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, onliine 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.