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Franklin Furnace: Stoking the Avant-Garde

Dedicated to ephemeral and experimental art, the Franklin Furnace has proved to be a hardy perennial among New York cultural institutions. Founded by artist Martha Wilson in 1976, Franklin Furnace occupied a Tribeca loft for two decades, where it served as an early and in some cases premier venue for artists like Ida Applebroog, Eric Bogosian, Nicole Eisenman, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Valery Oisteanu, Krzysztof Wodiczko, and Annie Sprinkle among others. Wilson’s policy of offering complete artistic freedom to her collaborators also led to the institution being blacklisted by right-wing Christian activist groups in their crusade to dissolve the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1990s.

Martha Wilson as Tipper Gore in Tipper Gore’s Advice for the 90s, 1994 window installation commissioned by Printed Matter, Inc. artists’ book store, Wooster Street, New York. Portrait of “Tipper Gore” by Benita Abrams, text Photostat by Carol Sun, photo credit: Marty Heitner.

Toward A Feminist Pornography

Through such performance programs as Annie Sprinkle’s Carnal Knowledge and Karen Finley’s We Keep Our Victims Ready, Franklin Furnace explored issues of feminine sexuality through a subversion of the traditionally male genre of pornography. Sprinkle’s show included her “Public Cervix Announcement,” in which she taught women to view their own cervixes and a mysterious Sacred Prostitute Masturbation Ritual. One of Finley’s trademark performances involved covering her nude body with chocolate (a surrogate for excrement) to reflect the foul treatment of women. Her sticky body was then festooned with candy hearts because, “after a woman is treated like shit, she becomes more loveable.” Finley then covered her body with bean sprouts, which have the look and smell of semen, as though she had been masturbated upon. Finally, she spread tinsel all over her body because, “No matter how badly a woman has been treated, she’ll still get it together to dress for dinner.”

Karen Finley performance at Hallwalls, Buffalo, New York, 1983, photo credit: Gary Nickard.

The Artist’s Book

Franklin Furnace has long been committed to art in multiples and particularly the artist’s book. This alternative genre represents a temporal art experience outside of the gallery or performance space and represents a conceptual predecessor to Franklin Furnace’s current projects in web publishing. By the early 1990s, Franklin Furnace had amassed the largest collection of artist’s books in the United States, with titles dating back to the early 1960s. In 1993, the board of Franklin Furnace approved the sale of this collection to the library of the Museum of Modern Art. The sale came about partially due to MoMA’s ability to care for the important collection and one exciting aspect of the MoMA’s stewardship is a searchable online Dadabase which offers free access to titles garnered by the Franklin Furnace over the course of nearly twenty years.

Yoko Ono, Grapefruit, introduction by John Lennon, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964. Installation view of In the Shadow of Duchamp: The Photomechanical Revolution and the Artists’ Book, 1979 exhibition organized by Martha Wilson and Weston J. Naef for The Grolier Club, New York City, photo credit: Marty Heitner.

Targeted for Elimination

On September 2, 1996, members of the Christian Action Network (CAN) staged a “Funeral March” for the NEA on the steps of the U.S. Capital. On this occasion, CAN unveiled a new controversial NEA grant to the Franklin Furnace in support of a pornographic exhibition called Voyeur’s Delight. CAN’s performance featured a man in a grim reaper costume leading pall-bearers who carried two coffins. One contained death certificates for the NEA and the other images from inflammatory NEA funded projects, including Voyeur’s Delight. This banal, reactionary activism was in fact the latest attack in a long-term campaign by Christian fundamentalists to vilify Franklin Furnace and defund the NEA. Franklin Furnace collaborator Karen Finley had her NEA funding withdrawn and her work labeled obscene. The Franklin Furnace was also subjected to a ten-year audit by the General Accounting Office in a move that may have been politically motivated. Somehow the Midwestern armies of salvation missed any social, political or humorous content and perceived only a target in the vestiges of pornography.

Carnival Knowledge: The Second Coming, 1984 window of installation, video and performance series curated by the Carnival Knowledge collective of nine women who solicited proposals for “feminist pornography,” i.e. explicit artworks which did not denigrate women or children, photo credit: Marty Heitner.

The Franklin Furnace Today

In 1996 Franklin Furnace sold its loft in Tribeca, shifting its focus away from gallery and performance-space based art work. Martha Wilson and her board were very interested in emerging communication technologies and began to pioneer artwork on the internet through collaborations with international artists. Concurrently, the Franklin Furnace began to digitize and catalog a relational database of program files from 1976 through 1996. In addition to documenting its own history, the Franklin Furnace has begun to record the programming of such important alternative New York spaces as Fashion Moda, Minor Injury, JAM Gallery, and The Collective for Living Cinema. They were once important venues, are now defunct, but occupy a place in the history of avant-gardism in New York City.

Jocelyn Taylor’s Something Private, video and projection installation, Voyeur’s Delight, 1996 exhibition at Franklin Furnace which became the basis of U-B-D-Judge pages of website,, photo credit: Marty Heitner.

Someone once asked Jean Cocteau what he would rescue if he could take only one thing from a burning house. “The fire!” he replied. Similarly, Martha Wilson and her collaborators have adapted their programming over decades to conserve both the life force of artmaking and the zeitgeist.

Franklin Furnace Archive Inc., 80 Arts – The James E. Davis Arts Building, 80 Hansen Place #301, Brooklyn, NY 11217-1506,

© 2005 Daniel Rothbart. All rights reserved.

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