This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new acquisitions. The Archives of American Art collects primary source materials—original letters, writings, preliminary sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, financial records, and the like—that have significant research value for the study of art in the United States. The following essay was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue (vol. 58, no. 2) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the journal can be found at http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/aaa/current
Martha Wilson (b. 1947) sits at a table in her Brooklyn home gazing at me through her pearly pink glasses. She has an open, puckish expression, and her hair is two colors: the left half grey, the right auburn. The pioneering artist and arts administrator is best known for founding Franklin Furnace, an avant-garde performance and exhibition space dedicated to time-based visual art that flourished in Lower Manhattan from 1976 to 1990, after which the organization went virtual. I am conducting Wilson’s oral history, and she is about to make a big reveal.
With a conspiratorial glance she explains, “There are two Guerrilla Girls who have outed themselves. You’re not allowed to out other Guerrilla Girls; you’re allowed to out yourself, so Lorraine O’Grady and Judy Bernstein have both outed themselves on their websites and in their writing. . . . Now I’m outing myself in this interview.”
Wilson was one of the first members of the notorious and anonymous Guerrilla Girls, a collective that revealed sexism in the art world. Participants took on the pseudonyms of famous women artists, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Agnes Martin, Gertrude Stein, and others, many of whom contributed oral histories to the Archives under these aliases. But this is the first oral history in the collection in which a named artist identifies herself on the record as a part of the secret feminist group.
Wilson relates that the idea of using gorilla masks to maintain the artists’ anonymity emerged at a 1985 meeting, in which the designated notetaker misspelled “guerilla.” They used humor in their art and actions because that “is the best way to get an opposing idea into the brain of somebody else.” Prior to this moment, Wilson states, “Feminists were considered to be dour. And ‘How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?’ ‘That’s not funny’ is the embodiment of that problem that . . . the early feminists, the feminists in the Seventies, were perceived as shrill, combative, angry, bra-burning.”
In the five-hour interview, conducted over the course of two days in May 2017, Wilson delves into growing up Quaker, alternative art spaces in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, and fighting for freedom of expression in the 1990s. Wilson describes her art practice, which began in the early 1970s as she was studying English literature at Dalhousie University and auditing classes at the neighboring Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). NSCAD visiting artist Vito Acconci was particularly influential because “he was doing conceptual art but taking sexuality itself as a legitimate subject of art, so . . . the door opened. I could see that I could be a conceptual artist, still use language, use my female body, all at the same time.” Wilson describes her 1972 work Breast Forms Permutated as a take-off on conceptual art, “a reaction to this notion of permutating everything. . . . I picked something that was limitless in form and couldn’t be permutated.”
Liza Zapol is the Robert and Arlene Kogod Secretarial Scholar in Oral History at the Archives of American Art.