Martha Wilson is a unique personality in the history of American art, and one of the first artists to use her body to question social representations of women. Her pioneering work created in the early 1970s can be categorised as conceptual practices with a radical irony. Featuring more than forty works, the Centre Pompidou is the first French institution to dedicate a monographic exhibition to her.
Born in Philadelphia in 1947, Martha Wilson began promoting herself in the early 1970s, alone in front of a camera, using video, photography and text. At the time, she was teaching English literature at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in the Canadian city of Halifax – a favourite haunt of predominantly male artists from the American conceptual scene, where she blurred the lines of the genre by making her own image the main focus of her work. The artist transformed her appearance and cross-dressed, caricaturing the identity stereotypes of neoliberal America with caustic humour.
Her work immediately stood out thanks to its very personal language, initially based on the performative relationship she established between photographic self-portraits and her comments, written in the frame of the image. Performance art, as she wrote on the development of this form in the 20th century, is "the place of where image and text intersect". Martha Wilson jointly made videos of bodily actions, subjecting her own body to processes of extreme disfigurement. Her criticisms extend beyond the social mirror of the feminine and go so far as to question the counter-models arising from feminist culture.
At a time of rapid growth in the international art market, she set her sights more broadly and with uncompromising lucidity on the manufacture of the artist’s identity and value, underscored by the precarious nature of the female artist’s condition.
Covering the period of her stay in Halifax, from 1972 until her relocation to New York in 1974, the Centre Pompidou exhibition provides an insight into the development of these radical acts. From Breast Forms Permutated (1972) – a delightful mockery of the abstract grids of minimalism, to A Portfolio of Models (1974) – a perusal of the clichés attributed to female psychology, the artist hones a laconic and incisive language.
In her series entitled Posturing, she adds complexity to role plays by exploring the desire for otherness. Posturing: Drag (1972), for example, shows her attempting to embody a man posing in the manner of a woman. In the wake of the analyses by sociologist Ervin Goffman (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1956), Martha Wilson subtly exposes everyday life as a masquerade and the role of language in the elaboration of representations. In certain respects, her work prefigures Judith Butler's reflections on the performativity of gender. She also inaugurated strategies that would be taken up by other contemporary female artists like Eleanor Antin, Martha Rosler and Cindy Sherman, using female cross-dressing and its verbal deconstruction to question the social injunction to "strike a pose". As early as 1973, Martha Wilson's work attracted the attention of art critic Lucy Lippard who, in her exhibition "C. 7,500" (1973-1974), contextualises her first pieces as part of her pioneering research on feminist conceptual practices.
Martha Wilson's artistic activity soon extended to a commitment to serving the community, focusing on the underground culture and artistic activism that drove the "culture wars" in 1970s and 1980s New York. In 1976, she created Franklin Furnace, a venue for public programmes and an archive dedicated to artists' books and other ephemera produced by alternative artistic movements that are neglected by institutions. Two years later, she founded the female music group DISBAND, whose members, it was specified, were unable to play any instruments. With their unbridled vocals, these proponents of noise music and punk amateurism unleashed a satirical critique of the art world and political life. She is also famous for her stand-up performances including imitations of the wives of American presidents – public personalities required to fulfil a primarily image-based role – whom she calls "second-class citizens". Martha Wilson's freedom and irreverence never cease to undermine the system of aesthetic, market and political values.