Martha Wilson by Britta Wheeler

With the release of Martha Wilson Sourcebook, the artist looks back on her 40-year career and discusses the origins of Franklin Furnace, the flexibility of identity, and the difficulty of staying visible with age.

Goddess Bomb Body

Martha Wilson, A Portfolio of Models, 1974, six black-and-white gelatin silver prints, seven typed index cards, 20 × 14 inches. All images courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York.

Britta Wheeler What’s on the front burner for you now?

Martha Wilson The show at P.P.O.W, and on the other front burner is the lecture and signing of the Martha Wilson Sourcebook at the Brooklyn Museum at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on September 17.

BW Let’s talk about the Sourcebook first and then the show. What’s in the Sourcebook?

MW There’s a text that I read in college: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. It was published in the mid-1700s in England. In one part, the story lines are drawn visually as lines. So, visual art and literature merged at this point. Here is a work of literature in which visual art functions to carry the story forward. It enabled me to see that there could be an intersection where visual art and literature crossed. This book had a huge impact on my thinking.

BW How would you say this book influenced you?

MW I was majoring in English literature and had an Art minor and I really wanted to be an artist but I couldn’t admit it to myself yet. I moved to Canada from Ohio in 1969 after graduating from Wilmington College. It was the height of the Vietnam War. I didn’t agree with the policies of Richard Nixon. I got a scholarship and felt it was a sign to leave this great nation of ours. In Canada, I got an MA in English literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but I was secretly hanging out at the Art College because the kids were way cooler over there. So, when my PhD thesis idea was rejected, I got a job at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). I taught a course called “Literary Parallels to Modern Art.” I was introducing the notion of Cubist literature to the students. Because they understood Cubism, I thought they could make the leap to understanding literature through Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein.

I organized the Sourcebook in rough sections: one for performance, one for feminism, and one for alternative spaces. It contains texts written by other people and some texts written by myself. I wrote introductions for each of these sections—they’re very personal. For example, I discuss Vito Acconci, who was a visiting artist at NSCAD. For me, he opened the door to sexuality as a legitimate subject for art.

BW Great! Let’s talk about your relationship to the art world. You got invited to join P.P.O.W. in May 2011, and you had another gallery show in Chelsea in 2008 at Mitchell Algus Gallery. Was that your first gallery show ever in New York?

MW Oh yes, ever. As a result of Mitchell having seen a couple of pieces in a show in the Hamptons quite a number of years ago, he came here and asked me to pull everything out. Then he put pretty much everything into the show, which was very gratifying.

I had had a bad experience upon first moving to New York. I was friendly with Jacki Apple, who is an artist I met through the c. 7,500 catalogue which Lucy Lippard had done (and which is fully reprinted in the Martha Wilson Sourcebook). We spoke to John Gibson’s wife and she thought our work was great. She said we should make an appointment to speak to John Gibson, so we did and he said, “This stuff is TERRIBLE!” He started to just yell at us at the top of his lungs, “I would never show this kind of work! What were you thinking in making an appointment with me in the first place?” He just went nuts. That was about 1975. And this is all the same work that I showed at Mitchell Algus in 2008, so many years later.

BW That took some guts to go over there, huh?

MW That experience was so traumatic. I had come to New York thinking that I was a performance artist, so I wrote a letter to Marcia Tucker telling her who I was. She said, “Fine, we are doing a series at the Whitney Museum and we want you to perform for it,” and I thought, What?! Perform for people sitting in chairs?! I mean, all the performances I had done were for an audience of one—the audience of myself, the audience of the camera. They were done as experiments, really, experiments in personality: does makeup embolden expression, inhibit expression? Does it operate like a mask? Or does it operate like a means or a conduit, a way to get expression across? These kinds of questions I was asking, I didn’t know the answers to—I thought it was performance art. So then I did a kind of straight performance for the Whitney for people sitting in chairs, and a different performance for the downtown Whitney. That second piece was very, very close to the piece on video at P.P.O.W, Deformation, where I deform myself with makeup. I start out doing the best I can with makeup and then I create a—

BW Didn’t you also attend a board meeting or a meeting of some kind where you came with makeup smeared on your face?

MW Yes, it was a meeting of architects in Halifax, before I came to New York. A bunch of architects wanted to have an artist in their midst to discuss some issue, so I came with lipstick all over my face and they were so embarrassed that they wouldn’t look at me! They kind of pretended that I was not there.

Final Name Fate Bomb Body

Martha Wilson, Name=Fate, 2009, two black-and-white photographs, text, 21¼ x 29¼ inches framed. Photograph of Bill Clinton by Ruven Afandor. Photograph of Martha Wilson by Michael Katchen.

BW (laughter) Do you ever think of yourself as a social scientist?

MW Ah, I don’t know if I would use the word scientist.

BW But you are doing social experiments.

MW I am certainly interested in social perception. So, after getting yelled at by John Gibson, I pretty much withdrew from the visual art gallery scene, even though I was running my own gallery at the time—Franklin Furnace was showing installation art. I considered myself to be a performance artist, by which I meant someone who operates in real space and time and does not create objects of any kind.

BW How was performing at the Whitney in those early days different from doing the work in real time? And how did the audience change the nature of the work? I mean, was it productive, in a sense, or just terrifying?

MW I think I would use the word terrifying! After that, I started performing in real time and space: at Artists Space, The Kitchen, Hallwalls, traveling to Portland Center for the Visual Arts, LAICA in LA. I was a performance artist who would take any gig I could get. The stuff I had been doing in Halifax was solipsistic. I was using myself as the audience and I didn’t really know or care about what anybody thought of my work. I was busy sculpting my own personality, basically. Then I got sick of it and started casting around for ways to collaborate—that’s when I started calling everybody. I mean, this was in the No Wave music scene in Lower Manhattan. Everybody was in three bands and I couldn’t play any instruments so I called my friends who also couldn’t play any instruments, my friends who were long on concept and short on skills—Disband, the all-girl band of women artists who couldn’t play instruments, was born. Disband performed between 1978 and 1982 and was very much about breaking out of the solipsistic point of view that had been my main approach.

BW How did you start Franklin Furnace?

MW There was a void in the art world that I could see perfectly clearly: the mainstream institutions were not paying attention to what artists were actually doing. In the great budget cutback of 1975, when the city of New York was going to go bankrupt, the city’s idea was to fire all the art teachers in the city so it could save money. I had a job at Brooklyn College and, when I lost it, I thought, I could always go Uptown and work for Abrams again, but right now I’m going to see if I can start my own business, and if that doesn’t work, I can be a secretary again. So, at the time, there was a vibrant downtown art scene in New York. Alana Heiss had started something called “The Idea Warehouse,” a place where artists could do anything, basically, that they thought of. So I saw my friend Virginia Piersol do something: she mounted film projectors on her front and her back. She had a harness over her body and she roller-skated all over this giant loft space, so the images in front and in back of her would get larger and smaller. I thought that was the greatest thing since sliced bread!

Incidentally, my friend Virginia was the person who got me into 112 Franklin Street in TriBeCa—it was a net lease. Willoughby Sharp was on the top floor; Virginia was on the 3rd floor. Willoughby’s idea was that us artists would rent this building for 10 years—which we thought was such a big number that it would never end—and have art activities on each floor. I was going to be the bookstore. Virginia was going to do film. Willoughby was going to have video programs. I was the only person who actually got it together and opened it up for the public to come.

I thought a bookstore was missing in the art world. Artists were doing this conceptual, text-based work and publishing things, and none of the major institutions were selling this stuff in their bookstores or taking it seriously at all. This was in spite of the fact that the Museum of Modern Art in New York had had the Information show in 1970. When I talked with the guy in the bookstore, he said, “Well, your book costs $5.00, but it would cost me $5.00 to do the bookkeeping, so I’m not going to take your book.” So I started Franklin Furnace. I needed to have addresses of artists so I could write them to say, I bet you have these works of art under your bed and you don’t really know what to do with them. So my friend—it is long enough in the rear view mirror, so we are just going to say it—stole the mailing list from the Clocktower, Alanna Heiss’s next institution after the “Idea Warehouse” and before PS1. (laughter) I wrote letters to all those artists, and sure enough, 200 of them had stuff under their beds and they didn’t know what to do with it.

So on opening day, April 3, 1976, I had 200 works on display. At the same time there were these other artists coming to me, saying things like, “I have these other works, you know. I haven’t published them, but I do have these works in book form.” Power Boothe, Karen Shaw … these artists needed to be accommodated too. So I showed both one-of-a-kind, book-like works and published stuff on display. For whatever reason, I had the foresight to collect and keep track of this stuff. So I asked for three copies for the archives and the artists sometimes gave them to us. Sometimes they gave us two. Sometimes they gave us one. But, basically, I started a collection of artist books, and the ending of that story is that it became the largest collection in the United States. Then later Franklin Furnace’s board of directors and I realized that the artist books were made of paper, and the loft was made of wood, and so maybe we should put the collection into the arms of another institution that could take care of it for the ages. And that was the Museum of Modern Art. That happened in 1993.

BW Because it was a furnace after all, and it might have all caught on fire! Where did the name Franklin Furnace come from? Was the building a furnace?

MW Not at all. It was a ship chandlery. But the name Franklin Furnace was coined by Willoughby Sharp, the publisher of Avalanche Magazine, who, as I said, lived upstairs, on the top floor. I was going to call my institution “The Franklin Stove,” a museum for hot air, and he said, “No, no. You must call it Franklin Furnace.” This name was alliterative and it caught on immediately, so he was right.

BW I was thinking that we should talk about your previous work and your show at P.P.O.W.

Lesbian Bomb Body

Martha Wilson, A Portfolio of Models, 1974, six black-and-white gelatin silver prints, seven typed index cards, 20 × 14 inches.

MW So the show at Mitchell Algus Gallery, my first one-person show in New York—in 2008, over two decades after John Gibson yelled at me—was all work that I had done in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before moving to New York. It was photographs with texts. For example, A Portfolio of Models (1974) is images of me dressed up as a goddess, a housewife, a working girl, a professional, an earth mother, and a lesbian, with a text underneath each image that lays out the social perspective of each role.

Or there was Posturing: Drag (1972), a portrait of me with a wig and false eyelashes and fingernails, as a woman trying to think about what it would be like to be a man trying to look like a woman. For the interior audience of one, it’s a double sex transformation. First, I’m imagining coming into the male domain and then I am coming back into the female domain from there. Or Posturing: Age Transformation (1973) trying to look like a 50-year-old woman trying to look like she’s 25. Or Butch (1973), a performance in which I tried to get into men’s rooms in Halifax, but I didn’t bind my breasts to make myself flat-chested, so they just said, “Get out.”

So that was 2008. The show was very successful. I got reviewed in The New York Times by Holland Cotter and in all the major art magazines and I sold some work from it. I started to think about doing new work. The next thing I started working on was letting my hair grow completely out. This piece is in the current show. It is called Growing Old (2008-9). At the end of that process, I was completely gray and my son gave me a packet of henna for Christmas, as if to say, “Mommy, please don’t grow old and die!” (laughter) As you become an older woman in society, you become invisible, so another piece in the show at P.P.O.W is called Invisible (2011): I took a portrait of myself, or rather Vince, my partner, took a portrait of me at a store across the street, wearing a raincoat and a knit hat and kind of blending in. You can’t really find the figure immediately.

Invisible Bomb Body

Martha Wilson, Invisible, 2011, color photograph, text, 26 ½ x 37 inches. Photograph by Vince Bruns.

BW Was that intentional? Or were you guys just there?

MW It was intentional. I was going to try to do the shoot at Key Food, standing in a checkout line. But you’re not really allowed to take pictures on privately owned property.

BW That piece is so different from your other work.

MW It came to me in a flash in 2011. I started doing this whole series of explorations in 2008, but it hit me after I let my hair go entirely gray.

BW Because people weren’t noticing you as much?

MW Yes. You are literally invisible in this society. They look right through you and don’t see you anymore. Young women don’t know this. There are a couple of other older pieces that I like a lot that weren’t in the Mitchell Algus Gallery show. One of the pieces is called Alchemy, a recreation from 1973: I dyed my hair three colors in one month.

BW Can you tell us younger people (not that I am that much younger, but for those out there who are) what it was like in the 1970s? For us now, it is so normal for people to change the way they look, to dye their hair, go from one thing to the next thing without even thinking of it as a transformational process or even any kind of experimentation.

MW There was no feminist community in Halifax when I was doing this work. Years and years later, I went back to Halifax and this young woman said, “Oh you know, we looked up to you.” And I was thinking, “Well, why didn’t you fucking tell me!” You know, there was no discussion, there was no consciousness-raising. There was none of that! Yet, I was teaching in an art school. Honestly, I couldn’t have ever gotten away with this in a regular workplace environment, but because I was trying to be an artist … The mentor I had at the art school, who had been my painting teacher in college, said, “Women don’t make it in the art world. But, if you’re serious, you’ll make black and white art.” And that made me so mad that I walked across the street to the drug store and I bought a roll of color film and started doing this work that I’m telling you about now. It’s in color, because how dare he say to me it had to be black and white.

BW What did that signify though, that it had to black and white? That it was serious and not popular?

MW I suppose that, in order for it to be taken seriously, it had to be black and white. And also the conceptual art of the day was—

BW Dan Graham and those guys—

MW Oh, yes. The first piece I ever made, well, the second piece, was called Breast Forms Permutated (1971) and it is black and white. I took black and white photographs of women’s breasts and put them in a grid and it’s about how conceptual art of the day was about permutating an idea. Let’s take Jan Dibbets. One of his ideas was to enlarge the territory of a robin in the park. So he moved the bird feeder a foot every day and, sure enough, the territory of the robin enlarged. But that has no relevance to our lives. It has no meaning in terms of your experience walking down the street or in terms of whom you perceive yourself to be in the world or your sexual orientation or your social status or anything. It’s ideas for the sake of ideas, but without any sense that the idea might have an impact on the culture. I wanted to work with the ideas that were important to me, like the social status of women, for example. Color seemed to be one of the ways to do that—I don’t know why, all I remember is that I just got mad and went across the street and bought a roll of color film and that was it!

BW But that’s interesting because you still use color. You’re colorful, you know.

MW Oh, yes. Well, especially now as I become more invisible, color is one of those ways to be seen. Like, if you dye half of your head red, people come to speak to you on the street: “I like your hair.” Black people, white people, old people, young people, male people, and female people come up to me.

BW So after it grew out you went and dyed it half-red so you could sort of have half…

MW So I could be half in artificiality maybe.

BW Maybe intentional constructionality?

MW Intentional constructionality! Yes, that’s better. (laughter)

BW It’s got more syllables anyway!

MW I like that.

BW It’s a very postmodern look you’re sporting.

MW Although I tell people that the gray is the dyed half! And that’s another piece in my show, Red Cruella (2010). Cruella de Vil is a Disney character you probably know—

BW From 101 Dalmatians.

MW She has half-white and half-black hair. So this Cruella is “Red Cruella.”

Monamarthamarge Bomb Body

Martha Wilson, Mona/Martha/Marge, 2009, pigmented ink print on canvas, 19 × 11 ½ inches. Photograph by Vince Bruns. Photo-composition by Kathy Grove.

BW In a lot of your work, you’re dealing with … well I’m going to try to formulate how I’m seeing it. It’s like transformations—in the before and the after of the torso, the hair, the transformational process of aging as documented through the hair and the body. But then you have these other pieces like the Mona/Martha/Marge (2009) piece where it’s sort of this fused hybridity. When I saw this, I thought, this is so cool because it’s like the highest, most true art—the Mona Lisa. Then the Marge Simpson quality is—

MW The most debased!

BW Or popular. And then there you are right in the middle in the title and as the personage of Martha having the Mona Lisa background, body, and smile, and then the Marge Simpson hair.

MW I love that analysis and I would like to use it from this day forward! I had thought it was about the layering of personality in relation to the culture at large. You know, we have an internal reality, but you dress up to go to your opening and then you have an image that is projected by the press about you that you have no control over whatsoever. There are all these layers.

BW But then why would it be the Mona Lisa and Marge Simpson? I mean, I know you watch the Simpsons with your son, and the Mona Lisa is so iconic.

MW Yeah, it is high art, the definition of high art.

BW So in that piece and some of the other ones, you are really embodying the notion of hybridity. Your experimentations have progressed in such a way that you are trying to encompass and not be located or fixed in any one identity. I mean, in the piece entitled Invisible, you are protesting that by calling attention to it. I wonder about some of the other work, the piece called My Authentic Self, for instance. That’s one you did in the ’70s?

MW Yes, in 1974.

BW Can you just tell me what that means for you? I take it as an ironic statement, in a way.

MW Yeah, yeah. I bleached my pubic hair. I was a blonde girl with brown pubic hair, so I bleached my pubic hair so it was blonde. And then asked Richards to take these pictures …

BW Who is Richards?

Authentic Bomb Body

Martha Wilson, My Authentic Self, 1974/2011, black-and-white photographs, text, 33 ½ x 23 inches. Photographs by Richards Jarden, 2011. Recreation by Michael Katchen.

MW Richards was my boyfriend who looked like Marcel Duchamp. I asked him to take these pictures and then put one on top of the other. But it’s all a lie, basically, because there is no authentic self! It’s still so layered that you’d never know whether the bleached pubic hair or the brown pubic hair was the authentic one.

BW At one point you told me—and even Moira Roth mentions it in the Martha Wilson Sourcebook—that you were reading Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

MW Oh, yes. He was very important! He talks about the performance of self, the presentation of self, as if to say there is no self, but there are all these different ways that you can enact it. And that the audience is similarly responding on many levels at the same time. They can say, “Yes, I believe the veracity of your performance” or “No, I think you’re lying to me.”

BW It’s that process of the interpretation by both parties that creates the reality. But what’s so important about it is that you would have taken that notion and enacted it as art! You are still playing with it. In some ways you’ve come to your authentic self by being able to wear the masks simultaneously. You know, have the dyed hair, and simultaneously have the real hair.

MW So I’m playing both sides.

BW Yeah. And then whatever people interpret that as, they can’t get a fix. It’s resistive, too. Because when you’re young, you know, it is really intense and heavy. You’re trying to figure out who you are and there are all these expectations put on you… In your Portfolio of Models you call attention to these types, or roles, that you felt were being projected onto you. It is almost like you show up to your life and there is this menu of options already available for you.

MW Yes.

BW And then you’re like, What the fuck? What am I supposed to do with this?

A lot of women just conform or they resist, but I don’t know a lot of aging women who have continued down the path that you have in this recent work. Do you?

MW I think of Joan Semmel, who has been doing portraits of herself, of her own body, from her own point of view for decades.

BW So it’s about the process of self over time.

MW And she looks at aging in a very direct way.

BW I love the publicity image for your show at P.P.O.W.: I have become my own worst fear (2009). What do you think about it?

MW The process of making art is to be as honest as you can stand to be, and that’s what I did. In Halifax, against Alan Comfort’s refrigerator, I did a piece called I make up the image of my perfection/I make up the image of my deformity. We did it with camera angle and light and makeup, because we didn’t have Photoshop in 1974. So for I have become my own worst fear, Michael Katchen made me really ugly by sharpening the image in Photoshop, so that every little hair, every little pore, every little wrinkle became wow, so pronounced. It’s fun to be able to play in this digital sandbox we have now.

BW That’s what some people say about aging: you can be free. This piece pushes that and encourages other people to be more free.

MW Ah, thank you! There was a lady I saw on the street who said, “I like your hair.” Then she said, “I’m gonna do that.” And I thought, What?!? Wait a minute! (laughter)

BW I loved what you said in one of the Portfolio of Models pieces: “The artist operates out of the vacuum left when all other values are rejected.”

MW Yes, the job of the artist is to be slightly outside of regular society and to take it with a grain of salt, to look at it from a distance. The only trouble with that idea is that digital technology, again, is making the entire culture into artists because we all have these phones that we can interview people with, take photographs with, email with—

BW You can even edit videos on them.

MW The Guggenheim had a show in 2010. They got artists and curators to look at YouTube videos, regular videos by regular people, had them select 125, and then projected 25 of them on the outside of the rotunda. It seems to me that we have now closed the circle of the artist being distant from society. It is no more.

BW And that seems like both a triumph and a tragedy.

MW Because we don’t know what to do with it.

BW I am always thinking about how, in America anyway, performance art as an avant-garde art form, the goal of it, on some level, has always been about fusing art with life, making art more democratic. So, I don’t know, maybe the next radical step is to reclaim the elitist position? (laughter)

MW Yes, what is the next step?

BW I don’t know. The mission statement of your organization, Franklin Furnace, is to make the world safe for avant-garde art.

MW What if the world is safe for avant-garde art?!? (laughter)

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