The Guerrilla Girls - Biography and Legacy
American Photographers, Designers, Activists and Conceptual Artists
Origins of the Group
Two main events inspired the formation of the Guerrilla Girls. One was the publication of the influential feminist essay "Why have there been no great women artists?" in 1971 by art historian Linda Nochlin. As the title suggests, Nochlin accepts that throughout history, women have failed to achieve greatness on a par with the Michelangelos and Picassos of the art world. Nochlin blames the art world, eschewing the oft-repeated explanation that women must be somehow biologically or intellectually inferior. In a deeply segregated system with long-entrenched institutional biases, she argues, women had never had the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with their male peers. Laying the blame squarely on the art world, Nochlin writes: "The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, but in our institutions and our education."
The second event occurred in 1984, when only 13 out of 169 contemporary artists invited to display work at the Museum of Modern Art's International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture were women. The Women's Caucus organized a protest in front of MoMA. Along with others, the Guerrilla Girls stood outside the exhibition with signs, and all were ignored. "We went to this demonstration with the usual: placards, picket signs, things like that and we saw it immediately: nobody cares. Not one person outside of MoMA cared about us, everyone walked right in and nobody wanted to hear about women, about feminism". As if to underscore that the art world gave no thought to women artists at all, the exhibition's curator Kynaston McShine remarked offhandedly that "any artist who wasn't in the show should rethink his career". According to the Guerrilla girls, "That was the 'aha!' moment: it was so obvious that there had to be a better way, a more media savvy, more contemporary way to get through to people."
Guerrillas vs Gorillas
The "more media savvy, more contemporary way" developed by the group included the fortuitous misspelling of "guerrilla" by one of the group members. That gave them the idea to adopt gorilla masks as their official disguise. In 1985 they began pasting posters or stickers in visible places near art galleries and museums in New York City.
Their first posters, which contained no imagery, combined a statement directed toward the underrepresentation of women in the art world with bullet points supporting evidence of gender discrimination below, with specific mention of galleries, exhibitions, and art valuations. Inspired by the work of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, these early works relied on text and graphic design, using advertising techniques to make pointed social commentary. The group often targeted specific galleries, museums, and individuals.
The Guerrilla Girls wore gorilla masks to maintain anonymity and "to keep the focus on the issues rather than our personalities." Their true identities remain unknown. Each member took on the name of a deceased artist or other creative luminary. Frida Kahlo, Rosalba Carriera, Lee Krasner, Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston, and other names connected them to their predecessors, women who in the 1980s were still absent from most history textbooks, and whose work was even sometimes misattributed to male artists.
While given lip service, feminism and diversity were often met with indifference in the art world of the 1980s. To combat this indifference and get a reaction, the Guerrilla Girls involved humor, irony, visible outrageousness, advertising design, and strategic targeting of individuals and institutions. Influenced by the Feminist movement of the 1970s, the Guerrilla Girls adopted activist strategies. Not afraid to seem pushy and obnoxious, the Guerrilla Girls persisted in waging war on what they felt was an unfair system. While best-known for their poster campaigns, the Guerrilla Girls also conducted public actions, exhibitions, panels, and lectures that targeted specific institutions and individuals that held gatekeeper status. One 1985 poster stated, "On Oct. 17 the Palladium Will Apologize to Women Artists" (the Palladium, a famous dance club in New York that showcased work by contemporary artists, had only ever shown work by men). The club responded favorably, working with the Guerrilla Girls to issue an open call to women artists, and staging a week-long exhibition of work by women that would, as the announcement put it, "forever put to rest the following notions: (1) Biology is destiny, (2) There are no great women artists, (3) It's the men who are emotional and intuitive, and (4) Only men can show at the Palladium." A group of members of the Palladium resigned in protest over the all-female show, explaining "We couldn't beat the system and join it at the same time. The group was moving in the wrong direction".
What is difficult to stress, in retrospect, was how controversial the Guerrilla Girls' tactics were at a moment when the art world was less open to the overt mixture between politics and art. The range of institutional and individual responses to their actions was mixed. Even in the most liberal circles, some art world insiders who considered themselves feminist resented the idea of filling quotas. Nonetheless, institutions began to take notice. In 1986 Cooper Union hosted two panels organized by the Guerrilla Girls: "Hidden Agender: An Evening with Critics" and "Passing the Bucks: An Evening with Art Dealers". These panels invited critics and dealers (respectively) to share their thoughts on the gender gap in art, and how to close it.
In 1987, The Clocktower, an independent exhibition space, invited the Guerrilla Girls to organize an exhibition of work protesting the Whitney Museum's Biennial of contemporary American art, "Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney". In 1989, hoping to reach a larger audience, the group created a poster, Do women have to be naked to get Into the Met. Museum?. It ran as an ad on public buses. The prominent placement and memorable simplicity of the image and caption, probably still their best-known work, had the desired effect, lifting them and an awareness of the issue into mainstream public consciousness.
Lifted into the limelight in the late 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls began to develop something of a cult following. They continued to employ advertising designs, startling images, selected facts, and targeting a specific audience in posters, stickers, and billboards. They appeared at panels, lectures, exhibitions, and performances at increasingly mainstream art institutions and universities. In 1988, they issued what is probably their second most famous poster entitled sarcastically "The Advantages of Being a Woman in the Art World", demonstrating with an arresting image and statistics that exclusionary institutional practices were alive and well in the contemporary art world.
Perhaps because, as the feminist art historian Bell Hooks notes, "the work of the Guerrilla Girls represents a most powerful political union between theory and practice," the group's artistic strategies and techniques have remained remarkably consistent. What expanded was the range and scope of their focus. Initially concerned with the inequities of the art world for women, the Guerrilla Girls responded to criticisms of being primarily concerned with "white feminism". In the 1990s they extended their range to the inequities of racism, and their geographic reach outside New York. They began to critique the major art institutions, art collectors, and critics in the rest of the US and then Europe.
In 1998 they published the best-selling Guerrilla Girl's Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art (1998), which is a comic book in their characteristic style telling the history of art using only women. It shows how some of women's best works were attributed to men, left out of mainstream art history books, and devalued in the art market.
Inspired by Nochlin's "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists" (1971), Guerrilla Girl's Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art poses the following, modified version of the question: "Why haven't more women been considered great artists in the history of Western art?" The book, a scathing historical analysis, answers the question by pointing out how major museums and art institutions continue to dismiss and undervalue the work of women.
The group's awareness of film, evident in their adoption of the gorilla mask (a reference to King Kong) took on a life of its own in works that addressed the sexism of the film industry. UNCHAIN THE WOMEN DIRECTORS (2006), a billboard displayed in Hollywood during Oscar month, was made in protest of the underrepresentation of female directors.
Today, Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz are the only founding members who remain active in the group. A reasonable estimate is that 100 women have participated in the group over the years. Ideologically, however, the group espouses a philosophy that includes all women as potential members. When asked how many members they had in 1995 they replied:"We don't have any idea. We secretly suspect that all women are born Guerrilla Girls. It's just a question of helping them discover it. For sure, thousands; probably, hundreds of thousands; maybe, millions."
A growing presence in the art world and beyond, the Guerrilla Girls have reached an ever-wider audience. The 2005 Venice Biennale included six posters by the Guerrilla girls critiquing gender discrimination in the art world, the film industry, and Bush administration policies. The Guerrilla Girls' participation in the mainstream art world and beyond reflects their success in raising awareness of racism and sexism across the board.
Since 2000, incorporated offshoots of the Guerrilla Girls have emerged, making the group seem more like a movement than an artists' collective. Among them are Guerrilla Girls, Inc. (established by two of the movement's founders), GuerillaGirlsBroadBand, Inc., and Guerrilla Girls On Tour, Inc. Whether within these organizations, or otherwise, the Guerrilla Girls continue to track the percentages of women and artists of color included in exhibitions, galleries, and art journalism, and underscore any double standards that persist.
In the 1980s, many women artists felt their careers were precarious enough that they could not succeed as artists and fight the feminist battle too. The Guerrilla Girls proved them wrong. They succeeded in transforming the relationship between art and politics. They made activism seem not only acceptable, but vital to full participation in the art world. Critical reviews, still quite new when Guerrilla Girls arrived on the scene, are now fairly standard practice. They influenced a generation of critics and curators to be more inclusive of women and minorities.
Their combination of humor, outrageous visuals, and statistics influenced the work of individual feminist artists like Micol Hebron and Coco Fusco. In her Gallery Tally Project, Hebron counts the representation of women in international galleries. Fusco has written of a Guerrilla Girls exhibition "It was my first encounter with a full-on feminist art intervention, and I was tickled and inspired. This was an activist approach that I could connect with, as it spoke truth to power playfully, with wit and style" and credited the group with teaching her "crucial lessons that have informed the way I think about art, the way I understand feminism and the way I make art today." Their mockery of the shrill feminist stereotype (a category into which any activist who spoke her mind might get put) inspired the curatorial project of Nicole Eisenman and A.L. Stein, Ridykeulous, focusing on stereotypical representations of queer artists.
The Guerrilla Girls also paved the way for other outspoken feminist groups outside the art world. Pussy Riot, a feminist punk rock collective, employs "impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse and a non-standard female image" to address LGBTQ rights, feminism, and to express opposition to Putin's government in Russia.