Installation view of “Burning in Hell,” an exhibition in Franklin Furnace’s “Food for Thought” series curated by artist Nancy Spero in 1991 (photo courtesy of Franklin Furnace Archive)

The avant-garde is dead — isn’t it?

Rooted in a French military term referring to an army’s front-line “advance guard,” in the context of art history, “avant-garde” came to mean “trailblazing,” “rule-breaking,” and “forward-looking.” With regard to modern art, whose origins are generally traced back to the latter half of the 19th century, numerous avant-gardes, routinely emerging with tradition-busting fervor, contributed to the momentum of the modernist impulse.

Now though, from an early-21st-century vantage point, is it accurate to say that such movements have become art-historical artifacts — completed past chapters of a story that ended with paint-flinging Abstract Expressionism? Or with cool-detached Pop? Or perhaps still later, with the final elimination of the physical art object itself by a certain strain of Conceptual Art?

For Martha Wilson — artist, free-speech activist, and veteran arts administrator — and her collaborators at the Franklin Furnace Archive in New York, the avant-garde spirit is alive and well, and as relevant as ever; together, they’re committed to making sure it has the support it needs to continue shaking things up for years to come.

Martha Wilson, Mona Marcel Marge, 2011-2014, lenticular photograph, 20 x 12 inches (photo courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W., New York)

Since last spring, the organization has been celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding in 1976. Its program of commemorative events will soon culminate in a benefit art auction, in which bidding has already begun on the Paddle8 website; it will end in a live auction at Metro Pictures in Chelsea next Saturday, April 22. Various artists and galleries have donated works to the sale, which will include pieces by John Ahearn, Judith Bernstein, Ana Mendieta, Carolee Schneemann, David Wojnarowicz, and Wilson herself.

Franklin Furnace’s mission might sound like something of a contradiction — providing institutional support to artistic-activist forces whose purpose, implicit or explicit, is to tear down social-cultural institutions while proposing new ways of looking at, thinking about and engaging with the world.

Still, the organization’s history offers a persuasive and often colorful argument in favor of self-styled avant-gardistes charging ahead as well as shoring up their own rear guard by documenting and, in effect, taking the lead in historicizing their accomplishments. Now, as Franklin Furnace celebrates its big anniversary against a backdrop of a money-obsessed art establishment and a vehemently anti-culture federal government, the meaning and value of its mission have been thrown into sharp relief.

Judith Bernstein, Schlong-Face, 2016, three-color print, 21 x 15 inches (photo courtesy of the artist)

Wilson studied at a small college in Ohio and then earned a master’s degree in English literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She stayed in Canada following her graduation and, in the early 1970s, taught English at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. With so-called second-wave feminism (which linked the social-cultural and political inequality of women) and the sexual revolution well under way, Wilson became inspired by the language-based conceptual art for which NSCAD had become a laboratory, with artists and critics associated with the new “idea art” passing through Halifax to present their work at the school.

By 1976, Wilson had moved to New York. Intrigued by the diversity of experimental art forms that were flourishing on the fringes of the art-world mainstream, she continued developing her own performance-oriented work, in which, through costume, speech, and behavior, augmented by self-portrait photography, she examined women’s social roles and the idea of self-identity as it was shaped by class-, race- and gender-based values and assumptions.

In that same year, along with a group of artist collaborators, she established Franklin Furnace as an exhibition-and-performance space in the street-front loft of an Italianate, cast-iron building at 112 Franklin Street in TriBeCa. New genres, such as artists’ books or performance art, which were time-based, ephemeral or not easily classified became the focus of the organization’s programming.

Ana Mendieta, Untitled: Silueta Series, Mexico, 1976 (estate print 1991), color photograph, 20 x 16 inches (photo courtesy of the Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection LLC and Galerie Lelong, New York)

Just a few years earlier, in 1973, the American art historian Lucy R. Lippard’s landmark book, Six years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, had been published. It chronicled the rise of the new, often immaterial, idea-based art that had effectively led to the critical demise of familiar, physical, handcrafted art objects.

Wilson had also been following this new art’s evolution, along with that of performance art, which many feminist artists had embraced. (“After all,” as she once noted in a past interview, “as women, performance came naturally to us; we were all keenly aware that we were performing society’s defined roles for us all the time.”)

She was also very interested in the fresh, quickly mutating genre known as the artist’s book. “I was interested in the page as a kind of performance space,” she said. “At the time, lots of artists were publishing their work in various forms themselves, but it seemed that no established institutions were paying close attention to this phenomenon. Apparently, this material was not perceived of as art, or at least not as valuable art. I could see that there was a vacuum that needed to be filled.”

Artists’ books were often related to performance art, whose practitioners understood that if they did not photograph, videotape, film, or otherwise document their performances, they would have no lasting record of such events. And so they would often turn to making imaginative, one-of-a-kind or limited-edition books to serve these documentary purposes.

Performance artist Laurie Anderson in an early-career appearance on stage at Franklin Furnace, circa 1970s (photo courtesy of Franklin Furnace Archive)

From the start, Franklin Furnace began amassing a collection of such books, along with related videotapes, photographs, films, and booklets, and all sorts of artist-produced, performance-associated or stand-alone ephemera, which entered its permanent collection. Franklin Furnace became one of the world’s first “alternative-space” museums, whose thematic exhibitions were often largely culled from materials in its unusual collection. Other pioneering, independent arts organizations were sprouting up in New York around the same time, each with a distinct mission in the service of emerging art forms, including Printed Matter, Artists Space, the Kitchen, and Exit Art. Wilson recalled, “In those early years, as Laurie Anderson used to say, ‘The same 300 people went to everything.’ But then things grew and took off.”

The writer-actor Eric Bogosian, who presented his earliest monologues at Franklin Furnace, recently noted by e-mail, “Performance in the late 1970s was totally focused on the artists’ community. It was a way of talking to one another, of trading ideas. The emphasis was on originality. Franklin Furnace was the venue where an important facet of my work began. Martha and curator Jacki Apple encouraged experimentation.”

Performance artist Paul Zaloom on stage at Franklin Furnace in his “Opus No. 39: New and Used Works,” February 1983 (photo courtesy of Franklin Furnace Archive)

The Los Angeles-based performance artist Paul Zaloom, who also got his start at Franklin Furnace during its early years, told me in a recent interview, “I remember the lively, full houses and raucous reactions of the audiences.” Zaloom became known for his political satire and goofy-provocative performances involving puppets made from found objects. He added, “In the late 1970s, there was a paucity of humor in performance art; political content was also rare. Obscurity was rampant. As the culture wars, the AIDS crisis, and the Reagan nightmare erupted, a lot more queer, radical, and compelling work began to surface — even some funny stuff. Franklin Furnace was key to this new, much-needed trend, giving voice to lots of artists, like myself, whose work was explicitly political.”

In December 1978, Franklin Furnace hung a poster in its street-front window. It bore a list of the artist Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms,” matter-of-fact but edgy-sounding pronouncements printed in plain block letters. Their collective cri de coeur signaled that this new, downtown arts outpost would not shy away from the political. “You must disagree with authority figures,” one “Truism” advised. Another declared, “You are responsible for constituting the meaning of things.”

As the AIDS crisis tore through the Reagan ’80s, followed by the heated “culture wars” of the early 1990s, Franklin Furnace became both a showcase and a clubhouse for artists with political messages aplenty, even as it pursued more conventional curatorial projects. “We did shows the uptown museums wouldn’t touch, about subjects in which they weren’t interested,” Wilson recalled.

With the assistance of specialist guest curators, her organization mounted revealing exhibitions on such subjects as artists’ books from Japan (in a show assembled by the influential Japanese critic Yoshiako Tono). Its Cubist Prints/Cubist Books show broke new ground in its field and traveled to other museums in the United States. Along with exhibition-making, Franklin Furnace launched its Fund for Performance Art, whose grants enabled emerging artists to produce and present new works in New York. (Its grants-for-artists program still exists today.) Franklin Furnace also developed an education program, sending book artists, performers, photographers, filmmakers, animators, and videographers to work with children in New York’s public schools.

Installation view of the exhibition “Artists’ Books: Japan,” at Franklin Furnace’s previous, physical space at 112 Franklin Street, TriBeCa, 1985 (photo courtesy of Franklin Furnace Archive)

Challenging censorship, Franklin Furnace courted controversial topics. In 1984, it was reprimanded by the National Endowment for the Arts for presenting Carnival Knowledge, an exhibition and performance art series that examined, with punchy humor, the notion of “feminist pornography.” In time, Franklin Furnace also became a key player in what the conservative commentator-turned-Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan called in 1992 “a religious war […] for the soul of America.”

Political pressure may have played a part in an episode in May 1990, when New York’s fire department dubiously forced the organization to close its basement performance space in response to a call claiming the arts outlet was an “illegal social club.” The shutdown prompted Wilson’s team to present performances and events “in exile.” Their first, off-site venue: Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, whose arts-related ministry had made it a censorship-free center for experimental dance, art, theater, and music since the 1950s.

As the 1990s unfolded, Franklin Furnace became embroiled in the so-called NEA Four case, in which performance artists whose works it had sponsored — Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller — saw their proposed grants from the NEA vetoed by the agency’s director, John Frohnmayer, an appointee of President George H. W. Bush. Ultimately, the NEA settled with the four artists out of court and gave them the grants they had been denied. Still, they decided to litigate against the NEA’s congressionally approved “decency clause,” which had required the arts agency to judge grant-seekers’ proposals not only on their artistic merits but also according to “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs of the American public.”

“Although the NEA Four finally won their grants,” Wilson recalled, “in the end, sadly, the arts agency stopped funding individual visual artists.” She added, “In a way, avant-garde artists both won and lost the culture wars. Certainly they often took the lead, through their art, in examining topics they felt were urgent but were not embraced right away by the general society. Eventually, though, those subjects became the ones everybody was talking and concerned about.”

John Ahearn, Chin Chih Yang, 2015/2017, painted plaster cast with aluminum cans, 20 x 21 x 10 inches (photo courtesy of the artist and Alexander and Bonin, New York)

Wilson noted that, ironically, far-right activists learned to employ techniques avant-garde artists themselves had developed. “There was the time that a group of conservative activists calling for the death of the NEA tried to haul two coffins up the Capitol steps in Washington, DC,” Wilson said. “That one was straight out of the performance art playbook!”

In 1997, after winding down its on-site programming and selling its TriBeCa loft, Franklin Furnace launched a website and became an Internet-based presenter of performance art and, in time, an online archive of material documenting its past events. It sold its collection of artists’ books and related research files to the Museum of Modern Art. More recently, the organization became an independently functioning entity under the administrative umbrella of and in collaboration with Pratt Institute. Its offices are located on Pratt’s Brooklyn campus, where the organization, drawing on its archive and considerable research resources, has been developing study programs in performance art and other areas, as well as helping to organize exhibitions.

Wilson said, “Now, after forty years, we find ourselves playing a Janus role: We still serve as an aid to avant-garde artists, which means we’re always looking ahead, and as custodians of decades of the recent avant-garde’s history, both with our physical and our online archives, we find ourselves looking back in time, too. These are big responsibilities, and we take them seriously.”

Installation view of the exhibition “Fluxus: A Conceptual Country,” curated by Estera Milman, which opened at Franklin Furnace in downtown Manhattan in October 1993 (photo by Marty Heitner, courtesy of Franklin Furnace Archive)

Art historian Lippard, reminiscing by e-mail from her home in New Mexico, recalled her own past collaborations with Franklin Furnace, back in the days when, with limited resources — homemade vitrines, clip-on lamps — it mounted many a ground-breaking exhibition. “It has always been a haven for book artists, performance artists and political artists way outside the mainstream. Mike Glier and I curated Vigilance, an artists’ book show there in the early 1980s, with a banner quoting Antonio Gramsci overlooking card tables; the books were tied by string to their legs, and, remarkably, none disappeared.”

As long as artists continue calling for radical change in the art world, a position that, in the broadest sense, is inherently political, maybe there will always be an active avant-garde. Looking back over the past four decades, Lippard observed, “We thought it was bad in the 1980s, but the Furnace’s history has a special resonance today, when things are worse than we could ever have imagined.”

Franklin Furnace @ 40 Benefit Art Sale and Auction will take place at Metro Pictures (519 West 24th Street, Chelsea) on Saturday, April 22, from 5 to 7pm. Pre-event online bidding is now under way at Paddle8.

Edward M. Gómez is a graphic designer, critic, arts journalist, and author or co-author of numerous books about art and design subjects, including Le dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise, Yes: Yoko...