By Marc H. Miller
When the Guerrilla Girls began wheatpasting their first posters on walls in Soho and Tribeca in 1985 they introduced a provocative new type of politicized street art that had an almost immediate effect. Rooted in an era when women were increasingly conscious of widespread inequalities in America, the Guerrilla Girls spotlighted the specific plight of women in the arts. As one early poster proclaimed, ”Women in America earn only 2/3 of what men do. Women artists earn only 1/3 of what men artists do.” Over the next years, the Guerrilla Girls’ ongoing poster campaign called out art world powers by publicizing more shockingly lopsided statistics often with sarcastic humor. The posters did not end the disparity that women artists faced, but the point was driven home and the ratios soon improved.
Although they were created by an anonymous group primarily for political purposes, a strong case can be made for classifying the posters as fine art. Not only were all the Guerrilla Girls artists by profession, their posters were made at a time when many artists wanted to do work that effected social change, and when posters and ephemera became the key objects that documented the new temporal genres of performance and street art. Comparable to the street art posters of Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and the artist collaborative Group Material, the Guerrilla Girls posters are clever, well designed, and reflect art world trends and concerns. When they occasionally stage public events wearing their signature gorilla masks, the Guerrilla Girls’ creative originality extends beyond posters to a form of politicized performance art.
Who are the Guerrilla Girls? The members of the group have always insisted on anonymity both as a shield in their battle with the art establishment and as a way to emphasize that their work is collaborative and not about individuals. To begin with there were seven members in the group but over time more than one hundred artists have participated. The 1990 poster Guerrilla Girls’ Identities Exposed! teasingly embeds their names in a much longer list of over 500 art world participants who have supported their actions. It has now been over 25 years since the first Guerrilla Girls posters hit the streets and there may soon be a breach in the group’s anonymity since the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles has purchased their archives and opened them to researchers. Stay tuned. There may be surprises.
The Guerrilla Girls originally printed their posters in small lots of less than 500 with many destroyed when posted. In the few instances when Guerrilla Girl posters were reprinted in later years there are obvious changes in either the design or paper. Gallery 98 offers here a rare selection of original posters that were never posted on the streets and are in pristine condition.