The nude reclining woman in “Grande Odalisque” was controversial when Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painted her in France in 1814.

Her second provocative life began in New York City in 1989, when she appeared — with a gorilla mask over her head — next to the question, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”

The poster was created by the Guerrilla Girls, an international art activist group, and it announced, “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” Under cover of night, members placed similar posters and stickers around cities and outside world-famous museums, using humor and statistics to get people to think about the underrepresentation of women.

They are still at it, 35 years after their 1985 launch — but now their vivid protest art is hanging on the walls of museums, not just outside them. A retrospective collection with nearly 100 pieces of their work will be on display at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) until May 20, one of five exhibits officially opening Friday.

UMOCA has planned nine exhibitions led by women this year, including the Guerrilla Girls, as 2020 marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment. It’s also the 150th anniversary of the first vote cast by a woman in the territory of Utah, considered the first modern vote by a woman in the U.S.

The Guerrilla Girl known as Käthe Kollwitz, one of the group’s founders, will give a multimedia presentation about its history, art and purpose on March 9 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City.

Kollwitz was a famous German painter, printmaker and sculptor; Guerrilla Girls use the names of dead female artists as pseudonyms, to honor them and to ensure their own message isn’t discounted by those who dislike their art.

The nude-in-a-gorilla-mask poster highlighted the disproportionate number of women artists represented at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the obsession with the female body shown in modern art galleries, Kollwitz said.

“Once you see that poster, if it gets to you at all, you can never go to a museum again without thinking to yourself, ‘Why are these things on the wall?’” Kollwitz said in a phone interview.

“If we hadn’t done that poster, you would not want to talk to us today,” she said. “If we had just done that headline, people would have just thought it was all right, but instead we figured out a way to present something totally differently.”

The anonymous activist group started in 1985 as a reaction to what its founders saw as discrimination against and underrepresentation of women and people of color in the art market.

“We were a bunch of young artists ourselves, and it really pissed us off because we knew so many great artists around us,” said Kollwitz. “If you only have art by a white man in museums, that is not a portrait of our real, diverse culture. So we had this idea to put up a couple of posters on the streets of New York. We wanted to do a new kind of political art.”

Guerrilla Girls called out museums for their lack of one-woman exhibitions, galleries with 10% or less of displayed works by women and artists who worked with those galleries. They’ve chastised collectors, the Oscars, politicians and institutions — including the Sundance Film Festival in 2001 — as devaluing diversity.

Today, as “the conscience of the art world,” they are focused on income inequality and museum corruption. In 2018, they critiqued museum sensibilities with “3 Ways to Write a Museum Wall Label When the Artist is a Sexual Predator,” and last year an installation outside the Museum of Modern Art called for it to cut ties to big donors with ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

So the shift to appearing on museum walls — where they are part of collections, or through traveling exhibits like the one at UMOCA — was initially disconcerting, Kollwitz said.

“In the beginning, we were really conflicted about that because we like our position as outsiders,” said Kollwitz. “One thing about museums is they have great audiences, people who really care about things. And when we first started seeing our work in museums, we immediately understood that we were presenting a critique of the institution right on the walls of the institution.”

GOING TO THE GUERRILLA GIRLS
The Guerrilla Girls exhibit invites you to walk through a timeline of their activism and art, beginning in 1985 and winding through nearly 100 pieces created through early 2016.
Where • Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City.
When • Runs through May 20.
Admission • Suggested $8 donation.
Hours • Closed Sundays and Mondays. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m.–8 p.m.; Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Meet a Guerrilla Girl • The Guerrilla Girl known as Käthe Kollwitz, one of the group’s founders, will give a multimedia presentation about its history, art and purpose on March 9 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City. Tickets are $15-$20 and available through ArtTix at saltlakecountyarts.org/events.
Also showing • The exhibit “Utah Collects: Contemporary Collecting Practices” takes a look at private and public art collections in Utah, critiquing them on some of the same disparities that Guerrilla Girls address in their exhibit. In the Street Gallery until May 9.

Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission, and Libby Haslam, president of Studio LP architecture, had pitched bringing the Guerrilla Girls to Salt Lake City.

“Not everyone agrees with the way that they do things, but I think they had to be that loud in order to get people to pay attention,” said Pearce.

“I think in some ways [they are similar to] the #MeToo movement, which some people feel has been too loud and too vocal, and swinging too far one way,” she added. “We had to be that way in order for people to pay attention.”

Pearce and Haslam recently started the grassroots organization 801 Creative Women, which assists women in business, arts and technology through events, networking and urging industries to support women.

Laura Allred Hurtado, executive director of UMOCA, ran with their idea. “I do think [the Guerrilla Girls’] art started to change the conversation and change the discourse for museums and for collectors and for curators who are building those collections,” she said.

UMOCA was founded by a woman, Alta Rawlins Jensen, in 1931, when it debuted as the Art Barn, Hurtado noted.

Inclusion “is actually a core part of our legacy,” she said. “Obviously during different times, we’ve been better at it than others.” That legacy includes “engaging with social issues and providing a platform for dialogue and nurturing a space for artists and makers,” she added.

At a VIP opening event Wednesday, Hurtado thanked Diane and Sam Stewart for an undisclosed donation that will provide a longterm sponsorship of the main gallery, where the Guerrilla Girls exhibit is now on display. The main gallery is now named in their honor.

In 2012, the Guerrilla Girls updated their iconic Met poster, hoping to show a significant change. Instead, the number of female artists had dropped from 5 to 4%. But the number of female nudes also declined, to 76%.

“If you are an activist, it’s so easy to get discouraged, but we say don’t worry that you can’t change everything,” Kollwitz said. “Just try to do one thing and if it works, do another. That’s really the story of the Guerrilla Girls. And like anyone who just keeps going, over time that kind of activism does add up to something.”

A 2020 FOCUS ON WOMEN
Utah Museum of Contemporary Art has planned nine exhibitions led by women this year as 2020 marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment. On display now:
• Guerrilla Girls, a retrospective collection with nearly 100 pieces of their work from 1985 to 2016, through May 20.
• Trishelle Jeffery: Best Breasts in the West. A series of autobiographical handmade comic books that explore intimate details of the artist’s experience with her diagnosis of breast cancer and personal journey. In the Projects Gallery until March 21.
• Ya’el Pedroza: Humanocene. This exhibit looks at ecology through the eyes of the artist and her relationship to the natural world. In the AIR [Artist in Residence] Space until March 21.
• Upcoming: Colour Maisch, who works in sculpture, drawings and video stills; Jane Christensen and Jiyoun Lee Lodge, current UMOCA artists-in-residence; curator Laura August and installation artist Devin Harclerode.
• Also: An unannounced artist will be featured in UMOCA’s Pan-American Identity Project video series. The current artist is Adrian Stimson with “Buffalo Boy,” which plays on the stereotypes of Native Americans and cowboys and mimics the tropes of a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In the Codec Gallery until May 16.

Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.