MARTHA WILSON and the Well-Examined Female Self

Although Martha Wilson, who is based in New York, is best known as an alternative-museum founder, cultural activist, freedom of expression advocate, educator, and mother, she has also worked as an artist in her own right. As her recent solo exhibition at P.P.O.W. showed, through the years, her art-making and the thinking that has informed it have come a long way. In this presentation, which was only her second solo outing in a commercial gallery in many decades, she examined a theme that was and remains central to feminist thinking and the art movement it inspired: a woman’s identity, both the one she creates for herself and presents to others, as well as that which is more impersonal and generic, an identity that is imagined over time and imposed on her by the society in which she grows up, lives, and works.

In giving voice and tangible form to issues that moved them emotionally, psychologically, and politically, pioneering feminist artists of the 1970s and 1980s, like Wilson, pushed nascent postmodernist critical thinking forward with some powerful kicks and resonant results that are still being felt today in education, popular culture, the media, and politics. For if pomo’s most basic tenet asserted that the meaning of just about anything depends on the various contexts—cultural, historical, economic, political, social—in which it is experienced, and by whom, it was feminist thinking that famously applied that analysis to society’s most sensitive subject, power—who has it, how they get it, what they do with it, and how they hold onto it. It’s being done again, right now, by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Which people, institutions, belief systems, and traditions hold power in society and, in turn, affect how women believe they should or must appear, act, speak, or feel? That question and others related to it were starting points for Wilson and a wave of early-generation feminist artists who examined womanhood by rigorously examining themselves. Often employing scientific-looking techniques that had become associated with conceptual art, they presented their findings using photography and video, or mixtures of photos and texts. They were not always aware of what each other was doing artistically and analytically in other cities; in the pre-Internet era, an informed sense of a community of artists with shared values and interests across the globe only emerged over time.

Wilson, who had been born and brought up in Philadelphia, where her parents had placed her in a temperature-controlled “Baby Tender” box (or “air crib”), designed by the behaviorist B.F. Skinner, earned a master’s degree in English literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1971. Then, for several years, she taught English at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in that same city. Although not a student or faculty member of NSCAD’s art program, she was inspired by the language-oriented conceptual art that predominated at the school. It was also the focus of many artists and critics who visited NSCAD.

In 1971, the artist began creating her own language-based works. However, instead of offering more post-Duchampian critiques of the nature of the art object or of the art establishment’s modes of presenting, evaluating, and selling artworks, Wilson’s earliest idea-art pieces looked at human relationships or the female self. She often has recalled that her emergence as an artist and her early themes followed an unsettling break-up. Recently, she told me: “I got the courage to call myself an artist after my boyfriend dumped me, when I recognized that I had no friends, interests, or passions of my own and that I had been living vicariously through him, just as so many women had lived through or for their male mates.” She has written that her early work was “created in an effort to sculpt a personality in the vacuum that remained when [my ex-boyfriend’s personality] was gone.”

In “Posturing Drag” (1972), Wilson dressed up as a man impersonating a woman and photographed the resulting look and psychological pose. In “Breast Forms Permutated” (1972), she took the cool, scientific-looking, grid of photos format cherished by serious-minded male conceptualists and filled it with images of naked female breasts. In “Self-portrait” (1973), a searing study of how anyone’s identity emerges in society, she perched on a stool and invited visitors to a gallery to “write down your impressions of me.” She added: “In so doing, you are creating me and subverting the meaning of the term ‘self-portrait.’”   

Meanwhile, in California, in 1971, Eleanor Antin, examining the media-imposed “beauty myth” regarding women, made “Representational Painting,” a video in which she documented herself preparing the decorative-defensive mask of makeup with which she could go out into the world. A year later, in “CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture,” she documented her weight loss by dieting in a series of photos of her naked body. In 1972, the American-born artist Suzy Lake, who had moved to Canada, took photos of her made-up face; in exploring the expression through appearance of her identity, Lake literally painted masks over those photographic images. By the late 1970s, a younger artist, Cindy Sherman, had turned the spirit of those earlier feminist investigations into a kind of postmodern-irony-filled schtick in her Untitled Film Stills, in which she photographed herself costumed, made up, and posing like actresses in movies. All of this rich history is superbly recalled in the artist Lynn Hershman Leeson’s new documentary film, !Women, Art, Revolution, in which Wilson appears. Of Wilson’s work, the filmmaker says: “Like so many others, Martha was trying to find a voice, an identity, a sense of self, a way to exist in the world, sometimes by assuming the position of the other, sometimes by parodying one’s self.” Wilson never went in for the Judy Chicago school of feminist art, which emphasized—or insisted upon—depicting “women’s” subjects, like the vagina, or that proudly reappropriated traditional “women’s work” creative forms, like quilts.

In 1973, the American art critic, art historian, and curator Lucy Lippard visited NSCAD, where she met Wilson and took an interest in her work. Lippard’s serious attention boosted Wilson’s sense of herself as an artist, Wilson told me. The well-known curator included her photo-and-text-based pieces in an exhibition of female conceptualists’ works she was organizing and mentioned Wilson’s ideas in her influential book, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (1976).

Of Wilson’s NSCAD-era art, the artist Suzanne Lacy, now a professor at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles, recalls: “In the case of some of us, our work was done alone, without support.” Wilson, far from a major art center in remote Nova Scotia, “was pretty much operating independently.” Of the early feminist artists’ performance-oriented work, Lippard notes: “It seemed at the time an intimate medium—audiences were not large!—but it took guts to make such personal and often revealing ideas public. Feminism made us brave.”

Wilson is probably best known as the founder and director of New York’s Franklin Furnace Archive, the alternative-space museum she established in 1976. By the time it closed its physical space in TriBeCa in 1996, Franklin Furnace had presented many memorable exhibitions and performance art events. It also had amassed a renowned collection of artists’ books and ephemeral material that was often related to performance art—photographs, videotapes, printed material. In 1993, the Museum of Modern Art acquired that collection. In 1997, Franklin Furnace launched a website, a platform for webcasts of performance and Internet-based art. The organization still offers grants to artists and has created, on its website, the Franklin Furnace Database, which contains information about every performance art work, temporary installation, exhibition, or benefit ever presented or hosted by the institution.

In her P.P.O.W. exhibition, titled I Have Become My Own Worst Fear, Wilson presented new, performance and photography-based works. Blending candor, humor, psychological analysis, and subtle, social-political critique, they revisited some of the themes she first began examining decades ago. Among them: the ways in which clothes and make-up shape a woman’s perceived identity in the world (and of herself); how our Western, developed societies “allow” or perhaps expect women to age; and how, in contexts that are sometimes beyond her control, given a society’s definition of what feminine “beauty” can or should be, a woman’s body may serve as a powerful platform for self-expression—or a battleground for a contest between a woman’s courageous sense of herself and the forces of nature.

Standing next to one of her new performance photos of herself dressed as an elegant, older matron (with great gams) in a red skirt suit, on which was printed the title “The Legs Are the Last to Go,” Wilson observed, at the opening of her recent P.P.O.W. exhibition: “A sense of humor is especially worthwhile when self-identity and aging—your own inevitable process of getting older—are your subjects.” In Wilson’s role-playing performance pieces, Antin notes, “Martha has also taken on the souls and actions of bag ladies and other destitute figures whom our culture churns out daily like hamburgers.”

Catherine Morris, curator of the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, where Judy Chicago’s iconic “The Dinner Party” (1974-79) is permanently installed, says of Wilson’s art-making:

Martha is a great example of a woman artist who used conceptual practices to develop a voice that allowed, eventually, for the emergence of a method for presenting the links between personal content and political implications in a challenging and humorous way. I think that feminism, as practiced and developed by Martha and her peers, is largely responsible for giving conceptual art a humanist face.

Contributor

Edward M. Gómez

EDWARD M. GOMEZ is a New York-based journalist, author, and critic. Publications available at www.edwardmgomez.com.

ADVERTISEMENTS