They’ve been confronting gender inequality in New York museums and galleries since 1985, their individual personalities and names hidden behind their masks, their humor and gallantry always on display as they count, first of all, the disparity: in 1985, only one woman had a solo exhibition at the four major New York museums—the Guggenheim, Metropolitan, Modern, and Whitney; in 2015, one woman had a solo exhibitions at each of these palaces of culture.
That amount of progress took thirty years.
Meanwhile, the museums and their collections expanded. Millions of dollars were spent on a great new edifice downtown. Curators and critics talked about expanding the canon to include more subsets of artists: gay, lesbian, transgender, black…
But women, hardly a subset at 53 percent of the U.S. population, remain stuck at a low level of representation—and no one is talking about it. The few women who are recognized as important artists do little—with the major exception of Judy Chicago—to bring on their neglected peers. In fact I still hear of women artists of some renown who refuse to be included in exhibitions “limited” to women.
But here are the Guerrilla Girls, cutting their big thirtieth birthday party cake at the Abrons Art Center in Manhattan last May. And this is progress.
I was living in New York when they first jumped onto the scene, and I remember being scared. Wow, they were angry! Wow, those scowling gorilla masks were ugly! A small voice inside me kept repeating that we only make progress by being sweet, by being pretty (if possible), maybe even a little bit sexy…
Because that seemed to work. For me, for a little while, whereas ugly faces and fierce confrontations don’t.
Or do they?
Judy Chicago now has a major wing at the Brooklyn Museum, built by Elizabeth Sackler, where Judy’s Dinner Party reposes in majesty after decades in storage, along with a continually renewed exhibit of women’s art in all its incredible variety and power. The Guerrilla Girls must be fiercely proud of that: the Brooklyn Museum—that Neo-Classical temple to gentility and received taste!
And, by wearing the names of great women artists now dead—Kahlo, Neel, Kollwitz—the Guerrilla Girls make us notice that these women are not disappeared; in fact here in Taos, when I am spending a few days, the Harwood Museum has built a special gallery for their collection of paintings by Agnes Martin.
In the end, the cage the Guerrilla Girls are rattling are the cages that confine all of us, tighter and tighter as we devise more categories that define us narrowly and separate us more completely. The labels on those new cages are arcane, the words and definitions unfamiliar, but whatever their meaning, they serve to separate us from what used to be called The Family of Man—ludicrously—but is actually the would-be family of all human beings.
So, Guerrilla Girls, prance on! Perhaps next spring you will come flying to Santa Fe, to count the number of women represented in the galleries and museums here and astonish and horrify us with your glaring masks.