Martha Wilson

“The Personal Becomes Political in Time,” by Martha Wilson

This article was first published in n.paradoxa international feminist art journal, volume 5, 2000.

I wrote these words when I was half my age today:

I am drafting my own blueprint. I am writing my way out of this well. I am writing to discover an Answer. I am creating my resource out of an abscence that I feel in the "real" me. All my values have been contributed from the outside, from my parents, my lovers. How do I know what "I" like, what I don't like? I let my room get messy to discover whether "I" like it that way. I listen to music to discern what "I" like. I am alone. In a panic I run to eat something sweet. I have to stop myself by force. I sit myself back down in my kitchen chair. I stare straight ahead, my right arm resting on the table. The backs of my lenses are silver; I am staring inward, I see nothing in front of me. I sip nervously at a diet soda and consciously lower my shoulders. I find muscles knotted every few minutes and have to unravel them by will. I write the same questions over and over in my diary: What do I really want to do? I am 26 and unencumbered. I have been groomed in English Literature and Art. I want to be passionately involved in something, to be able to immerse myself in something. But you don't know what you like until you do it. I am not yet able to feel my way up the wall. I will have to rationalize my way out. I will create myself into the absent center through action. Out of the building blocks floating there I will select and discard, select and discard, until I have constructed an igloo, a personality. Writing will be my first brick.

A Fast History of Franklin Furnace

It all started in 1976, when I saw that major institutions were not accommodating works of art being published by artists, and decided to gather, exhibit, and sell, preserve and proselytize on behalf of the form that came to be known as "artists' books." I opened Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc. in my living loft (which happened to be a storefront) on April 3rd, 1976. Soon after, Printed Matter, Inc. came into being to publish and distribute artists' books; we reapportioned the pie, Franklin Furnace taking the not-for-profit activities of collecting, cataloging, preserving, exhibiting and related activities like artists' readings, the activity that evolved in turn into the performance art program. Printed Matter published and sold artists' books as a for-profit corporation, (and later sought and received not-for-profit status too).

Franklin Furnace's presentation of temporary installation work and what came to be known as performance art started right from the getgo. The artists who were publishing artists' books were the same ones who considered the text to be a visual art medium (Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger come to mind). Martine Aballea, whose book was in Franklin Furnace's collection was invited to read in our storefront in June 1976. When she showed up in costume, with her own lamp and stool, the performance art program was born. Although I called it Artists Readings in the beginning, every artist chose to manipulate the performance elements of text, image and time, from a very simple 1977 performance by Robert Wilson of the word "there" repeated 144 times with a chair on stage, to the more messy 1983 performance of Karen Finley taking a bath in a suitcase and making love to a chair with Wesson oil. Franklin Furnace's niche became the bottom of the food chain, premiering artists in New York who later emerged as artworld stars: Ida Applebroog, Eric Bogosian, David Cale, Willie Cole, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Ann Hamilton, Theodora Skipitares, Michael Smith, Annie Sprinkle, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Paul Zaloom, and hundreds of others.

"Jenny Holzer's "Truisms" exhibited in Franklin Furnace's storefront window in 1978. Someone threw a bolt through the phrase, "Boredom makes you do crazy things." Artist Mike Glier, Jenny Holzer's husband, was photographed by Jacki Apple

"Claes Oldenburg's "Ray Gun Poems" was published in 1960 on a stencil machine owned by Judson Memorial Church. When I asked him how many were produced, he replied, "Fatigue was a factor." Photo by Marty Heitner

"Russian Samizdat Art" was curated by artists Rimma and Valery Gerlovin. Photo by Marty Heitner

Robert Wilson performing in September, 1977. Photo by Jacki Apple

Leslie Labowitz performing "Sprout Time," March 20, 1981, as part of "We'll Make Up a Title When We Meet," aka LA-London Lab, a gathering of feminist performance artists from Los Angeles (selected by Suzane Lacy) and London (selected by Susan Hiller). Photo by Marty Heitner

Every seven years the body's cells are replaced. I wrote the following song as a member of DISBAND, an all-girl band of women, none of whom could play any instruments, in 1979:

"Nancy Wilson"

We all do something Friday
night I have my private life
Solitude's what keeps me warm
My time to write

I'm doin' a lot of homework late
All by myself I like
My own company it's OK
Working at night

This song has now become a work song
Just like the Volga Boatmen
Yo ho heave ho pulling my
Bootstraps again

Don't get me wrong I love to dance
To play and chance a romance
Skin my knees and bleed at recess
Learn the hard way.

"DISBAND performing "Hey Baby" at P.S. 1 in Queens, New York, October, 1979. From left, Ilona Granet, Martha Wilson, Ingrid Sischy, Donna Henes, Diane Torr. Photo by Sarah Jenkins

DISBAND performing "Every Girl" at LAICA, Los Angeles, January, 1981. Photographer unknown

DISBAND AT THE DUSTBOWL, the Kitchen, New York, May, l981. Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc. Photo by Daile Kaplan

Around 1980, I perceived another vacuum in the art world. No one seemed to be researching the history of the contemporary artist book in any thorough-going manner, so I tried to do it in a year, hiring four guest curators/teams to tackle four 20th century time periods of The Page as Alternative Space. Clive Phillpot organized material for 1909 to 1920; Charles Henri Ford from 1921 to 1949; Barbara Moore and Jon Hendricks from 1950 to 1969; and Ingrid Sischy and Richard Flood from 1970 to 1980. After this heady year, Franklin Furnace hired a slew of guest curators to explore the history of the published artwork in even more depth, organizing usually one big exhibit per season such as Cubist Prints/Cubists Books, The Avant-Garde Book: 1900-45, Fluxus: A Conceptual Country, Books by Russian Avant-Garde Artists, as well as thematic shows such as Artists' Books: Japan, Multiples by Latin American Artists, Contemporary Russian Samizdat, Eastern European Artist Books. Taken together, the magazines and catalogues published to document these exhibits form a history that is still not available under one cover.

"The Avant-Garde Book: 1900-1945," curator Jaroslav Andel. This exhibition, mounted in February, 1989, contained many Eastern European works. Photo by Marty Heitner

"The Avant-Garde Book: 1900-1945" augmented by Guillaume Apollinaire poems on the wall. Photo by Marty Heitner

DISBAND was an important excercise in overcoming solipsism, of pulling the paper bag off my head. By the time we disbanded in 1982, I could anticipate other member's perspectives. At the end of four years together we were playing members of Ronald Reagan's cabinet, and I was Alexander M. Plague, Jr., whom I continued to impersonate for one performance. That was before I hit upon Nancy Reagan for Artists' Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central and South America in 1984. I filled Nancy's empty vessel until I had to switch to Barbara Bush, and later still, Tipper Gore, in my continuing process of turning introspective, autobiographical performance for an internal sense of audience inside out, and focussing upon changing the world in whatever small way possible through political satire:

Martha Wilson as Alexander M. Plague, Jr. at A.I.R Gallery, New York, November, 1982. Photo by Roseann Livingston


I'm on the TV every day
At night they interview for what I'll say
About addiction and Cabbage Patch dolls
It's so rewarding somehow to have it all
Oh, maybe I know that be's been misspeakin'
Maybe I know that he's been untrue,
But what can I do?

It's so important to be too thin
If I could do it all over again
I'd be ambitious to be a success
Be the First Lady and be so well dressed
Oh, we don't have to read the papers
He's the Sun Prez and we are the news
We don't get the blues

Well in conclusion it's been just great
To have this chat with you and tell you straight
That everything is according to plan
It's 85 now, put your faith in our hands
Our democracy is supreme, Western Civ is all there is
To dream of, so let's be in love!

If you were ashamed in the 50s of your desire to make a killing, embarrassed in the 60s about lining your own pockets, afraid in the 70s to climb that ladder of success--fear no more! The Party of Tooth and Claw is here, in the 80s, for a second term. We have the answer to the Hammer and Sickle: We believe in blood! The old blood of family, the new blood of survival of the fittest. Let's face it. Republicans can be sadists in the open; Democrats have to cover it up!

Martha Wilson as Nancy Reagan in "Just Say No to Arms Control," Brother Ron's Atomic Gospel Hour, New York, October, 1987. Photo by Benita Abrams

Comly (named after his Welsh great great great grandfather) was born on the Ides of March, 1989, by Caesarian Section. I decided to have my son when a vision came to me that at age 40, this was my last shot at becoming a mom. I told Scott I intended to keep the baby. He said you're ruining my life. I said fine I never want to see you again. The pregnancy was a dark time. I didn't know metaphysically, economically, emotionally if becoming a single parent was right. I found out I was going to have a boy! And when he arrived he looked just like Scott. But what also happened was that all the metaphysical questions dropped away and I realized my job was simply to provide the next hot dog. Now I think Comly was my second kid; Franklin Furnace, now 23 years old, was the first. The difference is the physical joy a mom feels in her child. I wonder if men can ever know it.

Comly Cook Wilson's birth announcement, March 1989. Design by Carol Sun, Ratchethead Studios & installation view.

Comly's passport photo, 1 year old

Comly Wilson, 1996 Sanctimonious School Photo

Nicholas Grant, pooch and Comly Wilson. Photo by Yvonne Brooks

Comly Wilson, 1998

Comly Wilson baseball card, 1999

Comly and Mommy, 1999 Photo by Yvonne Brooks

Ideas were forming in the aftermath of the events of 1990. One was to place the collection of artist's books in the embrace of a larger institution that would value it, and continue to catalogue, exhibit, lend and enlarge its scope. The Board made inquires at a few select institutions, including the Walker, the Guggenheim, and MOMA. But it was really Clive Phillpot's resolve to acquire Franklin Furnace's collection for the MOMA Library that made this deal happen in 1993. The terms that were important to us were that Franklin Furnace's name would remain on the Museum of Modern Art/Franklin Furnace/Artist Book Collection; and that its collection policy would be open to any artist who claimed, "this is a book." It remains the only uncurated collection at MOMA. This year, the collection has become accessible through MOMA and Franklin Furnace's websites so artists may look up their works to see how they are catalogued.

The other idea that galvanized the Board was that we should raise the money to make the down payment on purchasing Franklin Furnace's loft, and eventually bring the "c" copies of the artist book collection home to be handled casually, get coffee stained and read, as the artists intended; and to bring the performance art program home as well. In short, our idea was to renovate Franklin Furnace's loft into a downtown art emporium. After a Summer long search in 1994, we hired Bernard Tschumi to prepare a physically and visually accessible design that was still sensitive to the historic nature of the building and the neighborhood. And we hired a Capital Campaign Consultant to help us raise the $500,000 it was going to cost to make the design a reality.

During the 1994-95 season, four separate donors asked us, "Have you been to the American Center in Paris?" Here is an institution that sold its Beaux Arts building downtown to build a Frank Gehry building on the outskirts of Paris--and ran out of money to mount its program. The fog cleared in the Summer of 1995 when, sitting in my sister's kitchen staring at Mount Rainier, I realized that Franklin Furnace would never be remembered for its blonde oak floors, but rather for its program--and I was raising half a million dollars for the wrong purpose. Omigod.

Window installation by Dara Birnbaum, April 1978. Photo by Jacki Apple

In September of 1995, I took a radical concept to my Board: I wanted to sell the darn building, and concentrate the program on broadcasting artists' ideas. This was not really dissimilar from the original purpose publishing itself served in 1910 when the Italian Futurists threw 800,000 manifestoes berating past-loving Venice onto the heads of folks emerging from church. Except now there were all sorts of new ways to broadcast artists' ideas including broadcast and cable television, and the Internet. They really went for it, especially the plan to get performance artists on broadcast television, which I ultimately failed to accomplish; more on the vertigo that accompanied this decision later.

"Venise Futuriste" manifesto, courtesy of Luce Marinetti. Photo by Marty Heitner

1996 was another fateful year. By the time we had made some decisions that changed the path of the organization's history:

1. We collectively pledged to look beyond artist development, our focus for 20 years, toward audience development. Could we cultivate a broad audience for the consumption of avant-garde art by utilizing electronic delivery media?

2. We decided to sell the loft, a step which would separate us from real-estate based presentation activity and commit us to an unknown course with rapidly evolving technology.

3. We embarked on a multi-year project to electronically catalogue, digitize and build a relational database of our program files from 1976 to 1996. My dream for Avant-Garde New York, the working title of this project, is to keep going after we have completed bringing our own history on line, to make accessible the archives of Fashion Moda, Minor Injury, JAM Gallery, the Collective for Living Cinema, -- small, but important centers for avant-garde art activity now out of business-- to make the "unwritten history of American art," as Jeanette Ingberman (Co-Director of Exit Art) calls it, accessible to future generations of artists, scholars and aficionados. This is not something I think I can do on my own. So I am trolling now for a university affiliation that would give Franklin Furnace the stable context necessary to raise the kind of money this project will require, and also allow the material to serve as the basis of curriculum development now and in the future. Well, a girl can dream.

But back to the subject of about time: Altogether, Franklin Furnace got in trouble four times with the forces of darkness in Congress and among conservative Christian right groups. Most recently, in September, 1996, the Christian Action Network mounted a performance art spectacular on the steps of the Capitol Building to protest the $132,000 in federal dollars (not true) we were spending on our Voyeur's Delight exhibition, and to call for the death of the NEA. Their press release linked us with the virus eating away at the health of the body politic, and the performance included two coffins and a guy dressed up as the Grim Reaper. (I think it says something when the Christian conservatives recognize the power of performance art tactics in getting their point across.) But this time, Franklin Furnace was building its website as its public face, so I decided to put up a page called U-B-D-Judge, to collect public comment, both positive and negative, regarding the works in exhibition. We reprinted CAN's press release in its entirety, and ours; and asked permission of the artists to publish their work on our site, each piece accompanied by the artist's statement explaining why Jocelyn Taylor had a speculum up her vagina, for example. Sure enough, this page has generated both positive and negative comment, intelligent and stupid comment, all of it I believe valid and important to the discourse that surrounds and emanates from contemporary art.

"Carnival Knowledge: The Second Coming," January, 1984. Photo by Marty Heitner

Karen Finley performing in Buffalo at Hallwalls in 1983. Photo by Gary Nickard

Jocelyn Taylor's work for "Voyeur's Delight" concerned the invasive nature of medical practice in regard to women's bodies. Photo by Marty Heitner


Martha Wilson's vows, January 18, 1998 When I was a little girl, my father asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said, "A BRIDE!" About a quarter century after this, as a baby artist who took her personality to be her art medium, I planned--and then abandoned--a wedding ceremony at Tavern on the Green that was to be a performance of self-love that I didn't actually feel at the time. ( I also abandoned this performance extravaganza because the tab was the same number as my annual salary.)

Now I have hit 50. The statistical liklihood of being married for the first time is remote. So I thought a wedding would be fun, as well as a good excuse to see all of you.

Vince is the one for me. He passed all three tests set before him: He didin't get up, put his clothes on and leave the first night we were together when Comly woke up and crawled into bed with us. He didn't hang up on me when I called on April Fool's Day to say I wasn't menopausal, I was pregnant. And he's putting up with this deal so I can call myself a fishwife.

I am not accustomed to working in partnership, which members of Franklin Furnace's Board of Directors here today can attest to. Of course, I'm in a life partnership with my son, Comly Cook Wilson. Presently it is an unequal arrangement, but this changes with each second that passes. One Summer, I remember marveling at the skill with which my sister Callie and her husband Dan negotiated everything in their partnership, from whether to take out a second mortgage to who would get the butter out of the refrigerator--and thinking it looked much too hard to be a valid way of life. And indeed, as Vince and I were negotiating the text of the wedding invitation, it came to me that although I'm half a century on this Earth, partnership is a new and unfamiliar concept that will require some thought.

Life tends to be uncertain. We have chosen not to get legally married not only to preserve our independence, but also to restate our belief that change is the only constant. That said, I am the happiest girl in the world today. I have one or two more decades to complete my mission from God: To make the world safe for avant-garde art; and I am embarking on a new life, however tenuously connected, with Vince, the fishmonger, my equal partner.

Playbill designed by Carol Sun for the wedding deal on January 18, l998. Photo of Martha Wilson and Vince Bruns by Michael Katchen