BY Jennifer Kabat in Reviews | 19 AUG 15
Featured in
Issue 173

Guerrilla Girls & Guerrilla Girls Broadband

Abrons Art Center & Bruce High Quality Foundation University Gallery, New York, USA

BY Jennifer Kabat in Reviews | 19 AUG 15

Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum, 1989, poster

How did New York mark the Guerrilla Girls’ 30th anniversary? With two exhibitions – one in a basement, the other in a corridor. That tells you all you needs to know. There was no panel discussion at The Museum of Modern Art, whose 1984 show, ‘An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,’ provoked the Women’s Caucus for Art to call a protest, which gave birth, in 1985, to the Guerrilla Girls. Nor were they included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition ‘America Is Hard to See’, inaugurating its new premises this spring. Instead, there was ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ at Abrons Art Center (the hallway) and ‘#ProvokeProtestPrevail: Guerrilla Girls Broadband’ at Bruce High Quality Foundation University Gallery (BHQFUG – the basement). In 2001, the group split into three different organizations: the original Guerrilla Girls; Guerrilla Girls Broadband (making use of digital technologies) and Guerrilla Girls on Tour (a touring theatre group). The BHQFUG Broadband show included posters from the Girls’ collective heritage as well as the Broads’ (as they’re called) digital efforts at mapping abortion history in Buffalo, New York, and its Heads of State project, which was created in 2011 in response to the alleged attempted rape of a hotel maid by Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It ranks world leaders from Bill Clinton to the Liberian president Charles Taylor as phalluses in various stages of erection, according to the severity of their actions.

At Abrons, almost all their work from 1985–2015 was on display: posters and large-scale banners, correspondence and videos. Handwritten signs announced the dates of each protest campaign. It was impossible to ignore the group’s irrepressible mix of humour and anger. Take their poster The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988). Benefits include: ‘Working without the pressure of success’, ‘Seeing your ideas live on in the work of others’, ‘Being included in revised versions of art history’ and ‘Getting your picture in the art magazines wearing a gorilla suit’. The poster is now in the collections of over 50 institutions worldwide, including the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Tate in London, and the Brooklyn Museum, New York. By not giving the group serious curatorial attention, though, too much was missed out of both of these shows. Neither, for example, addressed questions of process and research. At a time when groups such as W.A.G.E. and others are trying to address the economic conditions under which artists work, knowing how the Guerrilla Girls operate seems essential. It is nearly impossible to imagine ourselves back to the mid-1980s. Instead of email, there were fax machines. All meetings were in person; slogans were laboured over and flyposted to walls in the dead of night; research was not done online.

'Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls 1985-2015', Abrons Art Centre, 2015, exhibition view

Where women’s art is concerned we have come a long way, but not far enough. In 1971, Linda Nochlin wrote her essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Today, we can say with certainty that there are great women artists. The week I went to see the Guerilla Girls’ shows, Christies had its first billion-dollar week. The artist who pushed them over that line? Joan Mitchell. Her 1969–70 painting Afternoon went for USD$5.7 million, which sounds like a lot until you compare it to the men – a 1994 Lucian Freud for USD$56 million or a Jean-Michel Basquiat for USD$37 million. When you test the general impression that the position of women in the artworld has improved against the facts, the picture looks different. Women continue to comprise around 20 percent of the artists who get museum shows in Europe and the US. And, within a globalized art world, the Broads could focus their digital message to greater impact than taking on global leaders.

Only 13 of the 121 artists in that 1984 MoMA show were women. In this year’s painting survey at MoMA, ‘The Forever Now’, more than half were women. ‘The Forever Now’ was meant as a reprise of a 1958 survey that had included one woman. But, in 1989, the year the Girls did their first museum, ‘Weenie Count’ (you can guess what’s being tabulated), the group found that less than five percent of the work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern section was by women artists, while 85 percent of the nudes were female. At the time of the last count in 2012, it was even worse – at just four percent.

Not so long ago, I was having a conversation with a male artist who complained that all major museum shows were going to Brazilians and women (or women Brazilians). I didn’t know what to say, so I apologized. I wanted him to feel better. In a recent issue of ARTNews, dedicated to women in the art world, the women behind the curatorial collective Cleopatra’s wrote: ‘Probably nine out of ten people to hit us up [for shows] are men. We call them squeaky wheels. Squeaky wheels get grease.’ Money, grease, demands and not apologizing seem urgent. So, too, does looking at the more subtle question of why one might feel the need to apologize to a male artist for the women Brazilians instead of questioning his sense of entitlement. Or questioning why things feel better when real parity is still so far off.

Jennifer Kabat is a writer. She teaches at The New School, New York, USA, and on the MFA Art Writing programme, School of Visual Arts, New York.