Feminist Street Posters
Written by Marc H. Miller and Jonah Wolf
In the spring of 1985, an anonymous band of activists instantly scandalized the art-world establishment with a series of wheatpaste posters purposefully plastered all over the streets of New York’s Soho gallery district. The black-and-white posters posed a blunt question to the powers that be: “What do these artists have in common?” A list of 42 names followed — all of them prominent male artists. The answer? “They allow their work to be shown in galleries that show no more than 10% women artists or none at all.” The posters were signed “Guerrilla Girls, conscience of the art world.”
Over the next year the street-poster campaign would continue, using humor, sarcasm and statistics to call out powerful galleries, museums and art critics for their blatant gender and ethnic bias. A press release announcing the group’s arrival set the terms. “Simple facts will be spelled out; obvious conclusions can be drawn.” People quickly took notice of this new political street art.
The Guerrilla Girls’ collectively designed posters eschewed ornament, pairing clean, all-caps, extra-bold type with simple charts, tables and infographics that instantly delivered their message. The combination of advertising techniques with a radical political agenda was novel. Less immediately obvious was the work’s artistic character. Members of the group — all artists themselves — have written that they could never agree on whether “what we do is art or not.” To answer this question, we need to view their work against the changes already roiling the 1980s New York art world.
The Guerrilla Girls’ emergence was part of a generational turnover, as baby boomers, radicalized in the 1960s, made artistic practices out of their activist work, often working in collectives. The Guerrilla Girls’ feminist agenda can be compared to the political work of their 1980s peers: groups like Collaborative Projects, Inc., who broke into an abandoned municipal building to mount “The Real Estate Show,” a protest exhibition about land speculation; Gran Fury, an offshoot of the political organization ACT UP, who made propaganda to publicize the AIDS crisis; and Group Material, who embraced a variety of public formats to promote a culture of diversity.
All of these groups started working at a time when the most interesting art in New York was appearing outside gallery walls. The graffiti that covered trains, handball courts and buildings had demonstrated street art’s ability to reach a broad public and establish a reputation. The swift art-world rises of Keith Haring, Richard Hambleton, Lee Quiñones and Jean-Michel Basquiat (of the SAMO duo), all of whom painted directly on the street, underscored the lesson. At the same time, fledgling musicians were printing street posters to advertise their gigs — a practice adopted by artist Jenny Holzer, whose poster “Truisms” brought her all-text aesthetic to a wide audience and effectively launched her art career.
Like the graffiti artists who assumed pseudonymous “tags” to avoid arrest, the Guerrilla Girls each took on the name of a deceased female artist to avoid art-world reprisal. A fluctuating membership, with veteran Guerrilla Girls regularly making room for younger members, has helped keep the group’s composition a mystery — as have the comic-relief gorilla masks donned during public appearances. There are thought to have been seven founding Guerrilla Girls; the group’s website now counts 55 current and former members. The 1990 poster Guerrilla Girls’ Identities Exposed! ironically laid claim to a roster of more than 500 women artists who had joined the group’s call and “signed up to fight discrimination in the art world.”
Thanks to sympathetic art institutions, the Guerrilla Girls have engaged in sanctioned public art projects — though not without difficulty. Perhaps their best-known meme resulted from a 1989 commission from the Public Art Fund, featuring the nude from Ingres’s classic Odalisque wearing a gorilla head, below the provocative text “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” The PAF turned around and vetoed the proposed billboard campaign, claiming the design “wasn’t clear enough.” After this rejection, the Guerrilla Girls paid for the posters to run on New York buses themselves, only to see them censored by the transit authorities. The Public Art Fund would agree to sponsor a series of anti-censorship Guerrilla Girls billboards two years later.
Today, Guerrilla Girls posters are found in major museums around the world. But despite this success, it turns out that even after three decades, there is still work to be done. For their 30th anniversary, the Guerrilla Girls revisited a question they had posed back in 1985: “How many women had one-person exhibitions at NYC museums last year?” For each museum surveyed, the count had increased — but only by one.
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Images shown (from top to bottom):
Press release announcing first two street posters, 1985
Guerrilla Girls street posters 1990
The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist 1988, 17ʺ × 22ʺ