When they passed out the information about how to be a good girl, the Guerrilla Girls must have been truant.
This band of New York women in the visual arts does not sit demurely by, waiting for the art world to finally recognize that women artists and people of color are vital to our culture. They have taken to the streets, going out in the middle of the night to put up engaging posters in SoHo that hold the art establishment accountable for its lack of opportunity for women and minorities.
It is unclear how many Guerrilla Girls there are. Very few people even know who they are. Like Zorro and the Lone Ranger, they don masks when they appear in public to keep their identities secret. Logically, their masks are gorilla masks.
“We’re the disloyal opposition that bangs people over their heads and reminds them that the art world is not this great liberal bastion of aesthetic quality, that it’s subject to the same forces as everyone else and every other institution in society,” said one Guerrilla Girl in a phone conversation. She goes by the name of deceased German artist Kathe Kollwitz--each Guerrilla Girl has adopted the name of a dead female artist.
“We live in an art world where people think that they’re really great, and art is some manifestation of genius, usually male--some guy slinging paint around and getting in touch with higher truth for the rest of us, the proletariat. That’s the main myth that we’re out to debunk. And there’s still a lot of work to do in debunking that.”
Since 1985, they have needled, irritated and offended as much of the art establishment as they could with more than 30 posters--hundreds of each put up at a time--that stop people in the street and challenge them with statistics or humorous, ironic messages to see the art world from a different vantage point.
Their posters detail the low percentages of women artists in shows, name specific New York galleries that rarely show the work of women artists and critics who hardly ever review their art, or merely impart a message such as “It’s even worse in Europe.”
A retrospective of their first five years of broadsides is currently on view in the exhibit “Guerrilla Girls Talk Back” at the Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University. Accompanying the posters are two often amusing videos that convey the Girls’ history and show them in action plastering the streets with posters. One tape includes an interview on CBS-TV’s “Nightwatch” program with members identified as Frida and Georgia (the implication is as homage to Kahlo and O’Keeffe).
There is also a Guerrilla Girl audiotape that satirizes women’s predicament in the art world while lampooning Jesse Helms’ campaign to censor art (the content of which could not be printed in this newspaper), and a slide presentation of the Guerrilla Girls’ 1987 show, “Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney,” at the Clocktower, an alternative art space in New York.
“We did that show at the time of a Whitney Museum Biennial. It was an installation with all sorts of games you could play, different exhibits, all about tracing women and minorities in Whitney Biennials, and also with a few juicy facts about Whitney trustees,” Kollwitz said.
“The notice about the availability of the retrospective was on my desk for maybe two hours before I called to say I was interested,” said Gordon Fuglie, the director of the Laband gallery. “I jumped on it because it’s timely, and I like doing sociopolitical shows.”
The show was organized by Carrie Lederer, an artist and curator at Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael in the Bay Area. Lederer had read an article in the New York Times that profiled the Girls on their fifth anniversary. “I remembered seeing the posters in 1985, when I was in New York looking for a gallery to represent me,” Lederer said. “I made a beeline for them. I found them riveting.
“As an artist, I was aware that there are women and artists from diverse cultures out there struggling, who make up the statistics the Guerrilla Girls cite. I had a good time organizing the show.”
Pam Earnest, a major contributor to Falkirk, purchased the posters for the show. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts provided a major grant for the exhibit. In Los Angeles, the show is funded by the Eileen and Peter Norton Foundation.
Lederer’s 1985 trip to New York must have been shortly after the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit, “International Survey of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture.” That show was the force that sparked the Guerrilla Girls to life.
“It was the grand reopening of the renovated museum, and in the show of 169 artists, 13 were women,” Kollwitz said. “But that alone wasn’t enough. The curator of the show, Kynaston McShine, said that any artist who wasn’t in this show should rethink his career. And that really annoyed a lot of the women in New York because obviously the guy was completely prejudiced.
“A protest was held, and some of the people who attended were disappointed because it was a typical protest with placards in front of the museum. We felt dissatisfied with its effectiveness. We began to realize that the issue of women’s under-representation in the art world needed some immediate, savvy ‘80s techniques, not ‘60s techniques. So we set out to see whether we could make feminism fashionable again.”
The group of women who would become the Guerrilla Girls, the self-proclaimed “Conscience of the Art World,” got together and instantly came up with ideas for two posters. “One said, ‘These artists allow their work to be shown in galleries that show less than 10% women.’ The other said, ‘These galleries show less than 10% women or none at all,” Kollwitz explained. “It was a list of the worst galleries for women and a bunch of the artists who show in them. Since the worst galleries for women were the most prestigious galleries in New York, the list of artists was a very prestigious list indeed.”
Kollwitz said that soon after the posters were put up, artists and galleries that were named expressed their irritation. “It started people thinking about the issue. No one knew how bad it had been. That was part of our strategy too. We thought, ‘We’ll find out how bad it is,’ and even we were shocked to find out how bad it was.”
The group named themselves immediately. “We wanted to be politically incorrect and use the word girls to annoy everybody,” Kollwitz said. Then someone in the group made the connection between guerrilla and gorilla. The Girls were starting to get requests to be photographed but wanted to remain anonymous. They began to put photographs of Guerrilla Girls wearing gorilla masks and fishnet stocking in their posters.
“The Guerrilla Girls defy the traditional identity given to females by mixing everything up,” Lederer said with a chuckle.
“We’ve made feminism and social responsibility sexy,” Kollwitz said with delight.
“In the beginning, we decided to be anonymous for two reasons,” she explained. “Reason 1 was simply fear, because we thought it would really be bad for our careers if people knew who we were.
“Reason 2 was we didn’t want people’s reactions to what we did to be connected to who we were. We’re a very diverse group--different ages, different races, different levels of art-world success. Some people in the group are very well-known, some unknown. The work that people in the group do is very diverse. Their ideas about art are very diverse. So we didn’t want any focus on who we were. We wanted people looking at the posters to focus on the issues.
“We soon found out that this anonymity was one of the smartest things we ever did because it bothers some people. ‘You’re telling us what to do, why don’t you come out and say who you are?’ they’d say. This mystery is very seductive. We’re certainly much more interesting and fun to look at than a bunch of regular human beings sitting around a podium talking about something. And we can say whatever we want. As a group, we’re free to do whatever we can convince each other to do.”
The Girls followed up their initial posters by doing a series on different issues in the art world, such as what percentage of women were reviewed and how many museum one-person shows were by women. “All the figures were terrible, so we annoyed one group after another--the curators, the critics, the dealers, the male artists,” Kollwitz said.
“We were saying to them all, ‘You are accountable for this.’ The first reaction of each group was to say, ‘We’re powerless in the situation.’ The dealers would say things like, ‘Women’s work doesn’t sell.’ The artists would say, ‘It’s hard enough for male artists to show.’ The critics would say, ‘We have to write what our editors tell us to write.’ But gradually, things changed. People started realizing it was up to them.
“The most incredible thing to us was that things actually did improve, which is not to say that things are great. We have spies all over the country, and we hear that in Los Angeles a major contemporary art show is about to open at your Museum of Contemporary Art, and out of 16 artists, it contains four women,” Kollwitz said. She was referring to the upcoming “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” show at MOCA, which is scheduled to open next Sunday.
“And we’ve also heard there are four women because there were originally only two women, and no people of color, but enough people complained to the museum that two other women were added and two artists of color. There is prejudice, unconscious and conscious, in the art world, just like there was, and probably is, in every industry in this country. And it’s only changed by pressure.”
Robbie Conal, Los Angeles’ own guerrilla artist, whose weapon of choice is also the double-edged sword of ironic humor, has put up posters bearing irreverent images of powerful government officials (“Men With No Lips,” “Artificial Art Official”) in cities all over the country. Conal knows some of the Guerrilla Girls--"In the natural course of our related activities, we bumped into each other"--and is a great fan of the group.
“The absolutely knockout issue with the Guerrilla Girls is that it’s a group of women plugged in deeply to the art world who have organized on the level of primitive work democracy--the most frustrating, labor-intensive form of cooperative activity known to humankind--and produced all these things,” he said. “Though they only put them up in their neighborhood, the posters have developed a life of their own and are even reaching Loyola Marymount. They’re an inspiration to me. They’re my sisters.”
Kollwitz said one of their biggest hits was the “Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” poster. “We got letters from women, particularly women artists of a certain age, that said, ‘This is me,’ ” she said. “It really connected to women. They felt they were not alone. And it was hysterical making it up too, a great experience for the group.
“Somebody sent us money, a couple of thousand dollars, after it came out on the streets, to run it as an ad in Artforum magazine, which we did. We tend to get a lot of donations from very successful women artists, especially if someone has suddenly become successful in the last few years. And there have been a lot of women whose careers have really taken off. We get letters saying, ‘Thank you,’ and we get money from all sorts of people, not just artists.”
The poster “Guerrilla Girls’ Code of Ethics for Art Museums” “lays out all our issues,” Kollwitz said. “That’s the one that really condemns the power. One of the big problems in the art world is that museums present art saying ‘this is the greatest stuff you’ve ever seen,’ when the truth is, it’s something that the curator really likes, and quite often there is some kind of relationship, maybe only professionally based, between artist and curator. But the viewer is never allowed in on that. It’s presented just as the mystery of genius.”
Lederer said that things are changing in the art world, and that she believes the Guerrilla Girls have helped bring about those changes. “They give issues of serious concern, such as who has access to opportunity and the need to make multiculturalism a way of life, the public airing they deserve,” she said. “You look at a poster, and you can’t forget its message so quickly. People are beginning to listen. No one wants to have their hands slapped by these Girls.”
“We know that people are listening,” Kollwitz said, “because we get an enormous amount of feedback. We are asked to go all over the world and talk about what we’ve done, and to hold workshops trying to help other people do it. Last year alone, we went to Vienna, Berlin, Ireland and Sweden. We’re going to Australia. We’ve been all over this country doing this sort of thing. We’ve been in many magazines and newspapers, and on television news shows. Each time, we talk about the issues to an increasingly widening group of people.”
“The Guerrilla Girls are prime consciousness-raisers and they do it in a way that’s effective, with wit in all senses of the word,” said Kirk Varnedoe, director of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Varnedoe believes that museums are much more aware now of the inequities some artists encounter. “The art world is continuing to change and become more diverse, not just because of advocacy forces, but also because of the way the world is changing.”
MOMA’s recent contemporary exhibition, “Dislocations,” had a strong mix of artists in terms of race, gender and age, which he said, “answers the call for diversity that the Guerrilla Girls advanced, among other virtues.”
Encouraged by their effect on the art world, the Girls have broadened their attack to cover other issues. Last year, they produced several posters that critiqued the Persian Gulf War and two postwar posters. All of them are also on display at Loyola Marymount.
One wartime poster has “Missing in Action” stamped all the way across it. It lists what is missing: “National health care, an end to poverty and homelessness, no more discrimination, a cure for AIDS, child care and education for everyone, reproductive rights for all women, a safe environment, an alternative energy policy.”
A postwar poster shows a picture of a policeman putting a nightstick on a homeless person lying on a bench. It says, “Question: What’s the difference between a prisoner of war and a homeless person? Answer: Under the Geneva Convention, a prisoner of war is entitled to food, shelter and medical care.”
“As people in the world, we’re interested in more than the art world,” Kollwitz said. “We learned to do something pretty well, and we wanted to see what we could do with it in new ways.”
But the Girls have not forgotten where they came from. At the same time that they did the war posters, they produced one that said, “These are the most bigoted galleries in New York. Why? Because they show the fewest women and artists of color.”
“Again the galleries were a list of many of the big galleries,” Kollwitz said.
They are currently working on a poster that will depict their “own version of the concept of natural law” and a piece on sexual harassment. They have started to do a monthly radio show in New York and are planning to begin a newsletter called “Hot Flashes from the Guerrilla Girls.”
“One thing we’ve noticed is the posters can only handle big ideas, but there are lots of little tidbits--especially because we have spies all over the country who tell us all this neat stuff--that we could put in a newsletter,” Kollwitz said. “Plus we’ll do some longer pieces exploring different issues, like education, that we haven’t figured out how to do in posters.
“We have made some progress in recent years, so there’s every reason to think, if all of us keep up the pressure for what we want in the art world, in the country, in our towns, et cetera, things will change a little bit. We were a bunch of people bitching and moaning about conditions. And we thought, ‘We’ll just try and do something.’ And here it is, years later, and we’re still trying to do something.”
“Guerrilla Girls Talk Back,” at Laband Art Gallery, Loyola Marymount University, Loyola Boulevard at West 80th St., Los Angeles, through Feb. 29. Open 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. Call (310) 338-2880.