New York

Martha Wilson

Mitchell Algus Gallery

Martha Wilson is best known as the founding director of Franklin Furnace, the archive and performance institution that has been a necessary part of the New York art world since 1976. Considerably less familiar is her work as a Conceptual artist in the early 1970s, when she was teaching English at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in Halifax. This work has been exhibited only occasionally over the years, even though, as Jayne Wark wrote in 1991, in an essay reprinted in the catalogue for the present show, it has acquired a certain profile through the writing of Lucy Lippard. The Algus gallery makes a specialty of recovering work with just this combination of neglect and value.

Wilson’s work of these years combines text and image, in the Conceptual mode of Joseph Kosuth and others around the same period. But the impulse to cite that mode is useful only as a quick visual mnemonic; in fact her pieces are radically different in their concerns, their approach, their context. Much more relevant, though not nearly so contemporaneous, is Cindy Sherman, whom some of the works here quite startlingly predict. Not only does Wilson’s art reflect feminist ideas that I doubt Kosuth has ever been accused of, but it is inventive and original and on the way to something else, another body of visual thought emerging from a Conceptualist chrysalis.

A number of the works involve performative dress-up. In A Portfolio of Models, 1971–74, Wilson appears in consecutive photographs in costume: “Goddess,” “Housewife,” “Working Girl,” “Professional,” “Earth-Mother,” “Lesbian.” Accompanying captions describe these different personas; of the housewife, for example, Wilson writes, SHE IS INTELLIGENT, BUT HAS CONVINCED HERSELF THAT SHE IS FULFILLED. In the lurid Suicide, 1971–74, Wilson lies naked on the floor, apparently bloodied, indeed apparently dead, over a text reading, A PERFECTLY STAGED SUICIDE, RED BLOOD ON GREEN FLOOR, HEINZ KETCHUP, ELEVEN O’CLOCK AT NIGHT, JUST WHEN HE GETS HOME, TIRED. HE’LL BE SORRY. Other works use visual devices more established at the time: Breast Forms Permutated, 1972, for example, is a grid of photographs, a tried-and-true aesthetic strategy in these years, but here applied to a kind of analytic chart of women’s breast shapes. Where the Conceptualists’ concerns were philosophical and ontological, Wilson’s thinking was rooted in the body, in the personal, and in women’s experience.

I say “in the personal,” but in fact it is hard to know Wilson through her work, which seems to question her ability to know herself, or rather foregrounds specific difficulties a woman may face in knowing herself. It is much concerned with physical appearance, social role, and the relationship between them—and also with how, or whether, the individual self can speak through them. The costume pieces, for example, show her trying on different personas to see how they fit, and how they affect our perception of her. And in Selfportrait, 1974, similarly, rather than try to describe who she is for herself—the usual goal of a self-portrait—Wilson has asked a performance audience to write down who they think she is, as if she were trying to mirror herself through this composite rather than claim a core identity.

For Wark, this aspect of Wilson’s art anticipates the ideas of the gender theorist Judith Butler; and I think that’s true, and does credit to Wilson’s analytic intelligence. But there is also the ’70s-feminist notion of the inseparability of the political and the personal, and even while Wilson finds the personal hard to locate in the politics of self and society, perhaps the most profoundly affecting part of this show was her address of the struggle we go through to find ways of being and working that suit us. “These are the models society holds out to me,” Wilson writes of the roles in A Portfolio of Models. “At one time or another I have tried them all on for size, and none has fit. All that’s left to do is be an artist.”

David Frankel