On the Spot: Kathe Kollwitz

September 28, 2011

Kathe Kollwitz, artist, activist and the original Guerrilla Girl.

In the spring of 1985, gorillas stormed the streets of New York City. Calling themselves the Guerrilla Girls, the masked art avengers pasted darkly funny works of street art across the city, calling out sexism and racism in galleries and museums. A quarter-century later, the Girls are going strong with kamikaze ad campaigns all over the world. In conjunction with the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ retrospective “The Guerrilla Girls Talk Back” (on view through Sunday), founding member Kathe Kollwitz reflected on a career of art activism behind a rubber mask.

Why has humor been so important in the Guerrilla Girls’ work?
Humor helps you sneak in under the radar and change people’s minds — just look at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Our strategy from the start was to prove our case, to show how bad it was [in the art world for women]. We present facts in an outrageous way, with a little fake fur.

How bad was it, exactly?
We did one of our most well-known posters, “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met?,” for the first time in 1989. We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and counted the naked females in the paintings versus the women artists. Five percent of the artists were women, but 85 percent of the nudes were. Women’s bodies are sought after; women artists, not so much.

You did a similar piece for a 2007 project with The Washington Post, “Horror on the National Mall.”
The numbers were just dire. The National Gallery of Art was 98 percent male, 99.9 percent white.

What impact have the Guerrilla Girls made over the past 25 years?
We’re in a bizarre position today where the art world we’ve always attacked loves us. Suddenly, we’re in these museums. But more people see the work and get that it is a model for a crazy kind of activism you can do, too.

National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW; through Sun., $10; 202-783-5000. (Metro Center)
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