Hannah Wilke was a feminist American artist, whose disciplines ranged from body art, performance, photography and sculpture.
Wilke’s work is characterised by postmodernist elements, breaking down the distinctions between high and low culture, consciously rejecting traditional fine art materials, questioning art norms and using one’s own body.
Her works, at times controversial, gained notoriety in the late 1960s and early 70s, when she began to make references to female genitalia, society’s view and expectations of women, the male gaze and sexual objectification of the female body.
Wilke’s art, in its various forms and often incorporating Wilke herself, brought into question the dominance of a patriarchal society, the ramifications on women, and the freedom one (and women) should feel in liberation of the body – whether through showing skin or by choosing to not adhere to societal norms.
With reference to feminism, the female form and the use of unconventional materials, Wilke’s art is often associated with works by Louise Bourgeois, Marina Abramovic and Eva Hesse.
HANNAH WILKE: BIRTH OF AN ARTIST
Wilke was born Arlene Hannah Butter on March 7, 1940, in New York.
After she graduated in 1962 with a Bachelor of Fine Art and a Bachelor of Science in Education from the Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia, she went on to teach art at high schools in Pennsylvania and New York.
In 1972, she joined the faculty of the School of Visual Arts, New York, where she taught for almost twenty years.
Between the years 1969 to 1977, Wilke was in a relationship with Claes Oldenburg, the American Pop artist, and she later married writer and editor Donald Goddard.
Even though Wilke began to exhibit her works in the early 1960s, her first one-woman gallery shows were held at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, and Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1972.
In the same year, she had presented works at the exhibition American Women Artists, Kunsthaus, Hamburg, organised by the Kunsthaus, Berlin, and at Documenta V in Kassel, Kassel, West Germany
Wilke exhibited nationally and internationally throughout her lifetime, turning the exhibition’s discourse to feminism, the role of the female form, and the plasticity of the body.
After Wilke’s death from lymphoma in 1993, her works have continuously been shown posthumously in solo and group exhibits.
Wilke was the recipient of several awards and grants including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grants and International Association of Art Critics Award, among others.
Today her works can be found in the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art, TATE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Centre Georges Pompidou, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, and many other art institutions.
FEMINISM THROUGH ART
As the feminist and women’s liberation movement began to take stride in the US during the 1960s, Wilke’s early artistic research concentrated on the varied form of the vulva, whose explicit use in art was rarely seen prior.
Her sculptural works initially created from terracotta and later from unconventional artistic materials such as latex, erasers and chewing gum, were made to resemble female genitalia.
As women were often forgotten in art history, excluded from its education, Wilke was committed to presenting vulval forms rather than phallic ones. The everyday materials used by Wilke demonstrated her ingenuity and the influence of Marcel Duchamp.
The choice to use chewing gum is explained by the artist.
She was quoted in a 1980 issue of Art News as saying, “I chose gum because it’s the perfect metaphor for the American woman – chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and pop in a new piece.”
HARNESSING THE POWER OF NUDITY
Wilke often experimented with her own nude form, in photography and performance art. In her work, Wilke created an awareness of the duality in her artworks of the sexualised form to her disregard to be viewed, dismaying the viewer, taking power away from the voyeur and giving more agency to the depicted – in this case the nude or sexualised female form.
Playing with the stereotype of the woman in 1970s society, Wilke often used performance placing her own body as the protagonist.
Performance intertwined with public interaction, again demonstrating women’s role in society, being available and performing to the other.
HANNAH WILKE: THE ARTWORKS
S.O.S. Starification Object Series, 1974-1982
Perhaps Wilke’s most notable series of works is S.O.S. Starification Object Series.
The series of performalist self-portraits, as the artist called them, originally consisted of 28 black and white photographs of the artist, each image recalling poses made by glamour models found in pin-up images and calendars, but scarred with chewing gum vulvar shapes she created.
Later, at a performance in Paris in 1975, Wilke asked the public to chew gum and return it to her so as to stick to her naked torso. Each piece of gum, after having lost its sweetness left with only the artificial and tasteless rubber, is stretched and folded into small scale vulvas.
Again, through the act of folding, Wilke references women’s labour, often unpaid labour in the home and family.
Wilke wears a headdress, has curlers in her hair, unties an apron, topless in denim jeans; each image evokes the male gaze and objectification of women through mass media, from the pages of Playboy to suggestive poses used to advertise products.
The woman is regarded as the beautiful object, without agency and without choice of action.
Each pose is exaggerated, Wilke is aware of her own beauty yet emphasises contrasting notion between the model and the scars of the chewing gum vulvas.
As she decorates her body, Wilke questions how women are viewed as merely decorative, made to be attractive and adorned with makeup, and elegant or even sexy clothing, not to receive but to administer pleasure to others.
The artwork’s title has several references, firstly SOS, as a cry for help, a plea to listen to women.
Secondly “starification”, concentrating on the word star, therefore the creation of a celebrity, adored by all. The same word can also be read as scarification, leaving a permanent mark on the body.
Wilke enjoyed language and word play within her works, leaving room for interpretation and stimulating discussion.
‘HANNAH WILKE THROUGH THE LARGE GLASS’ (1977)
The performance Through The Large Glass was presented and filmed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The work consists of consists of the artist acting out a striptease behind Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass, 1915-1923).
The Dadaist glass sculpture shows a machine-bird hybrid to represent the bride, gazed upon by nine mannequins, the bachelors.
Wilke plays with the idea of the male gaze, the woman as the winning trophy, her sole achievement in life to fulfil the sexual gratification of the males who surround her.
She reverses the role of the pure bride as she slowly takes off her clothes, maintaining a deadpan stare towards the viewer.
In the 30-minute video performance, Wilke faces the camera and moulds her face into various forms, exploring its plasticity and ability to mutate and adapt for the viewer.
Crossing the boundary from posing, where one is expected to smile and present oneself amicably, Wilke pushes into the uncomfortable as the video reveals an intimacy that the viewer does not feel privy to.
From smile to grimace, Gestures shows the importance of the face, the image to which we assign a person; we are shown its limitless forms, almost like a toy to play with.
The face and therefore, the human within, can delve into multiple roles. This is especially relevant to women who do not occupy solely the figure of wife, mother or lover.
‘MARXISM AND ART: BEWARE OF FASCIST FEMINISM’ (1977)
Wilke was invited to present a poster answering the question, “What is feminist art?” – which became an exhibition with the same title held at the Woman’s Building Center for Feminist Art Historical Studies in Los Angeles.
The artist decided to include a photograph from S.O.S. Starification Object Series, where she stands facing the camera, confidently posed, breasts and torso are bare, covered only with a comical men's tie.
The image is sandwiched within the work’s title, Marxism And Art: Beware Of Fascist Feminism.
In 1976, the feminist art critic and writer Lucy Lippard accused Wilke of flaunting her body and beauty she knew to be conventionally attractive.
The work was a response to critics of her art, comments such as Wilke was considered too beautiful to be a feminist, therefore failing the movement with the use of nudity in her art.
The criticism of exposing her body demonstrated internalised misogyny from both sexes. If feminists attack and berate women for how they dress and present their bodies, then this is just as harmful as the problems feminists aim to eradicate. Feminism in its true sense aims for liberation, for women to dress and behave without fear of judgement.
In 1987, Wilke was diagnosed with lymphoma. The artist documented the physical changes in her body in the following two years up until her death on January 28, 1993.
Having once been perceived as narcissistic with the use of her own body in her work, now Wilke demonstrated that she continued to use her body even as it became bloated, sick and tired from the cancer and cancer treatment.
The artist shares an intimacy, not shying away as she begins to lose her hair and lie in bed.
While the photographs were taken by her partner Goddard, Wilke retains control and artistic direction, as she had done in past self-portraits, often engaging those close to her, such as lovers and partners, to physically take the shot.
The final series was titled Intra-Venus. As is often prevalent in Wilke’s work, the series’ title is a play on words, with intravenous for the invasive surgery and use of needles, and intra-Venus for the beauty of the Roman goddess Venus, as painted by Botticelli, considered the epitome of beauty during the Renaissance.
Wilke asks the viewer to reflect on the idea of beauty and how it is perceived.
The Intra-Venus series simultaneously mirrors the artist’s previous diptych series titled Portrait Of The Artist With Her Mother, Selma Butter (1978–82). Wilke’s mother had battled with breast cancer, resulting in a mastectomy, as shown in the diptych.
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Cover Credit: Chin Zien
Writer | Glesni Trefor Williams
Glesni Trefor Williams is a Bologna-based art journalist/translator from North Wales, who focuses her writing on contemporary art and interlinked exhibition spaces. She has written for Lampoon, Spinosa Magazine, and is an arts contributor on BBC Wales radio. @glesniw