American Women: "There was no underwear in space."; Gail Collins
Our Bodies Ourselves (1972); Rebel Princess (1977)
The ERA amendment failed to be ratified, Ronald Reagan was elected president (not a good thing for woman’s rights, or anyone else's) and, as my sister and I pieced together our bits of memory, a third component came into focus – when the Dinner Party came to Chicago, Judy Chicago’s hometown and chosen name sake. But it was not at the invitation of a museum, it was exhibited in some sort of space on Printers Row in the south end of Loop (my sister and I agree on that, she remembers the building as low I remember it as a tall 19th century industrial building). This was not a good thing, this was as backwater as the art world got in 1981. Like Lippard, Judy Chicago had begun as a partisan of minimalism. Her work Rainbow Pickets was shown next to Robert Smithson’s work in the Primary Structures show in 1966. She was a badass, or should have been.
As a native Chicagoan I am ashamed that the Dinner Party was treated so shabbily, and ashamed that it took me all these years to piece together why everyone was so angry that night (I sorted it out as I wrote this post). The women in the room had lots of general reasons to be unhappy and disappointed in 1981, but they had an immediate reason to be furious that night. They should have been fêting Judy Chicago at the Art Institute or the Museum of Contemporary Art. Chicago (the artist) was a nationally known artist, and a native Chicagoan, but like women in Houston, Boston, Cleveland and DC who organized exhibitions of the Dinner Party, women in Chicago (the city) had had to raise money and find a non-art space to show the first monumental feminist work of art. That had to suck.
“I don’t believe there can be a society without relations of power, if you understand them as means by which individuals try to conduct, to determine the behavior of others. The problem is not of trying to dissolve them in the utopia of a perfectly transparent communication, but to give one’s self the rules of law, the techniques of management, and also the ethics, the ethos, the practice of self, which would allow these games of power to be played with a minimum of domination.”
As my nephew and I circled the massive triangular table checking out the settings, we talked about the goddesses, saints, queens and finally, artists valorized at each setting. And we did so in the absence of women, angry or otherwise, there was no crowded press that day, we had the room to ourselves. Two guys raised in the wake of a Wave. Me in the second-wake him in the third. Two men very accustom to the new structures of power.