One morning last July in the nation's capital, artist Judy Chicago stood in her work-out leotards outside a YMCA and scanned the headlines of a sidewalk newsstand.
"There, on the front page of the Washington Times, was a color picture of me and 'The Dinner Party,' " said Chicago, referring to her controversial mixed-media tribute to prominent women of history. "I looked at it and went, 'Huh?' I didn't have a quarter with me so I couldn't even buy a copy."
Later, after reading the accompanying article, Chicago's bafflement turned to outrage.
The story inaccurately reported that the University of the District of Columbia would soon spend $1.6 million to acquire and exhibit "The Dinner Party," which includes 39 hand-painted ceramic place settings with elaborate sculpted forms that some have compared to female sex organs. The article also repeated anonymous allegations that the work was obscene.
Two days later, on Chicago's 51st birthday, the paper ran a correction pointing out that she had agreed to donate the piece and that the great bulk of the funds would go to renovating the college's library.
After that initial disclosure, however, Chicago's artwork became a focal point in this year's raging national debate over government funding of the arts, and on Oct. 2 in a surprise announcement, the angry artist withdrew her gift of "The Dinner Party" to the university.
Last week in the quiet backyard of her adobe home here, Chicago's voice still shook with rage as she reflected on her two-month battle against unidentified "right-wingers" who, she claims, orchestrated a sophisticated and powerful "misinformation campaign" against "The Dinner Party" and the feminist viewpoint it represents.
"Their goal was to suppress 'The Dinner Party' and it looks like they have," said Chicago, who on Sunday is to receive one of the downtown Los Angeles Women's Building's annual VESTA awards for promoting and supporting the arts.
"("The Dinner Party") is not art, it's pornography," said Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), during an 87-minute July 26 House debate on the UDC proposal. Waving a copy of the July 18 Washington Times article, Dornan chastised the National Endowment for the Arts for contributing $39,500 to the $250,000 "Dinner Party" project in the late 1970s.
Later, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach) denounced the piece as "weird sexual art" and Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) sponsored a measure that sought to punish the university by withholding $1.6 million from an appropriations bill, even though the renovation funding had been allocated to the university in a separate District of Columbia capital-spending bond issue.
"Not one penny of federal money would have been involved (in 'The Dinner Party' project)," said a member of the university's board of trustees, who asked not to be named. Other university sources estimated expenses associated with installing the artwork would have been "about $250,000 in non-federal funds."
In a statement, Board of Trustees Chairwoman Nira Hardon Long said "The Dinner Party" gift was debated and approved in two public meetings earlier this year and before the House floor debate "would have had no negative impact on UDC's budget or academic program."
Chicago blasts conservative politicians, "religious fanatics" and "the mainstream media" for repeating unsubstantiated rumors, inaccuracies and misinformation about her donation. A trustee confirmed, for example, that it was the school's idea, not Chicago's, to permanently display the gift in a revitalized multicultural art center in which "The Dinner Party" would be only one element.
Chicago insists that her decision to withdraw the work was a matter of principle. Student protesters occupying two campus buildings for nine days last month asked that the $1.6 million earmarked for library renovation be spent on activities more directly related to their day-to-day education, citing deterioration of facilities and a high turnover rate among faculty.
"Somebody faxed us the demands of the students," said Chicago, who has converted the front of her Santa Fe home into offices for Through the Flower, the nonprofit organization that oversees "The Dinner Party" and the artist's subsequent work. "I realized that (the UDC students) had the right to make the kinds of demands they were on their institution, and I felt that we had no choice but to withdraw the gift . . . there was no point in trying to foist it on them."
"The Dinner Party" remains in storage in Northern California, where it was created by Chicago and dozens of assistants from 1974-79. The assemblage no longer tours because of its fragile condition, and the artist has been seeking a permanent installation for the past year.
Rather than worry about "The Dinner Party's" final resting place, Chicago said she is trying to heal the wounds inflicted on her and her reputation as a result of "confused and distorted reporting" about the UDC matter.
In the next breath, however, she talked hopefully about how the "incredibly ferocious assault" on "The Dinner Party" might spur a counterattack on behalf of unfettered artistic expression.
"The art community needs support outside of itself," said Chicago, speculating that artists may have contributed to their own isolation by creating work that is often inaccessible to the public. "The whole posture of the art world, of galleries and museums, has been to make an unwelcome environment for all but the elite. . . . We are so vulnerable."
"The Dinner Party's" artistic merits remain subject to debate and the work was lambasted for its purported sexual imagery when it toured this country from 1979 through 1982. Only a handful of major art institutions agreed to exhibit "The Dinner Party" and such influential New York-based art critics as Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes dismissed it. Other reviewers described the exhibition as politically significant but artistically weak.
Chicago dismisses such salvos as "the first wave of misinformation" by "mostly male art critics" dedicated to trivializing and "degrading the piece, me, women's achievements and women's history."
"After all," she said, " 'The Dinner Party' is a symbolic history of women in western civilization. That's what it is now and what it's always been."
While declining to speculate on the exact motives of those who have recently challenged "The Dinner Party," Chicago sees parallels in the history of Nazi Germany, an era she has studied for five years in preparation for "The Holocaust Project," a multimedia collaboration with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, that will begin touring in 1993.
"Whom did (Nazis) attack first?," Chicago asked rhetorically. They smashed the gay and lesbian bars, they attacked homosexuals. They tried to suppress art and artists, imposing restrictions on what kind of art was acceptable. They went after outsiders and marginalized, powerless, vulnerable people, as well as feminist and political artists."
And although Chicago is personally repulsed by the lyrics of 2 Live Crew and some other specific artistic expressions under recent obscenity litigation, she has decided the time has come to defend the freedoms they represent.
"Art is the most important thing in the world," she said, "and I can't stand what's happened to art. It's gotten confused with commerce as opposed to being understood as the deepest expression of the human spirit. . . . What's happening now is very terrifying."
BACKGROUND Born in 1939, artist Judy Chicago (she named herself after her hometown in 1970) has aroused controversy for years with her symbolic use of female anatomy. Her best-known work, "The Dinner Party," took five years to complete in the late 1970s and involved dozens of artisans. It consists of 39 china-painted porcelain place settings at a triangular table 48 feet long. Each setting symbolizes a great woman of the past, from a prehistoric goddess to artist Georgia O'Keeffe. On the porcelain tile floor below the table, the names of 999 historically important women are painted in gold.
Source: "American Woman Artists" by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein (Avon, 1982).