Artwork: Guerrilla Girls – V&A Museum, London. Photo: Eric Huybrechts, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
No less than Aristotle knowingly observed, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” It’s a natural human urge to come together in the service of something greater than the self, and though the act of making art can be highly individual and idiosyncratic it does not preclude the impulse to create a collective.
Art collectives date back to ancient time, with sculpture workshops held in the marble quarries of Greece and Italy, where classic works were produced; during the French Revolution when artists occupied the Louvre after the king was deposed before it officially transformed into a museum in 1793; and in more recent years, when the lack of state and church-based patronage left artists alone to fend for themselves.
Artist collectives may by formed for any number of reasons, be it philosophical, political, economic, professional, aesthetic, or all of the above. While they each follow their own path they share a fundamental desire for collaboration, which can render their powers transformative. Crave spotlights 5 of the most important artist collectives of the past 50 years.
John Ahearn, Charlie Ahearn, Diego Cortez, Jane Dickson, Jenny Holzer, Joe Lewis, James Nares, Tom Otterness, Walter Robinson, Kiki Smith, Betsy Sussler—the people who came together as Collaborative Projects Inc., NYC (aka Colab) read as a who’s who of New York City’s most exciting artists of the late 1970s/early 1980s.
In 1978, Colab wisely established itself as a non-profit organization so that it could be tax exempt and take advantage of the newly available state and federal art grants. Working in a city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy allowed Colab to use New York as a stage set for their innovative and exciting projects.
“The Times Square Show,” a 1980 exhibition centered in the heart of the city’s Red Light district, put them on the map, and was named “the first avant-garde art show of the ‘80s” in a front-page article in The Village Voice. Over the years, Colab was able to fund the ABC No Rio cultural center; a TV series on Manhattan Cable; New Cinema, a screening room at St. Marks Place; and a number of other projects that continue to this day.
There was a window in New York City’s history where graffiti was everything: artistic expression, antisocial rebellion, and adolescent mayhem. It came up at a time when the government abandoned the city under a policy of “benign neglect,” providing a lawless atmosphere that transformed the very possibilities of public art. For a good 40 years, from the early 1970s to the early ‘00s, graffiti was a highly contentious yet transformative aspect of New York life.
Just as the window began to close, the IRAK crew came through, making that last gasp of freedom all the more powerful. Comprised of SACER (aka Dash Snow, R.I.P.), EARSNOT, SEMZ (R.I.P.), and SEMEN, among others and heavily documented by photographer Ryan McGinley, IRAK made New York look like New York—before it got whitewashed and painted a ghastly shade of bland.
Just imagine what it was like, if you can, in the words of filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, who penned The VICE Guide to New York Graffiti back in 2001, and observes, “As a Canadian in the land of the Yanks, the ascent of the Texas travesty unfolding before our eyes is stirring up my old political punk leanings, but strangely I will soon discover that Ryan and the graffiti kids he will be photographing, despite their radical pursuits and flagrant disregard for the law— racking and mopping on a daily basis, tagging and throwing up wherever they go (crimes against property in this new era of hypercapitalism are the worst you can commit)— are surprisingly apolitical…The general impression is one of “apres moi, le deluge.” Things are so fucked up at this point in history, so monumentally surreal, that only the impulsive moment counts, the rush of adrenaline garnered from racking or tagging, the natural high.”
Or check our McGinley’s fantastic book, The Kids Were Alright (Rizzoli), which features page after page of living the IRAK life.
As the Black Power movement took hold, AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) formed in Chicago in 1967 and became the only group to produce a manifesto for Black Art, which was centered around providing art to the communities in the form of large-scale public murals depicting contemporary and historic figures of Black history. Today, it would simply be known as street art, but 50 years ago, at a time when images of Black men and women were scarce, it was a revolutionary movement.
Founded by Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams, AfriCOBRA’s members worked together to figure out how their work could directly serve the community and empower people to live free. “[Our art] must communicate to its viewer a statement of truth, of action, of education, of conditions and a state of being to our people,” Jones-Hogu explained. “We wanted to speak to them and for them, by having our common thoughts, feelings, trials and tribulations express our total existence as a people.”
In 1963, 15 African-American photographers joined forces to create the Kamoinge Workshop, which continues to this very day, making it the longest-running photography collective in American history. Derived from the Gikuyu language of Kenya, Kamoinge means “a group of people acting together.”
This spirit of camaraderie and family suffused the development of the group, which include legendary artists Roy DeCarava, Anthony Barboza, Louis Draper, Ming Smith, and Shawn W. Walker, among many others. Their mission was simple, but necessary in a nation that excluded or misrepresented the group: “The Kamoinge Workshop represents fifteen black photographers whose creative objectives reflect a concern for truth about the world, about society and about themselves.”
In 2016, they published the first collection of their work, Timeless: The Photographs of Kamoinge (Schiffer), which features more than 280 photographs made over fifty years. Creating Timeless was a labor of love, one than took more than a decade to execute. Barboza was determined to see the book to publication, despite lack of interest from mainstream publishers. But Kamoinge was never one to follow the mainstream and confirm to commercial trends. Determined to operate according to their own rules, Kamoinge has maintained its integrity and its independence, earning a level of authenticity unmatched in photography.
When the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of radical feminist artists, hit the art scene in 1985, the world took note as they called out the gender and racial inequality that had dominated Western art for centuries. Employing a wide of culture jamming tactics, the Guerilla Girls exposed discriminatory and corrupt practices that had been an open secret for entirely too long.
Their motto, “Reinventing the ‘F’ word: feminism!” was brilliantly illustrated by their decision to don gorilla masks and use the names of deceased female artists in order to show the issues write large. It was not a matter of personal accomplishment so much as empowering the group, honoring those who had come before, those who had fallen through the cracks, and setting the foundation for a new generation of female artists to carry forth.
The Guerilla Girls originally started as a group of seven women who decided it was time to speak out when they realized that just 13 of 165 artists in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, An International Survey of Recent Paintings and Sculpture (1984) were female. When their protests did nothing, they did what artists do best: they wheat-pasted posters across Soho and the East Village, then the epicenter of the downtown art world. Finally, the world took notice, and they didn’t stop there, remaining active in one form or another to this very day.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.