Chicago wows Philadelphia

All the 196 chairs in 200 College Hall were occupied 10 minutes before feminist artist Judy Chicago was due to begin her speech on March 27. Relative latecomers lined the room’s walls, and Chicago herself had to scrounge for seating.

The acclaimed pioneer of feminist art gathered the folds of her maroon dress and sat herself on the stairs leading to the stage to wait for her introduction. She adjusted her large, rose-tinted glasses and smiled brightly at the first row of the audience sitting barely two feet away.

No one offered her a seat. Perhaps everyone was stunned at being so near to so luminous an icon. Perhaps no one ever taught them it was proper to offer a seat to a lady in a crowded lecture. Chicago didn’t seem to mind.

In her lecture on the topic of style — the theme of all of this year’s Penn Humanities Forum talks — Chicago presented a slide show that combined an overview of her artistic career with examples of her style of dress through the years.

There was a photo-booth shot of Chicago at age 17. “I think these cat-eye glasses are geeky. But they’re back in style again.”

Of a slide in which Chicago wore black knee-high boots painted with colored flowers, she said, “I thought those boots were so hot at the time. I must have been out of my mind.”

She told the audience – predominantly female, predominantly over 40 – that she had always struggled to fuse her subject matter, rooted in her life as a woman, “with an aesthetic style that was created with no thought to women’s experiences.”

When the slide of “The Dinner Party” (1979), her most famous piece, appeared on the screen, a dozen “wows” bloomed breathily across the darkened lecture hall. The slide showed long dinner tables bearing 39 place settings representing female figures from history and arranged across a gleaming floor. “I call it a reinterpretation of the Last Supper from the point of view of those who’ve done the cooking,” she said.

“The Dinner Party” now enjoys a place in 20th-century art history textbooks. But the work itself lives in a warehouse, packed in crates. And Chicago worries that the contributions of feminist art will be forgotten as the art world rushes on to the latest style.

“If everything I’ve worked for gets lost,” she said, “I’ll not be a happy camper on my deathbed.”


Originally published on April 5, 2001