The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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FEB 2022 Issue
Art Books

Martha Wilson’s Journals

Collects the most representative pages of the performance artist’s diaries from 1965–83

Martha Wilson
(mfc-michèle didier, 2021)

Martha Wilson – Journals collects the most representative pages of performance artist Martha Wilson’s diaries between 1965 and 1983. In 2018 art dealer and publisher Michèle Didier asked Wilson if she could find in her diaries when she decided to become an artist and begin Franklin Furnace (the artist-run space and archive dedicated to artists’ publishing and performance initiated in New York in 1976).

Reading the multitude of pages which were scanned for the occasion, Wilson could not find what she calls “ah-ha moments,” so instead, she selected about 270 pages to be published in Journals, which allow us to approach intimately her thoughts during these seminal years. Within the book, these pages are presented in chronological order in their original size against an elegant black background. Page after page, the autobiographical, mostly handwritten texts reflect Wilson’s activities and concerns. If in 1965 she was still a teenager who defined herself as a “status seeker,” from 1971 onwards she questioned progressively her character, her ways of relating to others, and her (artistic) identity: “Why not be happy in the personality I have?”; “What is a relationship based on?”; “The object of my work should be to not care what other people think of me.”

In 1971, the blond compulsive gum chewer, who was raised in a Quaker environment, had moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia with her artist boyfriend, Richards Jarden. Though she studied English literature, it was at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design where she was confronted with conceptual art. Reading Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Wilson experimented with text, make-up, photography, and videotape to elaborate works based on the idea that “all human beings are performing in front of video monitors or audiences, fictive or real at all times.” In her diary we find plenty of notes on the feminist artworks she created in these years, such as Captivating a Man (1972), Redhead (1973), A Portfolio of Models (1974).

The idea of opening a gallery already emerged in early 1972 when she and Jarden aired this possibility, “I would want to do it myself to prove something, but I would need his help to get started […] There is a danger in opening a gallery. But I thought I could make it work. But I need Richards’ approval, or I wont [sic] do it!”

In 1973 she met Lucy Lippard and took part in Simone Forti’s Movement Workshops “rediscovering the ways our body works.” Lippard included her in c. 7,500 at Smith College, the first show of all female conceptual artists, through which Wilson would encounter many New York-based artists. In 1974, the break with Jarden led Wilson to seek real emancipation: “I am creating my resource out of an absence that I feel in the ‘real’ me. All my values have been contributed from the outside, from my parents, my lovers. […] I will create myself into the absent center through action […] until I have constructed an igloo, a personality.” That year she moved to New York where she founded Franklin Furnace, engaged in a decade-long therapy, and started DISBAND (1978–82)—the legendary all-female band featuring Daile Kaplan and Barbara Ess, in which nobody played a musical instrument.

Among the many DISBAND lyrics and notes printed in Journals, “Dad is Dead” (1980) is to be mentioned. It is printed twice: at the end of the publication and on the verso of a flamingo postcard that is loosely inserted into the volume. The flamingo bird is particularly dear to the artist. As she writes in a song in her journal, she identifies with it: “I’m a flamingo flirt/ I play with matches and dirt / My hair is like fire / And I’m full of desire” (1979).

Wilson’s journals are studded with references to her family and early childhood, part of which was spent in a Skinner Box—a soundproof, climate-controlled environment which was designed by behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner in the 1940s to make infancy easier for both the mother and baby. In the introduction to Journals, the artist notes, “My therapist pointed out that because I couldn’t crawl to my mother I ‘performed’ my needs so she would come to me—and when I grew up became a performance artist who lived in storefronts.” The devoted and sometimes incestuous relationship with her parents, and especially with her dad, is also one of the leitmotivs of Wilson’s diaries. At the very beginning of Journals, the only letter of 1965 reads, “I wonder if I’ll be able to read this in five years; no one can read my writing now, even dad.”

Wilson is a prolific annotator of thoughts, events, and actions. Her pen runs fast on the thick lines of her notebooks. It is indeed not always immediately possible to read her impressions, but the high quality of the offset print of the publication helps the readers to navigate the strokes that are occasionally accompanied by small schemes and drawings.

Journals is protected by a plastic reading jacket and features the enlarged cover of one of Wilson’s diaries which reads “Pocket Memo / return to Martha Wilson, 112 Franklin NYC 10013.” Funnily, Wilson’s Journals is not at all a pocket memo, but a medium-format book that weighs more than two pounds! Back in the 1970s and 1980s, 112 Franklin was Wilson’s home address as well as Franklin Furnace’s. Beyond this disguised reference, few traces of Wilson’s implication in Franklin Furnace are to be found in Journals and this is probably due to her ambivalent feelings: “I want it to have a life of its own. I don’t want to be held responsible for it,” the artist wrote at the beginning of 1978. “Franklin Furnace is my child.”

Martha Wilson’s Journals offers a meta-reading of a seminal period in her life as a woman and an artist. Even if Wilson is persuaded that “major life decisions are made in the unconscious mind,” as she writes in the introduction, reading her Journals one understands that by putting pen to paper one’s fears and desires, one can make conscious choices and take meaningful actions on an individual and collective standpoint.


Francesca Valentini

Francesca Valentini PhD, is an independent researcher and curator based in Brussels. She is currently finalizing her book Art Book/Artist’s Book/Exhibition Catalog (Cologne: Walther Koenig, forthcoming).


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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