Martha Wilson (b. 1947), Breast Forms Permutated (detail), 1972, black-and-white photograph and text. Courtesy of Martha Wilson.
[abstract]: How does one begin, in this progressive moment, to speak of the work of Martha Wilson? How to explain the beauty of the work’s relentless exploration of selfhood and its defiant feminist declaration of the body as the site of art to an audience whose ideas of art have been formed by technological saturation—a material reliance on electronic screens and an everything all at once attitude towards, well, everything? How to speak of her function at the center of New York City’s avant-garde artistic practice, as a culture warrior, when confrontational art is passé, when shock is just the fabric of our everyday life? How to explain a body of work that jumps in, invades, demolishes, satirizes and collapses the social sculpted self, and upends convention in photography, video, book publishing and performance practices? The trajectory of Martha Wilson’s work as artist, (capital “A”), is of the same consequence as feminism, gender identity, self-exploration and her life—nothing short of a constellation of the various art practices since 1970. Who and what is Martha Wilson anyway? We’re going to let her wiggle out of prescription, otherwise we risk desensitizing such important work.
[beginning]: Wilson, an English Lit. grad exploring the center of the conceptual art world, the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design (NSCAD), in Halifax, 1970. “It was the coolest art school at the time,” she says. Not sure of her “purpose on the planet,” she says, she takes photographs and videos of herself. Color photos of impersonations, use of make-up and costume that flew in the face of “serious” artistic expression, and technically simple, black-and-white videos that relied on NSCAD’s equipment. In “Art Sucks” (1972), one of the video works, Wilson is calmly seated at a table, and as she faces the camera declares, “Art making is a process which sucks identity from individuals who are close to it, but not participating themselves. The only way to recover identity is to make art yourself.” Wilson proceeds to tear up a photograph of her boyfriend—who looks like Marcel Duchamp, by the way—and ingests it. “I thought it was performance art, not photography,” she tells me. “I thought of it as experimentation to find out who’s in there, who am I, what’s it all about Alfie?” She laughs, she jokes; humor is a key feature of this kind of exploratory and confrontational work.
[feminism]: It was a growing body of work with an audience of only a few. As a woman exploring the edges of the male dominated “it” crowd of artists being invited to NSCAD, “Vito Acconci, Sol LeWitt, Robert Barry, Dan Graham, Richard Serra, Lawrence Weiner, the list goes on,” she says, Wilson was responding to the pure formalism of these conceptual artists’ practices. The response, she says, was “So What?!?! I was a woman using my available resources—my female body—to make my work.” She knew early on that art should open dialogues, have actual social consequence. When Lucy Lippard, feminist art historian, then an exclusive curator of women’s art, visited Halifax and saw Wilson’s early work, she provided a feminist context for Wilson and a path away from NSCAD towards an even bigger artistic center. In 1974, Wilson moved to New York City and in 1976, she founded Franklin Furnace, an alternative art space, out of her loft in Tribeca.
[On Franklin Furnace]: “I’m the chief bottle washer.” / “I pretty much do everything, but mostly I try to raise money for the organization.” / “Ephemeral practice, published stuff, free works, temporary installation—the uptown institutions were not accommodating it.” / “The form is not the critical thing, the concept behind the form is the critical thing.” / “I did in the early days resent how much time it took to administer an arts organization, and then I talked to a friend of mine who started an arts organization in Seattle, called And/Or Gallery, who said, ‘Why can’t we consider our administrative practice to be artistic pursuit?’” / “Which was a totally liberating idea because if you’re running an organization, you have to be able to think on your feet, you have to be creative and resourceful and flexible and deal with all kinds of situations and people, you have to read the paper and be informed.” / “So I was keeping four different notebooks and I threw three of them away and just kept one because it’s all one big blob.”
[On the NYC art scene]: “As Laurie Anderson famously said, ‘The same 300 people went to everything,’ so the same 300 people that were going to The Kitchen and The Clocktower and Franklin Furnace, we would all wash around to each other’s events. It was a small and intense art scene because people were living in the same neighborhood as the spaces were located.” / “SoHo was first in the ’70s and Tribeca was immediately thereafter––they were the centers of the art scene and 420 West Broadway, where Leo Castelli’s gallery was located, was the bellybutton of the art world. East Village came up in the ’80s, Williamsburg and Brooklyn in the 90s and then the art world started to dematerialize all over the map during the ’90s and the advent of the Internet caused even further particulation of the art world.”
In her artist talk at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts last Wednesday, Wilson recounted her development as an artist and as a life support system for the practitioners of ephemeral, confrontational, complex, neglected, performance works since the 1970s, though her humorous attitude towards it all often fell flat with the audience. Wilson moved Franklin Furnace online in the late ’90s and still provides “laundering” services, as she calls it, for artists now. Her work now includes archivisation of the ephemeral practices of Franklin Furnace and further promoting of alternative and avant-garde spaces for artists to progress.
Un-discover your own self at Martha Wilson’s exhibition, Staging the Self, a collaborative effort between Wilson and the UMFA’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Whitney Tassie, on view inside the UMFA until November 10.
Visit Franklin Furnace 24/7/265 @ franklinfurnace.org.