were exhaust-
reason, museums were not opening their doors to The Dinner Party. ed. Many of us, especially the art professors, had spent much of the
Chicago describes herself as having been “devastated by the art- year raising money for The Dinner Party, publicizing it, writing and
institutional rejection….”7 speaking about it, designing posters for it, entertaining visitors, and
Nevertheless, it was still not obvious that Judy Chicago helping out when arrangements broke down.
would be willing to bring her huge piece to a brand new univer- EXHIBITING THE DINNER PARTY WAS A MOMEN-
sity’s theatre-in-the-round. In the end, one man, virtually single- TOUS ACHIEVEMENT for this six-year-old university, and we
handedly, made possible its exhibition at UHCL: Calvin Cannon, knew it. The exhibition drew more people to UHCL than have ever
the university’s founding dean of Human Sciences and Humanities. attended any event here before or since. Altogether 36,000 people
The Dinner Party was the last of a series of art triumphs for Cal. In saw this exhibition of The Dinner Party, people from all over the
the six years the university had been in existence, he had negotiated South and the West. Its coming was a major occurrence for the
three groundbreaking cultural events for the campus. The American Houston arts community, and they greeted it with great excitement
premiere of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Sirius was and supported it personally and financially.
presented in UHCL’s atrium under a barely completed roof (Jan. 13, The quite stupendous leap of imagination to envision The
14, 15, 20, 21, 1978). In that same atrium, under Cal’s auspices, the Dinner Party at UHCL was Dr. Cannon’s, and the largest credit
conceptual artist Mel Chin built a monumental waterwheel (“Keep- for its coming belongs to him. It must have taken all his charm
ing Still,” Water Wheel, Sept. 5-Nov. 11, 1979). And in the univer- and savoir faire to convince Judy Chicago and her advisors that the
sity’s new theatre, world renowned director and playwright Robert UHCL theatre could take the place of a museum gallery. Once his
Wilson staged the premiere of one of his disconcertingly enigmatic crucial envisioning and negotiating were behind him, there came
experimental plays: “I Was Sitting on My Patio. This Guy Ap- month after month of the everyday work of managing all the details
peared. I Thought I was Hallucinating” (January 1978). Then, so of such a huge exhibition. For Cannon, The Dinner Party was a
the story goes, Dr. Cannon asked Chancellor Alfred R. Neumann, momentous achievement indeed. As Professor Sandria Hu of the
the elegant gentleman who founded this university, whether the UHCL Art faculty says, he did “a phenomenal job” bringing The
Chancellor would be interested in sponsoring a dinner party. Dinner Party to UHCL.
Chancellor Neumann did not merely agree to having The With The Dinner Party’s ultimate fame and final iconic sta-
Dinner Party here; he had high hopes for it. He saw it as adding to tus, time has increased rather than diminished the magnitude of the
the excellence that was the essential of his vision for this new uni- achievement of having exhibited it. Thirty years later, Professor de
versity. The student newspaper quoted him as saying, “The Dinner Vries describes the reaction of his current students when they see
photos of The Dinner Party in art history books: “This was here?”
They cannot believe it. Colleagues from other universities respond
similarly: “Wow! Your university did this?” Radical women’s art
is one of the important developments of 20th and 21st-century art.
With The Dinner Party now housed permanently in its own splendid
gallery in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the
Brooklyn Museum, its stature is secure as one of radical women’s
art’s first triumphs. As the second venue that dared show The Din-
ner Party, the University of Houston-Clear Lake won a place of
honor in the history of both feminist art and feminism.

Gretchen Mieszkowski is Professor Emeritus of Literature/Women’s

Studies at UHCL.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage (Gar-
den City, NY: Anchor Books, 1979). 63-64.
Chicago, Dinner Party: A Symbol. 66.
Ibid. 87.
Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party (New York: Viking, 1996). 7.
John Milton, “When I consider how my light is spent,” in The
Riverside Milton, ed. Roy Flannagan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
1998). 256.
The Acknowledgement Panels at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center
for Feminist Art’s permanent exhibition of The Dinner Party at the
Brooklyn Museum list 129 creative and administrative team mem-
bers; a final panel adds 295 more individuals and organizations that
contributed significantly. Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist
Art: The Dinner Party website,
Chicago, The Dinner Party. 213.
Quoted by Carolyn Truedell Morgan, “Controversial ‘Dinner Par-
ty’ opens March 8,” UHCLIDIAN, Feb. 26, 1980. Cited in Jona-
than W. Zophy, Building a University: A History of the University
of Houston-Clear Lake 1974 To Present (Houston: Seascape, 2005).
112, note 35.

A Photographic tour of:

Setting the Table

Preparing Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party
at the Neumann Library, UHCL campus

Adjacent page top:

Entry into exhibition, hallway of the UHCL library theses stacks
Bottom from left:
Letter Study for Primordial Goddess
Study for Natalie Barney - The Lily
Study for Susan B. Anthony II
Detail of Mary Wollstonecraft runner

Detail of Mary Wollstonecraft runner

Artemisia Gentileschi plate line drawing

Anne Hutchinson plate line drawing

Interior view from the Special Collections Room

Fertile Goddess plate line drawing

Snake Goddess plate line drawing

Ishtar plate line drawing

Kali plate line drawing

Long view of the Special Collections Room and
Quiet Room, plate line drawings
Hrosvitha, test plate

Eleanor of Aquitaine, test plate #6

Overhead view of triangular table and test plates

Elizabeth Blackwell test plate
Caroline Herschel test plate (late)

Sacajawea, test plate

Study for Illumination III, line drawing

North view of triangular table, Petronilla de Meath test plate

Mary Wollstonecraft test plate #2

Wide view of triangular table, Mary Wollstonecraft, Hrosvitha, and Eleanor of

Aquitaine test plates
Fig. 1 Signing The Dinner Party lithograph

History at the UCLA Armand Hammer Museum of Art. With The
BY JANE CHIN DAVIDSON Dinner Party now, since 2007, permanently on show at the Eliza-
beth A. Sackler Center of Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum,
BY 2010, the history of the 1980 event-happening of The and with Chicago’s work represented in feminist art retrospective
Dinner Party at the University of Houston - Clear Lake was a mem- exhibitions such as in the same year, the WACK! Art and the Femi-
ory left to folklore. The recounting of the experience at UHCL, nist Revolution exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in
the second exhibition site to debut Judy Chicago’s groundbreaking Los Angeles, Chicago appears to have established her own place-
feminist artwork, had been recorded primarily as oral history. With setting in the history of feminist art.
the exception of the program guide republished in this catalog and AS SUCH, exhibiting Chicago’s Setting the Table on the
a handful of pamphlets and news clippings announcing the March occasion of the 30 year anniversary of The Dinner Party at UHCL
9 through June 1 show, nothing of documentary precision accounts presents the opportunity to reconceive the feminist “event.” The ac-
for an exhibition that brought over thirty-six thousand people to tivities of exhibiting and archiving become practices of recovery
visit the university campus to view the work. The visitors who made on the one hand and participation in the canonization of the femi-
the trek included luminaries such as Ann Richards (before she was nist text or art work on the other. Setting the Table, which includes
elected governor of Texas in 1990), which conveys the impact that the collection of preparatory materials, test-plates and drawings for
the exhibition originally had on this Texas community. The Dinner Party, recovers the traces of the efforts made by the
THE ACTIVISM IN UNITING WOMEN around the cause teams working “not only in ceramics and needlework,” as Chicago
of the 1980 exhibition is associated with the sense of solidarity that describes, “but also in research, graphics, photography, and fabri-
marked the feminist movement during that time. As we begin to cation.”1 But beyond the collaborative process, the line drawings,
understand feminist art historically, the activity of the coalition con- viewed in serialized fashion at the UHCL library exhibition, compel
tinues to be its distinguishing attribute, and The Dinner Party has a reconsideration of Chicago’s “vulval iconography.”2 The ques-
played a special role as the emblematic artwork produced through tion of its provocative interpretation is an essential focus of the
collective means. No other feminist artwork can compete with the exhibition, and reduced here to the black and white sketch of the
broad public influence of The Dinner Party, which became a curato- flower, Chicago’s signature image exemplifies the double meaning
rial focus for retrospectives as early as 1996 with the exhibition of of the word “graphic.” Read in the primary meaning of the word,
Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” in Feminist Art Chicago’s image is often interpreted as “sexually explicit,”
not unlike the reading of the flowers painted by Georgia O’Keefe. discriminating reader who visits the library will make choices that
The second meaning refers to graphic design in which ev- constitute a personal collection that exists within the larger univer-
ery graphic image is considered as text, explains W.J.T. Mitchell, “a sity collection. In “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin dis-
coded, intentional, and conventional sign.”3 (Fig.1) In his definition tinguishes his own personal collection of books by its “dialectical
of images, Mitchell includes the graphic sign, the semiotic logos, tension between the poles of disorder and order….if there is a coun-
which has its own “graphic” history distinct from whatever signifi- terpart to the confusion of a library, it is the order of its catalogue.”5
cance it has in art history. The semiotic distinction becomes more Thus, the orderliness of the library’s intimate context, coexisting
prominent in the digital era in which Chicago’s works are now under with its radical public stances, provides a metaphorical frame for
review, and key to their interpretation as either a symbol or a sign is Setting the Table’s “personal” images conceived for the viewing
the transmission of the object of feminism from its cult status to one public.
of communication and textual information. The current recognition ON THE OTHER HAND, THE “CANONICAL” IS NEV-
of Chicago’s iconic image therefore serves the reevaluation of the ER FAR removed from its original function in preserving the oeuvre
legibility of the historical language of feminist art from the heyday of the masters, and the site of the library has also been regarded by
of the feminist movement. And by juxtaposition, the artworks are feminists as the liturgical space of patriarchal privilege. The canon
physically situated as textual objects since they are mounted next in every culture is considered as its intellectual foundation which is
to the public stacks in the space of the Neumann Library at UHCL. sanctified by the phallogocentrism of the “word.” In the construc-
Overall, the exhibition represents the historicizing process for femi- tion of art history, the genius of artists was consistently written as
nist art, expressing iconology and canonization, and choosing the an exclusively male potential. The artist Wu Mali, in her 1995/1997
library site for this 30 year commemoration addresses the way in installation entitled Library, acknowledged the overwhelming pa-
which the institutions of knowledge have (or have not) been trans- triarchal legacy by placing the viewer in a ritual process when en-
formed by feminism. tering the library’s sanctified space, suggesting that time-honored
LIBRARIES OPERATE LITERALLY AS CANONIZ- libraries create a reverential experience for visitors. Shown at the
ING TECHNOLOGY - the function is distinguished by a variety 1995 Venice Biennale, Library included Wu’s collection of “pulp
of practices, beginning with the original liturgical use of the canon fiction” wherein she took “influential books from the past,” shred-
and ending with the current scientific system of the catalogue. In ded them into tiny bits, and then reconstituted them to fill a set of
expressing the latter, the library is about collecting objects for the acrylic boxes that were made in the shape of books.6 Wu explained
most public of archives under the idealism of intellectual freedom. that she selected books such as religious texts that are recognized
The logocentrism of this classificatory order in which the ur-text is as canonical, “but the authority of which has been much disputed,
maintained alphabetically within the hors-text (Derrida’s “there is or works that have become outmoded and no longer influential.”7
no outside-text”) is similar to the tradition in which the “freedom of The installation has an air of the gruesome, suggests Wu, “because
choice in selecting materials is a necessary safeguard to the freedom the Library smelt of the last vestiges of ancient civilisations (sic).”8
to read” as asserted by the Texas Library Association.4 Standing for She goes on to explain that the site of the library functions to express
the right to obtain knowledge, libraries appear as the perpetual bas- the fusing of word and image, “two different media, which implic-
tion against the iconoclastic in relation to censorship. The feminist itly describes the possibility of multiple intersections” of ways to
art histories that have emerged since the 1970s are a part of the li- produce meaning.9 Setting the Table at the Neumann Library adopts
brary’s vast arrangement of books, one that produces a sense of a the same exhibitionary objective using the library shelves; the fus-
public service that never discriminates amongst authors, subjects, ing of Chicago’s images with the volumes of text deploys the meta-
dates, titles, categories, and cultures. At the same time, the phor for archiving feminist visual knowledge. However, the display

Fig. 2 Study for Caroline Herschel, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Blackwell & Ethyl Smyth plates

goes further than Wu’s critique in questioning what happens to the cluded only the high points of Western art and no women artists met
canonical space if we are to acknowledge a feminist epistemology. that standard.”11 Chicago’s entry into the survey books exemplifies
INTERPRETED AS THE SYMBOL that counteracts the a defining change in the tradition that sets the standard for the canon
patriarchal tradition, Chicago’s feminist icon is now emblematic of of art history. Part of the aim of exhibiting Setting the Table in the
the moment when feminist art establishes a place in the canon of art space of the original 1980 UHCL location is to question the validity
history. The relationship between the icon and the canon is based on of the current notion that the institutions of knowledge have been
the power of the religious symbol in association with the doctrinal changed by feminism.
text, and together, they constitute the patriarchal authority of art his- IN THE PAST FEW DECADES, the repetition of Chica-
tory. Traditionally, by conveying the sacred meaning behind the im- go’s iconic image (in both art history texts and in feminist surveys)
age, iconography establishes the symbolic cult status of the object. has established its readability and proposes that the symbol is trans-
Evidence of the transformation to the canon is found in the art his- formed into a sign. In the Setting the Table exhibition of design pro-
tory survey books – for example, the 2009 edition of Gardner’s Art cesses, Chicago’s flower is readable as a “sign” of the body because
Through the Ages, the standard bearer of the art survey franchise, the medium of drafted line drawing reduces the image to its simplest
describes Chicago’s The Dinner Party as “one of the acknowledged communicable concept (Fig. 2). As explained by Keith Moxey,
masterpieces of feminist art.”10 As recounted recently by Judith K. “signs themselves carry the interpretations that have already been
Brodsky and Ferris Olin, prior to the 1970s, the conventional belief placed on them. Our very perception of the sign is conditioned by
maintained by H.W. Janson, the author of the best-selling art history the ways in which our culture has taught us to recognize it.”12 The
textbook, History of Art (1962), was that “a survey necessarily in- study of sign systems in relation to the visual arts has been an area of
research that emerged with structuralism in the 1950s and expanded
into the poststructuralist discourse that peaked in the 1990s.
as it relates to feminist theories of art cannot be clearly tracked in a her place settings, Chicago contributed to the 1970s feminist de-
seamless discourse. From the mainstream art historical perspective, bate over the gendered premises of power and divinity in religious
Meyer Schapiro studied the function of the sign in relation to the iconography. And looking at the all-encompassing text, commen-
original religious intent of the iconographic tradition in his book Ap- tary, symbolism, and style of the place settings of The Dinner Party,
proaches to Semiotics (1972). Schapiro’s “semiotic iconography” Chicago presented a stunning contribution that expanded rather
can be understood as an approach to the expression of divine mean- than rejected the divine tradition as outlined in Schapiro’s structural
ing as defined by images that rely on a series of associations. The analysis. Her goddess figures represented a belief-system from pre-
sign or symbol of the cross, for instance, deploys power from an patriarchal society, and as expressed through stitching on the linen
“interplay of text, commentary, symbolism and style of representa- of the runner beneath the first plate of The Dinner Party table, the
tion.”13 The relationship amongst these different modes of commu- spiral symbolizing the Primordial Goddess (Fig. 3) is an image that
nication is required in order for the image to convey meaning (and is associated to what archaeologists identify as the ancient fertility
sacred power). Schapiro acknowledged the force of the traditional symbol. Although Chicago’s re-gendering of the divine image is the
function of the symbol in which Chicago’s icon could be viewed as radical point being made, Primordial Goddess should be viewed as
a direct response to its established power. an extension of the conventional use of iconography rather

Fig. 3 Letter Study for Primordial Goddess Fig. 4 Place setting for Primordial Goddess

than a radical opposition. Chicago’s expression was made potent “semiotics to be of any real value to the female subject, she must
by the longstanding patriarchal structure for deriving meaning from somehow interrupt its ‘always-already’ – she must find ways of us-
the religious icon. ing it that permit her to look beyond the nightmare of her history.”17
BUT THE FEMINIST ICON, distinct from art history/ se- The usefulness of psychoanalysis and semiotics in empowering the
miotics but of the symbolic order of the psychoanalytic discourse, female subject is ambivalent at best. Still, feminist artists have a
engages in an indexical relationship with bodily-oriented feminist tradition of contributing to a female bodily “presence.” Nothing
expression. Here, Chicago’s flower is interpreted as the obvious illustrates the symbolic order and the visible semiotic sign of the
feminine symbol that counterbalances the domination of the mas- female body more than Chicago’s flower.
culine phallus symbol. Feminist theorists in the 1970s-80s looked THE SETTING THE TABLE EXHIBITION REVEALS
to models of signification by acknowledging the symbolic order as how contextualization and the passage of time itself permits a per-
a work of the unconscious rather than as part of a current system of spective beyond the patriarchal “nightmare of history.” The typo-
sacral belief. According to Kaja Silverman, sexual difference func- graphical nature of Chicago’s line drawings resonates altogether
tions as an “organizing principle not only of the symbolic order and differently from conventional symbolic iconography. Viewed in
its ‘contents’ (signification, discourse, subjectivity), but of the se- Peirce’s semiotic theory of the tripartite icon, index and symbol, the
miotic account of those things.”14 Like others, Silverman looked to iconic is defined by the social recognizability of the image as given
both psychoanalysis and semiotics to disclose the way in which “vi- in everyday secular life. Chicago’s flower is easily recognizable as
sion and speech have traditionally been male prerogatives, whereas an image of the body and the flower metaphor can be interpreted
women have more frequently figured as the object of that vision and in its own context. As represented by the pen and ink drawing, the
speech.”15 In other words, although the psychoanalytic theories of typographical overlay of the “P” for Primordial Goddess stands out
Freud and Lacan assisted in the acknowledgment and disclosure of in a medium that is dramatically spare in comparison to the final
the dominating symbol of male power (whereas the feminine “lack” embroidered artwork shown at The Dinner Party (Fig.4). With an
of power is always already symbolized by the phallic absence), Sil- emphasis on the quality of writing, the integration of the letter into
verman suggests that the fathers of psychoanalysis are still paternal the spiral image points to the linguistic transformation of word and
figures who perpetuate paternal values. image. Meaning is read through the letter from the word primordial
IN LACAN, the process for the symbolic order is predicat- which serves as a legible sign of the English language, but compre-
ed on the “mirror phase” of childhood in which the caretaker/ speak- hension is made complete through the visual context of the iconic
ing subject enables bringing the “self” into being through language. spiral.
But as explained by Carolyn Korsmeyer, the symbolic order of lan- THE “P” AND THE SPIRAL representing Primordial
guage is constituted from “the name-of-the-father, the patriarchal Goddess express through a sign system in which the icon is recog-
order,” a sphere that lacks completely the maternal influence.16 The nizable because of the index of signs that came before it rather than
unclear boundaries of the child’s identity (me/not-me/other) entail strictly through the sacred/symbolic function of the icon. The way
awareness of the mother’s “difference.” The Freudian “lack” of the in which sign systems work to produce meaning was the focus of the
penis is a metaphorical absence of the female subject overall. Femi- semiotic research of de Saussure and Peirce, and their combined in-
nists have long criticized the patriarchal premise from which Lacan fluence on art history is nearly always invoked through the example
rereads the Freudian Oedipal complex. The signification of “lack” of Rene Magritte’s 1929 oil painting, The Treachery of Images (This
in the symbolic order of language is in reference to the formidable is Not a Pipe). An exercise in the way in which objects are repre-
phallogocentric system of masculine authority as a long-standing sented equally by both words and images, Magritte’s painting of the
assumption of history. Silverman concludes that in order for pipe, along with the caption written beneath
Fig. 5 Study for Susan B. Anthony II

“Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” emphasizes the fact that the “real” pipe IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE DIGITAL REVOLU-
is absent. Thereafter, art is considered to appear as simply another TION, the Baudrillardian sense of image saturation has made it dif-
system of visual and literal signs. ficult to maintain stable categories for iconic signification just as
THE SHIFT TOWARD THE LITERAL SIGN is exem- much as theories of gender constitution have disrupted the catego-
plified by many such examples of word and image relationships ries for the feminine and masculine. Since the late 1990s, the prom-
throughout Setting the Table’s exhibition of design drawings. For inent feminist question pertains to Judith Butler’s inquiry into how
instance, the illustration showing the development of the “S” for the gender and sexual differences are social constructions – elaborating
Susan B. Anthony runner back for her place setting integrates the let- on De Beauvoir’s 1952 pronouncement: “One is not born a woman,
ter “S” to conform with the shape of a woman’s head (Fig.5). Here, one becomes one.” And during the same time period, the develop-
in the medium of pen and ink, the image appears entirely textual in ment of a computerized daily life of laptops, digital cameras, and
comparison to the fully illuminated lettering stitched on the cloth PDAs (personal media assistants) has impacted the way in which
banner. Susan B. Anthony’s original format in The Dinner Party media images are communicated. Historically, the typographical
highlights the importance of cloth, sewing and “domestic” materials practice has been distinguished as a commercial non-art production
as “women’s work” expression, whereas, in Setting the Table’s me- that is class-distinct from the higher status of the fine arts (in which
dium of drawing, the same work foregrounds the elements of artistic Magritte’s painting is categorized). Chicago’s graphic sign cannot
process and graphic design. be read outside of the context of the logos

and the high/low art discourse, which today involves the way in summarized by Amelia Jones as a “phenomenologically inflected
which art has moved closer to images that function as information feminist poststructuralism (particularly the works of Maurice Mer-
and entertainment – the two most important purposes for images in leau-Ponty as read through Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, and
the digital era according to Hans Belting: others) to re-embody the subjects of making and viewing art.”20 The
feminist aim was to change the detached and hierarchical form of
A critical iconology today is an urgent need, be- engagement with art. The Cartesian dichotomy of the mind and the
cause our society is exposed to the power of the body was integral to the Modernist ideal for a masculine objectivity
mass media in an unprecedented way. The current in the arts.
discourse of images suffers from an abundance of JONES HAD ESTABLISHED the theoretical argument
different even contradictory conceptions of what for bodily-oriented artistic practices that functioned in the “shift to
images are and how they operate. Semiology, to an unveiled, activist artistic body” – the shift that characterized the
give one example, does not allow images to exist 1950s-70s era of American civil rights movements. The artistic use
beyond the controllable territory of signs, signals, of the body as a social and political “self” served the aim of coali-
and communication. Art theory would have other tionist activism for equal rights. Feminism was an embodied move-
but equally strong reservations about any image ment. And this performative aspect of uniting around the feminist
theory that threatens the old monopoly of art and cause was the single-most influential concept for the 1980 exhibition
its exclusive subject matter.18 of the The Dinner Party at UHCL. Chicago wrote about the Hous-
ton experience as the “first grassroots effort”; to bring the artwork
INDEED, FEMINIST ART has been the cohesive force in here required a “broad-based coalition, organized and spearheaded
challenging the regime of the exclusive subject matter; homogeneity by Mary Ross Taylor, the owner of a feminist bookstore, and Calvin
is of course exclusive in gender and “race.” But what position does Cannon, one of the deans of the university.”21 Chicago perceived
feminist art occupy when mass media/communication images are no that The Dinner Party was an object that could stimulate dialogue
longer denigrated by the commodity distinction? The graphic qual- and initiate the kind of gatherings that Mary Ross envisioned for the
ity of the Setting the Table exhibition contradicts Belting’s argument Houston community from the perch of her bookstore.
that the graphic sign cannot serve as anything other than a form of THE “EVENT” EFFECT of that particular moment in
communication – Belting is referring to the convention of the street feminist activism, however, cannot be reproduced for the 2010
sign that cannot serve poetic meaning since it functions foremost to commemoration of the exhibit. Only in presenting another event
communicate the enforcement of traffic laws. Still, the ubiquitous – the performance work of Margarita Cabrera, pertinently through
power of the digital image requires a reconsideration of the differ- the medium of video – could something of a reproduction be made
ence between the icon and the logos in today’s mass media world. relevant. In Cabrera’s 2010 Space in Between project, the artist
In the endless proliferation of signs, not even the feminist icon can collaborated with women in Mexico who participated in her per-
be read objectively as singular in meaning. Neither feminist believ- formance/workshop by sewing and making works of art using bor-
ers nor masculinist detractors can use the symbol to rally or protest der patrol uniforms. The women artists crossed the Texas border
based on the truth-certainty that Chicago is depicting a vagina or a as laborers with working visas. The legacy of “women’s work” in
flower. feminist art – such as Chicago’s needlework runners for The Din-
IT IS INTERESTING, HOWEVER, that Belting’s solution ner Party – continues in Space in Between, and the video of the
is to argue for a new approach to iconology by recognizing the way performance is shown next to the Setting the Table design works in
in which images “happen” via the transmission or perception of im- UHCL’s library exhibition.
ages through the body of the artist or of the viewer.19 Belting con- BY THE 1990’s, feminists began to focus on the conditions
siders the perceiving body to be the conceptual bridge to past and of the “real” life experience, such as the lives of Cabrera’s labor-
present images. His study entitled Bild-Anthropologie is an effort ers, instead of fixating on the underlying masculinist assumptions
to reconstrue old conventions that prevent a serious exploration of of culture (circulating around the libidinal imaginary and the uncon-
such things as mental images that are produced through visual and scious). The feminist use of the “symbolic” came into a certain de-
virtual digital media. Belting does not, however, invoke the femi- cline. As such, it is conceivable to view the reduction of Chicago’s
nist legacy in body-oriented philosophies. There is no question that iconic flower image as no longer a necessary reversal of “lack” un-
Belting’s study of the affect of the sign was influenced by concepts der the regime of the patriarchal symbolic. Instead, the line drawing
from feminist performance and body art, can simply “communicate” the historical role that the
vagina symbol plays in the Freudian symbolic system while em-
phasizing (self-consciously) the present-day impact of the text – of
language, the subject, and human agency – to the degree that Space 1
Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party: A Commemorative Volume Celebrating a Major
in Between carries forth the social and political advocacy on behalf Monument of Twentieth-Century Art (NY: Penguin, 1996). 7.
of “woman” in the context of immigration from Mexico. Viewing 2
Ibid. 6.
Chicago’s work in today’s “seamless web of interpretable objects,”
W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: The University of Chi-
cago Press, 1986). 156. Writing in the 1980s, after feminist art emerged as a category,
as another “text” in the virtual library of text and images, would Mitchell was re-interpreting the concept of iconology, based on Panofsky’s definition
seem to be closer to Mitchell’s ideal for a coherence of knowledge. for the intrinsic meaning of the icon (whereas iconography referred to the subject
To this end, it is irrefutable that the icon and canon of feminist texts matter of the image).
and images were essential to something of an epistemological trans-
Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press,
1997). 158. See Texas Library Association website,
formation. freedom. Reading “shall be protected against extra-legal, irresponsible attempts by
self-appointed censors to abridge it.”
_______________________________________ 5
Walter Benjamin: “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting,” in Il-
I am indebted to Amelia Jones and Emily Cuming for their help and luminations, Engl. trans. (London: Fontana, 1982). 60.
Wu Mali, “Artist Statement,” The Journalist, Taipei, no. 478, May 5 1996.
support in this project. 7
Linda Jaivin, “Consuming Texts: The Work of Mali Wu,” N. Paradoxa, no. 5,
November 1997.
Jane Chin Davidson is the Mieszkuc Professor of Women’s Studies 8
Mali, “Artist Statement.”
and Assistant Professor of Art History at UHCL.
Germano Celant, ed., 47th International Art Exhibition (Venezia: La Biennale di
Venezia, 1997). 681.
Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: the Western Perspective, 13th ed.
Vol. II (Boston: Wadsworth, 2010). 766.
Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin, “Stepping Out of the Beaten Path: Reassessing
the Feminist Art Movement,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol.
33, no. 2, 2008. 329.
Keith P. F. Moxey, “Semiotics and the Social History of Art,” New Literary His-
tory, Vol. 22, No. 4, Papers from the Commonwealth Center forLiterary and Cultural
Change (Autumn, 1991). 989.
Meyer Schapiro, Approaches to Semiotics: Words and Pictures: On the Literal and
the Symbolic in the Illustration of a Text (The Hague: Mouton, 1973).17.
Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1984). viii.
Carolyn Korsmeyer, Gender and Aesthetics: An Introduction (NY: Routledge,
2004). 140.
Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics. viii.
Hans Belting, “Image, Medium, Body: A New Approach to Iconology,” Critical
Inquiry 31 (Winter 2005). 303-4.
Belting, “Image, Medium, Body: A New Approach to Iconology.” 302-3.
Amelia Jones, Body Art: Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Min-
nesota press 1998)11.
Chicago, The Dinner Party: A Commemorative volume Celebrating a Major Mon-
ument of Twentieth-Century Art. 213.

Margarita Cabrera

On view with the Setting the Table exhibition in the Neumann Library
UHCL is Margarita Cabrera’s video document of her 2010 performa-
tive artwork.
SPACE IN BETWEEN is a collaborative project in the form of a sewing
and embroidery workshop at Houston’s Box 13 Gallery. The title is in-
spired by the term Nepantla, which in the Nahuatl Aztec Language ref-
erences “the space in the middle” as it relates to marginalized cultures
and their resistance strategies of survival. Gloria Anzaldua, scholar,
activist, and author of Borderlands/La Frontera, views Nepantla as a
reference to living in the borderlands or crossroads, and the process of
creating alternative spaces in which to live, function, or create.
Cabrera’s work continues an ongoing exploration of the defining eco-
nomic relationship between the United States and Mexico. She is inter-
ested in creating an aesthetic platform for political and social-cultural
consciousness as a means of survival.

The project is structured in three parts:

First, given the history of the BOX13 space as a SINGER sewing ma-
chine showroom, sewing school and repair/factory, a community work-
shop will produce numerous sculptural replicas of desert plants that
are indigenous to the Southwestern United States, the most frequently
traveled route of immigration into the U.S. Sewn together out of border
patrol uniforms, and planted in traditional Mexican terra cotta pots,
these sculptural plants render the role of border patrol officers as the
protagonists in the American landscape.
A second focus is the attempt to re-introduce and/or maintain an eth-
nic connection with vital cultural Mexican craft traditions. Members of
migrating communities from Mexico living in the Houston Community
will be invited to work with traditional sewing and embroidery tech-
niques from Los Tenangos, Hidalgo, Mexico. Traditionally in mural
form, the embroidery from Tenango de Doria Hidalgo, employs color-
ful narrative renditions reflecting popular culture, traditional rituals and
myths of the Otomi indigenous communities. Sometimes appropriating
and other times reclaiming these techniques, immigrant workers will
use it to relay their own personal border crossing experience. This em-
broidered narrative element will be combined in creative ways with the
desert plants.
Thirdly, the production areas are divided into four parts consisting of
a cutting area, a sewing area, an embroidery area, and a construction

The work being produced and gradually displayed is primarily made

from Border Patrol uniforms resulting in sculptures that represent
desert plants that embody personal immigrant stories. The workers
sharing in this labor and its rewards (Cabrera is sharing proceeds from
sales with the craftsmen/women) are coming to this project from *The
Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center.
Scenes from Space In Between video
Images and written material courtesy of © Margarita Cabrera 2010,

Flo, by Tutt

Postface:The Egress Project

By Tutt and VA

I want to impress the idea that the decorative arts have a place in the
digital era based on the remnants and traces of a “woman’s work”
past. The aim is to create a living symbol of the efforts of people who
made “women’s work” as I renew the actions of women who have
left the traces of their washing and ironing done so very long ago. I
begin by making carefully designed patterns that I have adapted from
quilting and dressmaking techniques. The decorative tablecloths and
linens which I have recycled will ultimately be remade into another
decorative piece. The craft of symbols and signs prevail in the old
and new ways. And in these works entitled Snatch and Flo, the
graphic symbols of the feminist art movement are reconstructed and
Snatch, by VA and Tutt redesigned. In the fluidity of writing and imagery that emerged from
theorists such as Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, the trickle spilling
out into the stream constitute the ebb and flow of the tides that have
come and gone in the development of feminism. I view my artis-
tic practice, working to recast old discarded linens, tablecloths and
doilies into cloth sculptures, as the performative means to validate the
feminist art movement of the previous generation.
Setting the Table exhibition checklist
Signing The Dinner Party Aspasia - Plate Line Drawing Petronilla de Meath - Plate Line Drawing
Lithograph, 1/8 Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper
24 in. x 24 in. (60.96 cm x 60.96 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm)
© Judy Chicago 2008 © Judy Chicago undated © Judy Chicago 1977

Primordial Goddess - Plate Line Drawing Boadaceia - Plate Line Drawing Christine de Pisan - Plate Line Drawing
Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper
11.5 in. x 14.13 in. (29.21 cm x 35.88 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago 1977

Fertile Goddess - Plate Line Drawing Hypatia - Plate Line Drawing Isabella d’Este- Plate Line Drawing
Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.63 in. x 14.5 in. (29.53 cm x 36.83 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago © Judy Chicago 1977

Ishtar - Plate Line Drawing Marcella - Plate Line Drawing Elizabeth R - Plate Line Drawing
Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago undated © Judy Chicago 1978

Kali - Plate Line Drawing Saint Bridget - Plate Line Drawing Artemisia Gentileschi - Plate Line Drawing
Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1977 © Judy Chicago undated © Judy Chicago 1977

Snake Goddess - Plate Line Drawing Theodora - Plate Line Drawing Anna van Schurman - Plate Line Drawing
Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1977 © Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago 1978

Sophia - Plate Line Drawing Hrosvitha - Plate Line Drawing Anne Hutchinson - Plate Line Drawing
Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago undated

Amazon - Plate Line Drawing Trotula - Plate Line Drawing Sacajawea - Plate Line Drawing
Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago 1977 © Judy Chicago 1978

Hatshepsut - Plate Line Drawing Eleanor of Aquitaine - Plate Line Drawing Caroline Herschel - Plate Line Drawing
Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago undated

Judith - Plate Line Drawing Hildegarde of Bingen - Plate Line Drawing Mary Wollstonecraft - Plate Line Drawing
Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper
11.5 in. x 14.13 in. (29.21 cm x 35.88 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm)
© Judy Chicago undated © Judy Chicago 1977 © Judy Chicago 1978

Sappho - Plate Line Drawing Sojourner Truth - Plate Line Drawing

Ink and pen on paper Ink and pen on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago 1978
Susan B. Anthony - Plate Line Drawing Eleanor of Aquitaine Test Plate #6 Mary Wollstonecraft - Gridded Runner Drawing
Ink and pen on paper China paint on porcelain Ink and mixed media on vellum
11.5 in. x 14.63 in. (29.21 cm x 37.15 cm) 14 in. diameter x 3 in. depth (35.56 cm x 7.6 cm) 56 in. x 30 in. (142.24 cm x 76.2 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago 1975-78 © Judy Chicago 1975-78

Elizabeth Blackwell - Plate Line Drawing Eleanor of Aquitaine - Gridded Runner Drawing Elizabeth Blackwell Test Plate
Ink and pen on paper Mixed media on graph paper China paint on porcelain
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 56 in. x 30 in. (142.24 cm x 76.2 cm) 15 in. diameter x 3.5 in. depth (38.1 cm x 8.9 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago 1979 © Judy Chicago 1975-78

Emily Dickinson - Plate Line Drawing Petronilla de Meath - Illuminated Letter Study Letter Study for Primordial Goddess
Ink and pen on paper Prismacolor on rag paper Pen and ink on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 15 in. x 22 in. (38.1 cm x 55.88 cm) 8.5 in. x 11 in. (21.59 cm x 27.94 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago 1977 © Judy Chicago 1978

Ethyl Smyth - Plate Line Drawing Petronilla de Meath Test Plate Notes for Sojourner Truth
Ink and pen on paper China paint on porcelain Pen and ink on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 14 in. diameter (35.56 cm) 12 in. x 9 in. (30.48 cm x 22.86 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago 1979 © Judy Chicago 1977

Margaret Sanger - Plate Line Drawing Study for Sacajawea Plate Study for Natalie Barney – The Lily
Ink and pen on paper Ink, gouache, and collage on paper Pen and ink on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 31.25 in. x 43 in. (79.4 cm x 109.2 cm) 8.5 in. x 11 in. (21.59 cm x 27.94 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago 1977 © Judy Chicago 1978

Natalie Barney - Plate Line Drawing Sacajawea Test Plate Study for Susan B. Anthony II
Ink and pen on paper China paint on porcelain Pen and ink on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 14 in. diameter (35.56 cm) 14.5 in. x 11.5 in. (36.83 cm x 28.45 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 © Judy Chicago 1975-78 © Judy Chicago 1978

Virginia Woolf - Plate Line Drawing Caroline Herschel Test Plate (Late) Study for Illumination III Line Drawing
Ink and pen on paper China paint on porcelain Pen and ink on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) 13.75 in. diameter x 2.5 in. depth (34.9 cm x 6.4 14.5 in. x 11.5 in. (36.83 cm x 28.45 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 cm) © Judy Chicago 1977
© Judy Chicago 1975-78
Georgia O’Keeffe - Plate Line Drawing Study for Margaret Sanger Plate
Ink and pen on paper Mary Wollstonecraft Test Plate #2 Ink and mixed media collage on paper
11.5 in. x 14.5 in. (29.21 cm x 36.83 cm) Bisque porcelain 22.5 in. x 34.75 in. (57.2 cm x 88.3 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978 14 in. diameter (35.56 cm) Collection of The Selame Family
© Judy Chicago 1975-78 © Judy Chicago 1974-1977
Hrosvitha Test Plate
China paint on porcelain Study for Caroline Herschel,
14 in. x 14 in. x 2 in. (35.56 cm x 35.56 cm x 5.08 Susan B. Anthony,
cm) Elizabeth Blackwell
© Judy Chicago 1979 & Ethyl Smyth Plates
Ink and collage on paper
Study for Hrosvitha Runner Back 23 in. x 35 in. (58.42 cm x 88.9 cm)
Gouache on paper © Judy Chicago 1979
26 in. x 34 in. x 2 (66 cm x 86.4 cm)
© Judy Chicago 1978

Setting the Table exhibition and associated programs at the University of Houston-Clear Lake were made
possible through the generous donations of individuals, foundations, organizations, and the university.
We wish to thank all those who have contributed to the 30th anniversary celebration of Judy Chicago’s
The Dinner Party at UH-Clear Lake through this design process show.










Member, The Association of Business and Professional Women

Member, The Association of Business and Professional Women

Member, The Association of Business and Professional Women