The Guerrilla Girls, After 3 Decades, Still Rattling Art World Cages
When you’ve spent 30 years wearing a gorilla mask, as the women known by the aliases Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz have, certain behavior becomes second nature. So there were Kahlo and Kollwitz, two of the pseudonymous founding members of the Guerrilla Girls, the activist, feminist art collective, preening and posing at their 30th anniversary party and retrospective in May. They sipped prosecco through straws (their gorilla lips wouldn’t allow much more) at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, while guests gazed at walls lined with the posters protesting elitism and bias that first shook the art world in the 1980s. “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met Museum?” one provocatively asked. The Guerrillas’ name tags identified them as pioneering dead female artists (like Alice Neel, the portraitist, or Zubeida Agha, the Pakistani modernist) whose legacies they hope to continue.
After three decades as masked crusaders for gender and racial equality in the art world — and increasingly, everywhere else — the Guerrilla Girls have lately been enjoying a victory lap. Last year, the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired the group’s portfolio of 88 posters and ephemera from 1985 to 2012, documenting the number of women and minorities represented in galleries and institutions, including the Whitney itself.
“To me, they are art world royalty,” said David Kiehl, the Whitney’s curator for prints, who helped persuade the museum to acquire their work.
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis also bought the Guerrilla Girls’ entire collection of posters, in numbered prints, which were originally plastered on walls, phone booths and galleries in SoHo. And the posters still pop up in gallery districts, calling attention to disproportionate representation in the art world and wage inequality. The Walker is planning a Guerrilla Girls exhibition for January.
Olga Viso, the Walker’s director, discovered the group as an art history student in the 1980s. “I remember feeling such pride that there were female artists out there giving voice to these concerns that we were sensing and feeling,” she said, adding that coming of age with the Guerrilla Girls “totally shaped who I am and the artists I worked with.”
Gloria Steinem, too, is a longtime fan. “I think they’re the perfect protest group,” she said, “because they have humor.” One poster cataloged the advantages to being a woman artist: “Working without the pressure of success; knowing your career might pick up after you’re 80; getting your picture in the art magazines wearing a gorilla suit.”
Membership has fluctuated over the years, from a high of about 30 art-world women to a few handfuls of active members now. Some women left the suit behind, seeking recognition under their own names. Others became professors or real estate agents. But most have remained committed to anonymity, filtering in and out of the crew and fretting about what it meant to be part of the world they were lampooning. “Some of us wanted a piece of the pie, and some of us wanted to blow the whole pie up,” Kahlo said. “We agreed to disagree.”
They still exhibit and share work in places like Reykjavik, Iceland, London and Sarajevo — their next appearance will be in September at the Printed Matter’s N.Y. Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 — and lecture at colleges, where their campaigns are part of women’s studies and art history classes.
Today they seem prescient: They long ago took aim at issues that are flash points now, like gender bias in Hollywood, and racism in the gallery world (“Guerrilla Girls’ definition of a hypocrite?” read one poster. “An art collector who buys white male art at benefits for liberal causes, but never buys art by women or artists of color.”) Co-opting the look and feel of advertising, they were social media-friendly and selfie-ready before those terms existed. Though other activist groups, like the newly formed anonymous collective Pussy Galore, have taken up the cause, the Guerrilla Girls say their mission is far from over. “They’re as valid today, and needed today, as they were 30 years ago,” Mr. Kiehl said, “because what they’re talking about is still going on.” The June issue of Art News, edited by Maura Reilly, founding curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum and current chief curator at National Academy Museum, took stock of the state of women in the art world. It found that, despite some gains, the majority of celebrated artists are still white and male, and that discrimination exists from the top down in cultural institutions.
What follows is an oral history of the Guerrilla Girls and their big-footed leaps across the cultural world, recounted by the Girls themselves, their art-world contemporaries and younger artists they inspired, as well as curators, dealers and museum directors who were witness to their insurrection. These are excerpts from the conversations.
Dawn of the Apes
The Guerrilla Girls galvanized into action in response to a 1984 survey exhibition of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. Of 165 artists represented, fewer than 10 percent were women or minorities, they found.
KäTHE KOLLWITZ [NAMED AFTER THE GERMAN PAINTER WHO DIED IN 1945] The Women’s Caucus for Art, I think, called a demonstration. A couple of us went and we walked around the picket line, and no one stopped. No one cared. Everyone went right into the museum.
FRIDA KAHLO At that time, I think a lot of women and a lot of artists of color were taking their situation personally, thinking that they lacked something that the system wanted, not realizing that there was a systemic problem. The system did not want us.
ALICE NEEL We just knew that there was something terribly wrong, in our gut. Art in America had these annual reports [a national listing of gallery and museum rosters], and we sat and we counted. It was worse than we thought.
KOLLWITZ Suddenly we realized, people think whatever’s in the museum is the best stuff, and if you’re outside the museum complaining, you’re just a bunch of untalented people. And at that moment came this other realization: There’s got to be a better way, a more contemporary way, an in-your-face way, of breaking through people’s preconceived notions and changing their minds.
KAHLO Käthe and I would sit in bars, and we realized that the more we laughed and made fun of the art world, the better we felt. And then we realized that maybe we should take this sensibility and start investigating the art world, just calling people out for discrimination. The first meetings were so empowering. They still are.
In April 1985, the Guerrilla Girls hung their first poster, naming (and shaming) the major artists who showed at male-dominated galleries; they were quickly branded rabble-rousers. In “Guerrillas in Our Midst,” a 1992 documentary by Amy Harrison, prominent artists and dealers decried the group as talentless, careerist victims. But they soon found a loyal audience and gained supporters, including the New York Times critic Roberta Smith, who was among the list of critics singled out in one poster for not covering more female artists, a failure Ms. Smith acknowledged. “The Guerrilla Girls are not art critics; they’re social critics,” she wrote in The Times in 1990, commenting on the group’s emphasis on numbers and disinterest in issues of quality.
KAHLO How can you really tell the story of a culture when you don’t include all the voices within the culture? Otherwise, it’s just the history, and the story, of power.
By the Numbers
The Guerrilla Girls arrived at a moment when the art scene was embracing a new theatricality and becoming more pointedly political, globally. Performance and street art were going mainstream. The Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher eras witnessed cuts in funding for public projects, including support for artists. The economic strategies contributed to the art-as-investment-and-speculation boom. Dissent was brewing.
As evocative as their animal faces and sticker crusades were, the Guerrilla Girls’ greatest contribution may have been in something simpler: the act of counting. They were not the first artists to employ data in their work, but they were among the most visible, and direct.
KAHLO One Sunday morning [in 1989], a group of us went to the Metropolitan Museum with little notebooks. We were going to count naked bodies and female artists. It was only when we hit the 19th century, that early modern period, when sex replaced religion as the major preoccupation of European artists, did we get our statistic: Only 5 percent of the artists were women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.
They repeated the count in the modern wings at the Met in 2005 and 2012, and the numbers were hardly different. Other posters enumerated the number of women in solo shows in the city’s major museums (zero or one each in 1985; 1 to 2 in 2015) and blue-chip galleries.
MAURA REILLY, CURATOR They’ve greatly influenced the way that I think, in particular the idea that counting, the literal counting of male versus female, is a feminist strategy. And I know it’s much more complicated than simple statistics, but it’s a great way to open the conversation.
Has Anything Changed?
DAVID KIEHL, CURATORIAL STAFF AT THE MET FROM 1973-1992 [At that institution,] I don’t think these issues [of gender and racial parity] came up a lot. When I got to the Whitney [in 1993], the curatorial staff was heavily women; we would have meetings where they would talk about things like, oh, we need to do more African-American this or women that. The system has changed. The Met, that world has changed. Artists that I could never get into the collection they’ve gotten into the collection, younger artists.
KAHLO We go back to the Met because we expect that it’s going to get better. And the progress that we’ve discovered is that now, there are fewer women artists, but more naked males. [Laughs]
This summer, Pussy Galore, inspired by the Guerrilla Girls, reprised the group’s original gallery report card, finding that the Mary Boone Gallery, for example, which showed zero women artists in 1985, had upgraded slightly, to 13 percent women.
RON WARREN, DIRECTOR AND PARTNER, MARY BOONE GALLERY However they tallied up these percentages, it really doesn’t look at the full picture of what the gallery is doing. We’ve had a lot of women in group shows; our entire spring season this year has been female artists. To simplify it into percentages is really doing a disservice to the cause. We actually show a Guerrilla Girl [under her own name].
CINDY SHERMAN, ARTIST I remember all their posters, in SoHo, seeing them everywhere. It just opened my eyes more and more to being aware of how museums show less women. I definitely see that they’ve had an influence in the art world, but it still has a ways to go.
ZUBEIDA AGHA, GUERRILLA GIRL I think a lot of people think that this issue was solved. A lot of galleries have almost an equal distribution on their roster. But their one-person or two-person shows, they’re mostly male. All the women get stuck in group shows. So what artists really need to sell their work, to help their career, that is still going to the men.
Follow the Money
The Guerrilla Girls’ notoriety helped fuel debate but didn’t translate to financial success. Their work is in 60 cultural institutions, but even the full portfolios were priced at only a few thousand dollars. Most of their income comes from speaking engagements.
ROMAINE BROOKS, GUERRILLA GIRL Whenever we went on gigs, our expenses would be covered and we’d sell posters and sometimes we’d take poster money and have a nice meal. But nobody did it for money. We did it for the camaraderie and the thrill of it.
MS. REILLY Their work is essentially free. You can pay $20 and get a Guerrilla Girls poster [online]. There is no limited edition, which is antithetical to a museum collection. I had to propose [buying the posters] in an acquisition committee meeting at the Sackler Center and they were like, well, why does this have value? I had to make an argument as to why we had to have this work in the collection.
KOLLWITZ Now we’re the darling of so many museums, and it’s totally bizarre. Should we be happy and excited? Annoyed that it took them so long? I don’t know. We care more about the street stuff, but museums have a great audience.
In the spring, the Guerrilla Girls were invited to the opening of the Whitney at its new building in the meatpacking district, and they came, en mask. Not long after, they projected a message about income inequality on the outside of the building: “Dear Art Collector/art is sooo expensive!/even for billionaires/we totally get why/you can’t pay all your employees/a living wage.” (The museum had been tipped off to this act.)
KOLLWITZ We want our work to be preserved as an antidote to all the market-driven art that museums collect to make their trustees happy.
KAHLO We would always talk about whether what we were doing was politics or art. A lot of museums would ask that question, and we could never agree on it. We realized that 20th-century art has always been about politics. We didn’t want to take the place of individual, named women artists, but on the other hand, if they were willing to admit the problem and maybe even asked us to do something why shouldn’t we do it? We don’t accept every invitation that comes our way. We have to not feel compromised.
Behind the Mask
Membership in the Guerrilla Girls continues to be by invitation only; new members come in as others cycle out. But all must adjust to life as an ape.
ROSALBA CARRIERA, RETIRED GUERRILLA GIRL [NAMED FOR THE VENETIAN ROCOCO PAINTER] I’m the one who thought of giving Guerrilla Girls names [of dead artists]. I stepped back because my life got very complicated. I felt that the first years were most important, because that’s when we broke ground. When I started the Guerrilla Girls I had an infant son and I put the mask on and my son went, ‘Where’s Mommy?’ I’ve always felt like I was a spy. What I did as a Guerrilla Girl, I did as a Guerrilla Girl, not as myself.
OLGA VISO, WALKER ART CENTER They’ve figured out how to productively disagree, in ways that sometimes feel uncomfortable but can always be turned into something. Because after all those years they still challenge each other, and they obviously feed off that.
SADIE BARNETTE, ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE, STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM I was basically born at the same time as the Guerrilla Girls. I think it’s a really interesting time to be a woman artist and a woman of color, and what they did was a first step – just for them to point their fingers at the situation is a revolutionary step. It’s not a level playing field, but I don’t think of it as closed doors, because I think there’s a subversive power in making new doors.
KAHLO You know, wearing this mask gives you a certain kind of freedom to say whatever you want. I completely recommend it. If you’re in a situation where you’re a little afraid to speak up, put a mask on. You won’t believe what comes out of your mouth.