Artist

Martha Wilson

Martha Wilson (b. 1947) is a pioneering feminist artist and gallery director, who over the past four decades created innovative photographic and video works that explore her female subjectivity through role-playing, costume transformations, and “invasions” of other people’s personae. She began making these videos and photo/text works in the early 1970s while in Halifax in Nova Scotia, and further developed her performative and video-based practice after moving in 1974 to New York City, embarking on a long career that would see her gain attention across the U.S. for her provocative appearances and works. In 1976 she also founded and continues to direct Franklin Furnace, an artist-run space that champions the exploration, promotion and preservation of artists’ books, installation art, video, online and performance art, further challenging institutional norms, the roles artists play within society, and expectations about what constitutes acceptable art mediums.

Wilson, a native of Newtown, Pennsylvania, who has lived in New York since 1974, is esteemed for both her solo artistic production and her maverick efforts to champion creative forms that are “vulnerable due to institutional neglect, their ephemeral nature, or politically unpopular content.” Described by New York Times critic Holland Cotter as one of “the half-dozen most important people for art in downtown Manhattan in the 1970s,” Wilson remains what curator Peter Dykhuis calls a “creative presence as an arts administrator and cultural operative."

Written into and out of art history according to the theories and convictions of the time, Wilson first gained notoriety thanks to the attention of curator Lucy R. Lippard, who placed Wilson's early efforts within the context of conceptual art and the work of women artists. Commenting on Wilson's first projects, art historian Jayne Wark wrote in 2001:

In her conceptually based performance, video and photo-text works, Wilson masqueraded as a man in drag, catalogued various body parts, manipulated her appearance with makeup and explored the effects of "camera presence" in self-representation. Although this work was made in isolation from any feminist community, it has been seen to contribute significantly to what would become feminism's most enduring preoccupations: the investigation of identity and embodied subjectivity.

Wilson's early work is now considered prescient. In addition to being regarded by many as prefiguring some of the ideas proposed in the 1980s by philosopher Judith Butler about gender performativity, many of her photo-text pieces point to territory later mined by Cindy Sherman, among many other contemporary artists.  

As a performance artist she founded and collaborated with DISBAND, the all-girl punk conceptual band of women artists who can’t play any instruments, and impersonated political figures such as Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Tipper Gore. In 2008 she had her first solo exhibition in New York at Mitchell Algus Gallery, “Martha Wilson: Photo/Text Works, 1971-74.” In 2009, “Martha Wilson: Staging the Self,” an exhibition of Ms. Wilson’s early photo/text work and one project from each of Franklin Furnace’s first 30 years, began international travel under the auspices of ICI (Independent Curators International); and in 2011, ICI published the Martha Wilson Sourcebook: 40 Years of Reconsidering Performance, Feminism, Alternative Spaces. Martha Wilson joined P.P.O.W Gallery, New York, and mounted a solo exhibition, “I have become my own worst fear,” in September 2011. In 2013, Wilson received an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University.

Videography

Best of DISBAND: 1978-1982 (DVD compilation)

2008, 38:27 minutes, colour/B&W, English

Deformation

1974, 08:00 minutes, B&W, English

Cauterization

1974, 06:45 minutes, B&W, English

Psychology of Camera Presence

1974, 08:50 minutes, B&W, English

Method Art

1973, 06:15 minutes, B&W, English

Appearance as Value

1972, 01:50 minutes, B&W, English

Art Sucks

1972, 01:25 minutes, B&W, English

Routine Performance

1972, 02:10 minutes, B&W, English

Premiere

1972, 01:33 minutes, B&W, English

Selected Works by Martha Wilson

1972, 37:10 minutes, B&W, English

Critical Writing

Kaitlin Till-Landry Interviews Martha Wilson
by Kaitlin Till-Landry. C Magazine, Spring 2010, no. 105.
What Franklin Furnace Learned from Presenting and Producing Live...
by Martha Wilson. Leonardo, 2005, v. 38, no. 3.
Video Primer: A Series of 5 Video Programs: Masquerade
by Michelle Jacques. Video Primer, 2002. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2002.
Martha Wilson: Not Taking It at Face Value
by Jayne Wark. Camera Obscura, 2000, v. 15, no. 3.
Collection of Halifax video art recalls genre's first principles
by Cameron Bailey. Now, Nov. 16, 1995, v. 15, no. 11.
(untitled)
Corpus Loquendi: body for speaking, 1994. Halifax: Dalhousie Art Gallery, 1994.
(untitled)
Corpus Loquendi/Body for Speaking: Body-Centred Video in Halifax 1972-1982, 1994. Halifax: Dalhousie Art Gallery, 1994.
The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth: Women's Body Art
by Lucy Lippard. Art in America, May 1976, v. 64, no. 3.