Martha Wilson Sourcebook: 40 Years of Reconsidering Performance, Feminism, Alternative Spaces
Although artist and Franklin Furnace Founder Martha Wilson’s signature asymmetric two-colored hairstyle is instantly recognizable, her performances and photographs have always been centered on her identity’s permeability. As she explains in one of the myriad texts and pictures that make up Martha Wilson Sourcebook: Forty Years of Reconsidering Performance, Feminism, Alternative Spaces, she’s turned a sense of emptiness into a source of inspiration. After she broke up with a boyfriend in 1971, she began to make art “in an effort to sculpt a personality in the vacuum that remained when his was gone.“
For this illuminating new publication, the first of a projected series, Independent Curators International has devised a fresh conception for the artist’s monograph. In addition to the usual essays and reproductions, it’s also filled with photocopies of words and images taken from books Wilson actually owns, offering readers a chance to leaf through her library and discover a portrait of her mind.
In the early seventies, Wilson was teaching grammar to art students at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where cutting-edge artists were often invited to stay. Feminism was nonexistent at the school, but Wilson still came up with Breast Forms Permutated (1972) a grid of nine photos showing an assortment of mammary glands ranging from small to pendulous. An intimate indictment of sexist categorization expressed in the stringently impersonal forms that were recently invented by male conceptualists, the piece was included in Lucy Lippard’s “c. 7,500”, a groundbreaking 1974 all-woman exhibition that also featured Laurie Anderson, Adrian Piper and Hanne Darboven. The catalogue essay and works by each of the artists (originally printed on index cards) are reproduced in the book, giving readers a snapshot of early feminist art.
For A Portfolio of Models, a series of 1974 photographs also reproduced, Wilson posed as six different stereotyped versions of femininity: Goddess, Housewife, Working Girl, Professional, Earth Mother, and Lesbian. Dressed in assorted costumes and wigs, she demonstrated the mutability of gendered existence several years before Cindy Sherman began her celebrated series of outlandish transformations.
The Sourcebook documents Wilson’s artistic influences with copies of the text that accompanied Vito Acconci’s notorious 1971 Seedbed performance (when he masturbated under a ramp on the Sonnabend Gallery floor); the controversial dildo ad Lynda Benglis published in the November 1974 issue of Artforum; and a two page spread featuring Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll, a 1975 performance in which the artist pulled a length of paper from her vagina, along with the witty textual send-up of a pretentious male structuralist filmmaker that was written on the scroll.
Most of these pioneering works are already well known, and the samples taken from Wilson’s wide-ranging reading list are thus a bit more enlightening. Laurence Sterne’s Portrait of Tristram Shandy (including the famous black page) and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons highlight Wilson’s love for digression and abstract language, while excerpts from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) and Erving Goffman’s 1959 The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life illuminate the arbitrary, often artificial nature of the faces we present to the world.
Wilson’s own Truck Fuck Muck (1974), a fascinating text about a hitchhiker’s tryst with a truck driver written from three different points of view, is an almost clinical exercise in detached self-observation. And “Making Up: Role Playing and Transformation in Women’s Art,” an essay by Lippard that was published in the October 1975 issue of Ms. Magazine, shows the evolution of the performance forms that have come to pervade the art world.
A section on Feminism works its way from a couple of pages on vaginal self examination (with diagrams) to the index card script of Wilson’s performance as Nancy Reagan on inauguration day, making stops along the way at a song list from Disband (the punk band Wilson organized with four other women unable to play any musical instruments) and an excerpt from Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls. “I use various rituals and acting techniques to manipulate my appearance. Because if the picture stays the same, the facts will fade…” Wilson as Reagan says, and “If you are crazy, poorly educated, single, homosexual, or an artist, forget it. The party of tooth and claw is not for you.”
An article Wilson wrote about performance art’s history begins with the day in July 1910 when some Italian Futurists climbed up a clock tower in Venice’s Piazza San Marco and pelted eight hundred thousand copies of a broadside down on pedestrian heads. That particular piece of futurist ephemera was an early modernist ancestor of the post-1960 artifacts that Wilson lovingly collected and cared for at Franklin Furnace, the institution she founded in 1976. It began as a bookshop for artist’s publications, but performances and video installations were also presented, featuring such artists as Willie Cole, Nicole Eisenmann, Liza Lou and William Pope.L. Wilson sold Franklin Furnace’s entire book collection to the Museum of Art in 1993, ensuring its proper preservation.
Her appetite for innovation unabated, Wilson moved Franklin Furnace out of its longtime Tribeca home in 1997 and transformed it into a virtual space, providing several artist’s grants each year that support the creation of live internet art. The Sourcebook’s final essay is a history of this budding discipline, also recounted by Wilson herself.
The book concludes with a copy of Wilson’s self-portrait announcement for “I have become my own worst fear”, her September 2011 exhibition at P.P.O.W. Gallery – a gutsy meditation on the bodily changes produced by time. Seen makeup-less, hair slicked close to her head, double-chinned and grinning, she stares out unflinchingly, ready to embark on another courageous decade of multifaceted self-exploration.
Martha Wilson Sourcebook: 40 Years of Reconsidering Performance, Feminism, Alternative Spaces. Foreword by Kate Fowle. Introduction by Moira Roth. Text by Martha Wilson. (New York: Independent Curators International, 2011. 272 pages. ISBN: 978-0-916365-85-1?$25.00