Bill WILSON: May Wilson: toward untoward self portraits

Wilson, during her sixty years in Maryland, was much photographed within the family, and then began to use cameras and a darkroom from about 1945. She photographed herself, and occasionally cut her face from a photograph to glue into another picture. But after moving to Manhattan, where photo-booths were available, she began a series of photo-booth self-portraits. With full control over her poses, she made faces at the camera, recording a variety of expressions: “11 AM went to 42 st subway, made 20 faces at myself in booth.” Then she would cut out her face to glue into a picture which usually showed a woman in a situation arranged by a man or for a man. She aimed for a facial expression which would convey truthfully what she would be feeling if she were in the false position of the woman in the picture. Everything was as it had been in each massproduced ready-made picture, only she was there.

Wilson's appearance affected many themes in her work She had always felt big, and even muscular from swimming and vigorous activities. She had a large obvious nose: “GODAM IT..WHY didn't someone tell me my nose was not HORRIBLE and that I was not ugly...” Her nose helped her toward a philosophy that spurned ideal forms. With her nose possibly broken and certainly scarred by surgical stitches, she had nothing to gain from an abstract ideal of beauty, hence she did not support the imposition of “timeless” ideal forms on actual ordinary events. A triangle is judged against an ideal triangle, and a nose can be judged according to a criterion-idea of a perfect nose. Such ideals are not drawn from experience, they are imposed upon it from a transcendental realm of ideal forms. However she had not listened to priests, and having left high-school at the age of fifteen, had not studied Euclidian geometry, so that she was not haunted by abstract idealist objects. The art she did in school, where girls were taught to learn by painting flowers on plates, at least was a pragmatic education in concepts implicit in action, hence a better preparation for Modernist visual art than an education in explicit ideal forms.

A series of accidents had the effect of positioning her in one of the Modernisms: nonmathematical, constructivist, pragmatic and accepting of change, impermanence and perishing. With no attraction to abstract ideals, she had nothing in the name of which to resent the passage of time, or mutability, or the inevitable losses in the driR of things, hence she did not seek revenge on time in the name of timeless perfection. She arrived on that path of Nietzschean acceptance from her own by-path, though she also had read Nietzsche in her continuous self education. As a practical woman who had gotten nothing without working for it, she so accepted life among variables to which she could not assigned fixed values that she learned to value variables as such. Thus oblivious to Euclidian or neo-platonic pure forms, she was untroubled by transcendentals in religion, philosophy or academic art, and unwittingly joined the philosophers and artists, from Jean-Paul Same to Henri Matisse, who stood on the ruins of idealist mathematics, transcendental religions and academic art in order to see farther into the immanent forces of life.

In Manhattan after June, 1966, she found herself immediately in an unfamiliar urban place where people feel free to stare, and sometimes glare, at other people. She was still making her own clothes, usually loose muu-muus, wearing little or no make-up, and flat shoes. Her hair, which she did not cut, would hang below her waist until she tied it in a knot. Her daily brief notes record her use of her face in photographs, showing that while her face was not beautiful, it was self sufficient. She and a young friend Cletus Johnson played photo-booth games: “Cletus and I to 42nd St. to have photos taken. home on subway.” “Cletus and I went to CINEMATIQUE to see [Charles Henri] FORD film POEM POSTERS with Ray J. in it for a brief shot. we went to 42nd st. to take pictures in booth. walked 42nd st: hot-dog. enjoyed.” “...leslie came & we went to Gotham Theatre, 43 st. to Ray Johnson THING. then to photobooth...”

Not all encounters were pleasant. Wilson had mailed back to Maryland any jewelry that was a gift from her husband, and then made her own jewelry. Hand-made or home-made jewelry and ornaments are protections, taking a relation to the soul that flesh takes to bones, and that clothes take to flesh (following C. Levi-Strauss). Yet anything that clothes the soul, assigned to protect that spirit the way power-objects and tribal tattoos do, exposes a person to attacks. She records, “...wore green leather painted earrings, man crossing st. said WHAT KIND OF WOMAN ARE YOU? Hostile..muttering..YOU ARE A DISGRACE..something about 5 wives” (09/02/68).

In Maryland, her husband was a lawyer who had been elected to the legislature, wherein he served on the judiciary committee. Her vocabulary as a former legal secretary was studded with legalisms, and terms of crime and punishment. She would respond to a criticism made by her husband, “Guilty, your Honor.” Nevertheless in any context like that of law-givers or governors, she always did something to show that she promulgated her own laws, and governed herself in accord with them. Thus swaying in tensions between the disapproval and approval of men, she recorded an episode in which she received a compliment from a law-giving governor who accepted her self governance:

... went to Primitive Mu. Rockfeller Mexica. Wore MUMMY NECKLACE. Started upstairs and man stopped me on steps, said WHAT A LOVELY THING YOU'RE WEARING. and shook my hand. I said, THANKS, I MADE TT, he said SO MLTCH THE BETTER, and shook my hand again. it was the GOVERNOR” (05/20/69).

Always trying to get bureaucrats out from behind a desk, or to get a laugh out of a nun or a priest, she found her encounter in the Primitive Museum satisfying because she got a personage to respond as a person. She declined to be treated impersonally. When a producer for a television interview program phoned, asking to visit her in order to audition her for Dick Cavett, she responded that Mr Cavett was welcome to become acquainted with her in her studio anytime, but that she did not do auditions.

While her self set laws suggest her autonomy, the spirit of those laws derived from her childhood before her father died. Andrew Grubert had trained to be a wheelwright, but seems to have worked on a streetcar until he died of tuberculosis. He had been the person who encouraged her to become herself. When he worked at some carpentry at home, she would be handed scraps of wood which she could assemble playfully into a boat, or arrange seriously in a box when he deemed the odds and ends of wood worth saving. Thus she experienced both the sharp-focused intentions in work, and the non-directional aimlessness of play. The child was already working at play and playing at work, preparing for the serious play and playful seriousness of her grown-up art.

Wilson needed responses from strangers, some of them strange men, and recorded flirtations: “Cab driver wanted to take me out tonight for a good time.” “...42nd St. place to pick up a man, if you are not particular. two gave me the eye, and two fell in alongside me suggesting a drink. one young man wanted me to go to movies...” A visit to a doctor is recorded: “Dr. Bemard Spertell..foot doctor..53 yr.old started telling my story in connection with my feet and he kissed me..kissed me at end of operation..intelligent man but not so physically ring.” Then, “an older man followed me on 14nd st. And got in step with me. GOING FOR WALK? Insurance agent.” “...young man picked me up 14 st. admiring black medallion. He said he is coming here 7P.M.” “Hal York young man who picked me up last Thurs. here this afternoon.” The janitor was helpful: “... herbie brought stove in. He said I am beautiful. He would not leave my side. he do anything for me.”

Foriunately Wilson's friends and acquaintances were either artists or people attracted to the arts. T'hus she was photographed with Ray Johnson by Rusty Russell, and then alone in a session in which she swirled her hair around her head: “more photos ...took 144 pictures of me.” She met a photographer whose work she had known from magazines: “Weegee's opening. Great cocktail lounge with different people at our table. Japanese Fujica men. Weegee making fuss over me at bar asking for a date. I told him to call me.” Then, “WEE-GEE here tonight. He crary about me. Wants to take me to europe.” However, after she declined Weegee's request for her to perform oral sex, she did not see him again.

Wilson, who had experienced sufficient political liberation of women from men for her purposes, became friends with a woman who hated men intensely, even morbidly, although she was always pleasant to me. In November,1967, “Valerie here.wrote SCUM MANIFESTO, play, UP YOUR ASS, problem of contract with publisher.” Wilson let Solanis keep her pistol wrapped in a cloth laundry bag under her bed in the studio apartment where her three young grandchildren played. In March, 1968, an essay about Andy Warhol, mitten by her son on a $25.00 commission from Mario Amaya for Art and Artists, became available on the coffee table beside that bed.

June 3rd, 1968 was the second anniversary of May Wilson's arrival in Manhattan as the woman who, having been refused by her husband, had first cut up his Playboy magazines, and then had cut up pictures of men to amuse those men who liked other men erotically. On that anniversary morning, Solanis visited the studio at 208 West 23rd Street, next to the Chelsea Hotel, to retrieve her gun. The diary notes on June 3, “Billy called WARHOL AND MARIO AMAYA SHOT BY VALERIE SALANIS, BARGECAP. Scum manifesto, etc. Cletus, Larry, talked with girl reporter about Valerie. John [Dowd], Nancy & baby here.” Ray Johnson had gone out to buy a late newspaper: “Billy [called] Ray cut last night by portorican.” Johnson, in a radical change of life, moved to Long Island, gradually to settle in a house in Locust Valley.

Wilson's visual thoughts about her own face as the face of a woman belong with the comedians Fanny Brice, Lucille Ball and Imogene Coca. Her list of people she admired included those who did not self consciously fix a facial expression like someone trying to look good for a camera. She liked to see people engaged in a constructive activity which was more important than how they looked doing it. If she met a person who was absorbed in the pose of a beautiful person, or anyone performing a self satisfied or complacent role from within a persona, she would try to reach the personality submerged in the persona, not satisfied until she got a rawly spontaneous and perhaps antic response from a priest, lawyer, banker or doctor. She went head to toe with her podiatrist: “afternoon to foot dr. Kissed.”

When the story jumps to 1984, she rallied herself for the last successful performance I ever saw. I took my doctor to her studio to evaluate her for a nursing home, since one aide was no longer able to handle her safely. When the doctor asked what would she mean if she said, “People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones,” she said, “I would never use an expression like that.” The doctor was charmed, and she smiled charmingly when he told her that she was not senile. However she was suffering the neurological effects of alcoholism, so that both the early alcoholism, and then its late effects, in different ways separated her from family and most friends.

The next year, in the Village Nursing Home, where one of the women pointed to metal bars over ground-floor windows on a nearby apartment building, she was persuaded that she was imprisoned in Connecticut. So it was that in her eightieth year, an image of being in jail became the latest elaboration of !he judgments which had punished her across decades. The face she presented to the doctors bore the anxious expression of a woman who had been assaulted by opinions of men. Overlaying her anxiety about the judgments of men was her disappointment with men, she judging them powerless to give up their power to judge her. But she had, after all, given them an eyeful. Through years of anguish, and disappointment, she responded to assaults with her clothes, hand-made to please herself, with jewelry, home-made to protect herself, and with uncompromised visual art. Then, imprisoned both in the nursing home, and in the gazes of doctors, she often pulled me toward the door, hoping to make her escape. In her eightieth year she bragged about her power over one of those very males who, as a class, had assumed their power to judge her as their god-given right. As we pushed and pulled together into the dining room, she pointed toward an old man and said to me, while her querulous brown eyes searched my face for a response, “He can't take his eyes off me.” She had noticed him looking at her because she was continually watching for the eyes of her father.

--Bill Wilson

[Excerpts quarried from a work-in-process November 27 2001]