An Interview with the Guerrilla Girls
A group of anonymous artist-activists have been agitating on behalf women and people of color in the art world since 1985.
They're funny, they're smart, and at least one of them thinks they're sexier with their masks on. The Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous artist-activists, have been chipping at the glass ceiling in the arts on behalf of women and people of color since 1985, when their bold, humorous posters first began appearing around New York City. Their subversive sense of irony soon had the art world looking in the mirror, facing prejudices that many had been quick to see elsewhere in society but not in themselves.
Their new book, The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art surveys female artists of the past—from the ancient Helen of Egypt to the Russian-turned-Parisian "simultaneous" designer Sonia Delaunay to Washington, D.C., painter Alma Thomas. Contributing editor Rebecca Miller spoke with two of the Girls, Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz (each sporting the name of her favorite dead woman artist).
Which artists do you most admire?
Frida: The women artists I admire most are those who had to struggle the hardest and found outrageous and inventive ways to have creative lives.
Käthe: One of my favorites is Edmonia Lewis, a 19th-century sculptor, part Chippewa, part African American, who got herself to Rome, where there was a little less discrimination. She made huge marble sculptures of Civil War and anti-slavery heroes and mythological figures. She managed to survive by crating up huge sculptures and sending them to collectors in the United States along with invoices, even though they hadn't ordered them. Often enough, they would send money back.
Where do you get your news?
Frida: We have moles in every major art institution in the United States.
Are there museums that seem to be taking the Guerrilla Girls' message to heart?
Frida: Museums on the West Coast do very well. We found that the further you get from New York, the more responsive museums are to the work of women and artists of color. Everyone thinks that New York is the center of the art world, and the most progressive place. Well, it ain't true.
What books and authors have influenced you?
Frida: Many scholars—mostly women—have been dealing with issues of feminism and the poverty of art history as we know it for years. But their work is buried in tomes, and we wanted to popularize what they had done. Art critic Linda Nochlin posed the question "Why have there been no great women artists?" We turned that around in our book to ask, "Why have so few women artists been considered great?" For instance, there's a wonderful book by Dore Ashton about Rosa Bonheur. Or Rozske Pollach and Griselda Parker's Old Mistresses, a take-off on Old Masters.