PRINT September 1990


“INTERVENTION” IS THE BUZZWORD that defined and prescribed the kind of political act considered effective and correct during the 1980s. In the culture at large, cynicism and exhaustion numbed survivors of the political activism of the ’60s and “70s; at the same time, within the academy, aspects of simulation and deconstruction theories destabilized ”humanistic“ concepts of identity and action, contributing to a sense of moral equivocation. In the political arena internationally, easily visible and identifiable white, Western males did not fare too well fighting wars against often not white, seemingly invisible, unidentifiable guerrillas (or terrorists) fighting carefully chosen limited engagements. Nationally, single-issue candidates or issues predominated: prochoice, prolife, animal rights, the environment, ”read-my-lips.“ Across the political spectrum, only small ”interventions," therefore, were believed possible, always already understood by their initiators as ephemeral and of limited effectiveness.

“Guerrilla Girls—Conscience of the Art World.” The name and Homeric epithet immediately indicate both the timeliness and the character of their chosen form of intervention. These self-styled “Guerrillas” chose as their subject and target, sexism and racism in the art world, and as primary site for their ambushes, the SoHo and Tribeca neighborhoods of Manhattan. Further, recuperating the word “conscience” might in itself be seen as an intervention. During a notably materialistic and selfish era, GG recalled to public notice the strategies and values of earlier political groups: isn’t conscience dated as a concept? Naïve, religious even? The Guerrilla Girl’s adoption of it was characteristically tongue-in-cheek and sincere (another retro trait in the 1980s).

Since an intervention is meant to be brief, site- and instant-specific, it is amazing that Guerrilla Girls, formed in 1985, is still active. A press release dated 6 May 1985 announces the appearance in SoHo of “posters pointing to the inadequate numbers of women artists represented in leading New York galleries,” and, further, states that “Guerrilla Girls plans to continue its campaign throughout the next weeks and next season, drawing attention to the retrograde attitudes toward women artists that characterize certain segments of the art world of the mid-80’s.” There is something touching about “next weeks and next season”—not seasons, mind you. No spontaneously formed underground group could imagine that something done out of righteous anger and as a lark could last five years and counting. Their fifth anniversary may be the appropriate moment to consider what Guerrilla Girls is and what Guerrilla Girls has done and does, rather than that perennially asked question, who are the Guerrilla Girls? (Sophisticated players in the political game of intervention, the GG, as we enter the ’90s, are assuredly involved in their own process of self-evaluation.)

In June 1984 the Museum of Modern Art was picketed by demonstrators protesting the lamentable under-representation of women artists in the “International Survey of Painting and Sculpture” exhibition that had reopened the enlarged, “trumped-up” museum. Of 169 artists chosen, only 19 were women. This gender percentage symbolized either how few inroads had been made by women into the bedrock mainstream (to be oxymoronic) of the art world, or the degree of backlash and slippage that had taken place as a decade of noisy activism gave way to complacency and careerism even among women artists. Public pressure on mainstream institutions had let up. MoMA could act with impunity, and Leo Castelli could say, in response to GG’s protests, that they suffered from a “chip that some women have on their shoulders. There is absolutely no discrimination against good women artists. There are just fewer women artists.”1 The art world certainly needed a conscience—especially a gendered one. Guerrilla Girls began early in 1985.

GG’s first two posters pointed the finger at specific galleries (“THESE GALLERIES SHOW NO MORE THAN 10% WOMEN ARTISTS OR NONE AT ALL”) and named names (“WHAT DO THESE ARTISTS HAVE IN COMMON?”). Twenty major galleries from BlumHelman, Mary Boone, Castelli, and Marlborough to Tony Shafrazi, Ed Thorp, and Washburn, and 42 male artists from Arman, Francesco Clemente, and Eric Fischl to Bill Jensen and Richard Serra were depicted as either actively responsible for or, in the case of the artists, complicit in the egregious sexism of the art world. The naming of institutions and individuals continued into 1986: “ONLY 4 OF THE 42 ARTISTS IN THE CARNEGIE INTERNATIONAL ARE WOMEN,” “THE GUGGENHEIM TRANSFORMED 4 DECADES OF SCULPTURE BY EXCLUDING WOMEN ARTISTS. Only 5 of the 58 artists chosen by Diane Waldman for ‘Transformations in Sculpture: 4 Decades of European and American Art’ are women.” That year GG was unrelenting, posting at least eight “public service messages” bringing the art world to task. At the same time, a “HITS” list at Printed Matter of “people [who] are making things better for women artists” provided a positive counterpoint to the steady barrage of negative statistics, commending, among others, the gallerists Brooke Alexander, Paula Cooper, and Robert Miller, and the critics Barbara Kruger, Jeanne Silverthorne, and Judd Tully. GG placed major museums “UNDER SURVEILLANCE,” indicating an ironic understanding of the group’s own marginality and powerlessness, and, paradoxically, its awareness that the art community was becoming sensitive to its critiques. After a suitable pause: “IT’S EVEN WORSE IN EUROPE” (ba-ba-boom!).

Who were these women? Excuse me, Girls? Their “victims” wanted to know. Like that “damned elusive Pimpernel,” they seek them here, they seek them there, and some threatened to sue if only their individual identities could be revealed. To this day, however, the precise identities and numbers of the Guerrilla Girls are unknown.

“Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”2 If anonymity reflects the traditional condition of feminine accomplishment, or the pressure to choose between anger and self-repression, there may be a significant difference between enforced and chosen anonymity. Whereas in the past anonymity has been a curse on female artistic creativity, the Guerrilla Girls have embraced the strategic benefits of their covert existence. Since no one knows who is a GG, anyone may be one: Kirk Varnedoe’s secretary, or David Salle’s studio assistant. There is strength in the potential threat of an unknown “Big Sister.” But there are also poignant undertones in what the GG have said about being anonymous: “Publishing our names would destroy our anonymity, and therefore both our effectivity and our careers as artists would be gone, be dead,”3 and “We gain a lot of leverage by being anonymous. The dealers and collectors don’t know who among their friends is a Guerrilla Girl so they can’t single anyone out and say, it’s just sour grapes.”4 The fear of mockery and retribution indicates that perhaps their anonymity, like Anon’s, has not been so freely chosen.

Curiosity about the Guerrilla Girls, a wish to tear off the gorilla masks, seems deeply rooted in a desire to interfere with women’s privacy and either to diminish or to appropriate and co-opt their activities, even when the curiosity passes for good will. This spring, for example, a male student of mine, newly interested in feminism, wanted to “help” the GG—an act of chivalry perhaps, or a wish to absorb some of the glamour, the “feminine mystique,” of the group (as if dodging armed guards in SoHo at 4 A.M. while carrying pots of glue is glamorous). When I suggested that he enjoy their work, learn from their statistics and tactics, but find his own space and subject for intervention, he was upset by what he considered separatism. That women should do anything behind closed doors, for themselves, without help, immediately calls up choruses of “let me in.”

The GG’s anonymity has other, conflicting implications. Staunchly committed to their interventions, they have been incredibly generous in giving their time to the art world. They have even engaged in secret guerrilla actions, invisible to the public: in a constant needling process, they send letters to galleries, critics, curators, and journalists, catching them red-handed in incidences of sexism. A typical letter returned the offending show card or review, asking a polite question: “Dear —-: is there a hidden agender (sic) at —-?” Art Park, Castelli, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Village Voice, Robert Hughes and Time magazine, and even Artists Space have received similar missives tailored to the specific offense. The Guerrilla Girls have also papered the ladies’ rooms of the Carnegie Institute (in 1985–86) and placed messages in books, catalogues, and the postcard racks at the Guggenheim Museum’s bookstore. And yet, of course, GG has a career. “It” has a resume, which, if it riffs ironically on the idea of career, is not itself a parody of a resumé: Guerrilla Girls really has been in many exhibitions, curated shows, been published in journals, lectured in art institutions around the country, been written up, even received awards and grants.5

Furthermore, while the GG’s anonymity may have its uses, it puts them at philosophical odds with earlier feminist groups to whom they may owe a debt. Actions taken by the New York Radical Women in 1968 are worth remembering in this regard, including the notorious and wildly misreported “Miss America protest,” at which radical feminists did not burn a bra but did put their bodies and their names on the line.6 Thus there is a slight sense of betrayal of these pioneers in the words of one GG: “We certainly don’t want people to think we’re all militant feminists just because we think women artists should get a fair deal—that’s just another stereotype to deal with.”7 This seems a bit disingenuous. Who is stereotyping whom? What is wrong with being a “militant feminist,” except that some “people” might not like it? And which group, after all, has had a greater impact on society?

Yet Guerrilla Girls’ anonymity and, particularly in the posters, the gap created between the concreteness of the group’s gendered message and the disguised actuality of the women who created it, are consistent with an era that has seen widespread efforts to impede women’s autonomy over their own bodies. Even within the academy, deconstruction theory has sought distance from the female body, preferring to focus on femininity as a position disconnected from actual females. In Technologies of Gender, Teresa de Lauretis notes

the consistent refusal by each philosopher [Foucault, Lyotard, and Derrida] to identify femininity with real women. . . . This kind of deconstruction of the subject is effectively a way to recontain women in femininity (Woman) and to reposition female subjectivity in the male subject, however that will be defined.8

So how convenient that we never see the GG, except as type on white posters or as gorilla-masked performers.

Curiously, their anonymity allows GG to employ a cute tone, with a dash of sexual innuendo. “Dearest Art Collector,” they handwrite in 1986 on pink paper, "It has come to our attention that your collection, like most, does not contain enough art by women.

We know that you feel terrible about this and will rectify the situation immediately.

All our love, Guerrilla Girls."

Another of their “signatures” continues the sexual play: a lipstick imprint, à la Marilyn Monroe, and unmistakably labial. The GG are sexy and the news media—from Mother Jones to Esquire and Playboy—love them. The language used to describe them is often as flirtatious as GG’s impertinent soubrette voice: “sassy,”9 “shapely, fish-net-hosed legs to a leather miniskirt, a bustier and, hm, a gorilla mask,” “politically sexy,” “the group’s real turn-on is its wit.”10

One might compare the GG to the V-Girls, an art performance group composed of five charming young women visibly arrayed on a dais. The V-Girls use their given names (they are Martha Baer, Jessica Chalmers, Erin Cramer, Andrea Fraser, and Marianne Weems), but it remains unclear how close their carefully scripted roles are to their “real” personalities. Though unmasked, they remain partially veiled by theater. GG, on the other hand, has the sexual allure of the veiled woman, of the voice on the telephone, and, along with humor, they use titillation as one of their political tools. They can risk that strategy because no individual is compromised.

Consistent with Guerrilla Girls’ tactical use of anonymity, for a long time the group did not publish any women artists’ names. This seemed a strategic flaw: not only could Castelli get away with saying “there are fewer women artists,” but the “man on the street” might infer that there really are no women artists. At last GG countered these reactions with two posters. “WHEN RACISM & SEXISM ARE NO LONGER FASHIONABLE, WHAT WILL YOUR ART COLLECTION BE WORTH?,” 1989, listed 67 distinguished women artists whose work is available for a song relative to the prices of work by men on the inflated and gender-biased art-auction market. That a collection of works by such artists as Natalia Goncharova, Frida Kahlo, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Berthe Morisot, Georgia O’Keeffe, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun, and 60 others—all together—would still be worth less than one painting by Jasper Johns borders on the tragic. The second poster, from 1989, proved that the intensity of the public’s desire to know who the GG are defies common sense: “GUERRILLA GIRLS’ IDENTITIES EXPOSED!” listed 500 women in the art world. I am one of those women, and people now regularly assume that I really am a GG:11 “So why don’t you guys put up posters on 57th Street?” I’m asked, or, confidentially, “They’re a huge group, right?” Why the GG would suddenly reveal their identities, and how 500 people could be kept secret stretches one’s notion of gullibility! My name being on this one, I can also testify to the speed with which GG posters are ripped up and disappear (out of anger, obsessive architectural hygiene, or desire to own the posters). Two or three days is the maximum life span on regularly trafficked streets in SoHo.

But is it art? To critique GG solely on the basis of esthetic criteria is to miss the point, or even to seek to diminish the power of its political message. Yet the format of the work—the choice of media, the use of language as a primary visual element, the unusual siting—echoes the style of established artists such as Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Erika Rothenberg, or Hans Haacke, and is consistent with much contemporary art practice, particularly in view of expanded definitions of public art and sculpture. In the early ’70s, one learned to call anything not nailed to canvas stretchers “sculpture,” including living human beings (viz. Gilbert & George). Joyce Kozloff notes that “public art also includes temporal events . . . and short-lived art pieces that remain in our memories.”12 Writing of the contradiction between the value society places on “immutability” and the value, in the context of art, that it places on contemporaneity and temporality, Patricia Phillips reveals the potential for political critique inherent in “temporal” public art: “[It] may stir controversy and rage; it may cause confusion; it may occur in non-traditional, marginal and private spaces.”13 Phillips finds noteworthy works by such artists as Holzer and Alfredo Jaar for their ability to “raise questions about the relationship of public art to information and [to] stimulate wry speculations about art and advertising.”14 It is significant that these artists, among many others, were included in MoMA’s 1988 “Committed to Print” exhibition curated by Deborah Wye while Guerrilla Girls, which had been active for three years, was not. This is particularly surprising considering Wye’s description of one type of work appropriate for the show:

The conceptual pieces present information in poster format that is often ambiguous, provocative, and pointedly unusual for the sites in which they are placed. Often simply employing text, or text and imagery, such pieces have been posted in the streets. . . . Yet these prints do not furnish the clear information we expect in a traditional poster.15 [My emphases.]

Included in “Committed to Print” were works involving language: Holzer’s Truisms, Haacke’s Tiffany Cares; street works by Holzer and Christy Rupp; and feminist works such as Ilona Granet’s Curb Your Animal Instincts. Collectives were included: Group Material and the Guerrilla Art Action Group among others. All or none or some of this work may be considered art, depending on one’s generation or one’s esthetic education. What is certain is that the formal strategies, the media employed, its visual appearance, and the degree of political content were identical to those in GG posters. So while the implied reason for the GG’s exclusion may have been the spurious notion that what they do is not “art,” it seems more likely that they were omitted because of their chosen target—the art world, including, of course, MoMA itself.

Other artists and collectives making comparable work have been more easily accepted by art institutions than have GG. Holzer’s oeuvre exists perhaps more in the realm of fiction than politics, and she has moved to more permanent and expensive materials than posters. Many of the artists in “Committed to Print” were protesting the Vietnam War, which by 1988 was a comparatively safe subject for museum display. It is, perhaps, precisely their disregard for individual career concerns and their persistent lack of politesse regarding art-world matters that assures the Guerrilla Girls’ critical position and their relatively gritty marginality. Under the stress of recent forces of suppression, however, new, angrier, more confrontational, and messily embodied groups are forming. Among them are SisterSerpents, also anonymous, also self-identified as “guerrillas in the war against sexism.”16 New political situations inevitably call for new interventions, and this group’s choice of raw, sexual representational imagery and language—said a poster at a recent show they organized at ABC No Rio, “For all you folks who consider a fetus more valuable than a woman, Fuck a Fetus”—provide an interesting contrast to GG’s coolly provocative ironies and statistics (which, after all, have made it to the pages of the New York Times and Artforum).

It must also be admitted that not all of the GG’s interventions, especially their public performances, are equally effective. Two not very articulate GGs disappointed a packed house at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1987 with a poor-quality video and off-putting, “Oh sure. The art world’s a pit, but I want an equal opportunity to climb into that pit”^17^ answers to questions from audience members stuck on the problem of art-world “fairness” to anyone, male or female. These particular Girls seemed unable to step back from the art world as presently constituted, to engage in a more sophisticated analysis of patterns of success and failure, including the art world’s calibrated hierarchy of “permissible” transgressions. Most distressingly, they failed to educate an audience intrigued by their posters. Other public performances have presented similar lapses.

GG’s poster work, on the other hand, has been more consistently satisfying. It is almost unfortunate that they have chosen to move on from where one might want, even need, them to stay. “The Banana Report: The Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney,” 1987, was one of GG’s most ambitious projects, filling the Clocktower with a very complete analysis of the Whitney’s curatorial and acquisitional practices. Surely this type of report needs continual updating, as the art world, ever threatening to slip backward, demands continual vigilance. Roberta Smith points to improvements in the Whitney’s gender percentages in her recent New York Times article on the Guerrilla Girls,18 but finds merely “worth noting,” in a recent review of new galleries in SoHo, that “except for Eva Hesse and Agnes Martin . . . , there is not a woman among them.”19 As they say in France, “Plus ça change” (plus c’est la méme chose).

Recently GG has tackled the hypocrisy that underscores the art world’s holier-than-thou reactions to efforts to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts and censor controversial art: “RELAX SENATOR HELMS, THE ART WORLD IS YOUR KIND OF PLACE!” (segregated and sexist), “GUERRILLA GIRLS’ DEFINITION OF A HYPOCRITE” (“An art collector who buys white male art at benefits for liberal causes, but never buys art by women or artists of color”), and a poster that uses GG’s “cute” but acidic tone to perfection, “GUERRILLA GIRLS’ POP QUIZ.” The answer to “What happens ten months of the year in the art world?” is printed upside down, like a newspaper quiz, and one can just hear the mixture of condescension, sarcasm, cloying sweetness, and triumph in the answer: “Discrimination.”

Any criticisms of GG must be understood as backseat driving on my part. For I’ve grown accustomed—if not to their faces—to their impertinent “interventions” which so often continue to hit the mark. The external force of reaction on all fronts may well impel! GG to grow politically beyond the narrow confines of the art world, although in doing so they would risk losing their acuity, specificity, and their particular constituency.

At the end of A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf speaks of the importance of anonymous forerunners to the development of women artists: “But I maintain that she [‘the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister’] would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”20 Guerrilla Girls works for me and for countless other women artists, by keeping the voice of feminism and social justice alive with a leavening of humor. I treasure my copy of “THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING A WOMAN ARTIST.” Except for appearing “in the art magazines wearing a gorilla suit,” how true to my life—too true—that poster is, and how nice to have it on a wall in my neighborhood, to be read, perhaps, by the “geniuses” who “choke on those big cigars or paint in Italian suits.”

Mira Schor is a painter who lives in New York. She is the coeditor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G, a journal of contemporary art.



1. Quoted by Patricia Lynden, “The Art of Protest,” New York Woman, September 1987, p. 11. A look at Castelli’s roster proves that he puts his money where his mouth is. In the Art in America Annual Guide to Museums, Galleries + Artists, 1990–91, Castelli lists 16 male artists and no women.

2. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1957, p. 51.

3. Quoted by Paul Taylor, “Where the Girls Are,” Corporate Culture, April 1987, p. 178.

4. Quoted by Lynden, p. II.

5. The Guerrilla Girls were awarded a grant by Art Matters, Inc., 1986; Honorable Mention in the Visual Arts, Manhattan Borough President’s Award, 1987; and a New York Foundation for the Arts Grant, 1988.

6. See Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

7. Quoted by Mark Woodruff, “Artspeak: Monkey Business,” Taxi, April 1989, p. 45.

8. Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender. Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987, pp. 23–24.

9. Lynden, p. II.

10. “Queen Kong,” Playboy 36 no. 7, July 1989, p. 15.

11. Only my hairdresser knows for sure.

12. Joyce Kozloff, “From the Other Side: Public Artists on Public Art,” Art Journal 48 no. 4, Winter 1989, p. 339.

13 Patricia C. Phillips, “Temporality and Public Art,” ibid., p. 332.

14. Ibid., p. 334.

15 Deborah Wye, Committed to Print, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988, pp. 8-9.

16. Arlene Raven, “ABC No Lady,” The Village Voice, 19 June 1990, p. 116.

17. Quoted by Myriam Weisang, “Guerrilla Girls Unmask Sexism in the Art World,” Mother Jones, August–September 1987, p. 13.

18. Roberta Smith, “Waging Guerrilla Warfare Against the Art World,” The New York Times, 17 June 1990, pp. C1 and C31.

19. Roberta Smith, “So Big and So Dressed Up, New Galleries Bloom in Soho,” The New York Times, 11 May 1990, p. C1.

20. Woolf, p. 110.