American Photographer and Conceptual Artist
Born: March 7, 1940 - New York City, USA
Died: January 28, 1993 - New York City, USA
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"To diffuse self-prejudice, women must take control of and have pride in the sensuality of their own bodies and create a sensuality in their own terms, without referring to the concepts degenerated by culture."
Now seen as an iconic and path-breaking Feminist artist, Wilke's work was first rejected by many critics, largely because of her conventional beauty. Her performances and photography are now seen as a crucial component of the Feminist movement in their use of the artist's own body in ways that addressed issues of female objectification, the male gaze, female agency, and even sexism within the feminist movement itself. Her challenge to traditional art practices and cultural assumptions puts her work squarely within postmodernism, while her fearless exploration of the female body keeps her relevant to this day.
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Advertisement for an Exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts (1970)
Wilke created a provocative advertisement to promote her first solo exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in the early 1970s. The photograph depicts Wilke in her studio in Chateau Marmont, Los Angeles, wearing a sweater, high-heeled boots, and thin hosiery. She is shown from behind with one leg planted firmly on the ground, while the other foot rests on a chair. Her position looks neither natural nor comfortable, and the effect is deliberately sexualized and confrontational. The photograph was taken by Wilke's partner at the time, artist Claes Oldenburg, and is the first of a lifelong series of photographic self-portraits taken by people close to Wilke under her direction.
The image is complex and contradictory. It shows Wilke with her back to the viewer, as if she is working hard on her art, taking her practice seriously. However, while it presents a woman-as-artist, it also presents a woman-as-object. As Amelia Jones puts it, "she is absorbed in something on her desk and her defiance is marked by her ass-in-your-face pose and her seemingly complete lack of interest in or concern for the viewer's potentially devastating 'male gaze'."
Wilke's absorption appears to give the (implicitly male) viewer uninhibited access to this highly sexualized image of her. This reading is complicated, however, both by the fact that the image was staged by Wilke herself and by her complete lack of interest in her to-be-looked-at-ness. Even at this early stage of her career, Wilke demonstrates an awareness of the duality of women's roles, both as sex objects and as active agents in society.
Printed advertisement - Robert Feldman Fine Arts, New York
Hannah Wilke was born in New York City, originally named Arlene Hannah Butter. Her parents, Selma and Emanuel (a lawyer), were practicing Jews whose families had immigrated from Eastern Europe. Along with her sister Marsie, Wilke went to a public school in Queens before attending Great Neck High School.
Wilke's interest in photographic self-portraiture started at an early age. When she was 14, she chose to be photographed wearing only a fur stole of her mother's, posing in front of a wall, which featured her name in large letters.
Early Training and Work
After high school, Wilke studied fine art at the Stella Elkins Tyler School, at Temple University in Philadelphia. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Bachelor of Science in Education in 1961. She married the designer, Barry Wilke in 1960, and taught in a Pennsylvania high school. After their divorce in 1965, she moved back to New York where she also taught at the high school level. In 1974 she began teaching sculpture at the School of Visual Arts, where she founded the ceramics department, and taught until 1991.
In the early 1960s, Wilke's work began to be exhibited widely. Her terracotta sculptures in vaginal forms were first shown in 1967 at Nycata, New York. These works constituted one of the first times that explicit vaginal imagery was used as part of the feminist movement. It was at this point that Wilke started to become a well-known artist.
In 1969, Wilke started a relationship with Claes Oldenburg, the American artist famous for his "soft sculptures". Until their relationship ended in the mid-1970s, the couple shared studios as well as lived together. Wilke frequently photographed Oldenburg, and also got Oldenburg to take photographs of her. These included one of her earliest self-portraits for an advertisement for an exhibition at Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, where Wilke had her first one-woman show in 1972.
While Wilke continued making sculpture and drawings, by the early 1970s her attention shifted to photography, video, and performance art. Throughout the 1970s, she also became increasingly involved with the burgeoning feminist art movement. For example, in 1974 she participated in feminist publications such as, "Anonymous was a Woman" and, "Art: A Woman's Sensibility." In 1975, Wilke met Donald Goddard at the opening of one of her shows at the Ronald Feldman Gallery. Goddard was working as the managing editor for Artnews at the time, and had two daughters from a previous relationship. A couple of weeks after the opening, Feldman offered Goddard tickets for the opera, where he met Wilke again. He later recalled, "The opera was Puccini's La Boheme. Hannah loved opera. She loved Puccini, and she especially loved women's voices. So that was the beginning of our relationship."
Wilke was full of fun and spontaneity. On one occasion, she was with Goddard and his two daughters in New York City, when she spotted an empty sculptural pedestal. She insisted that Goddard photograph her with the two girls posing on it, turning it into a work entitled Three Goddesses, Three Goddards.
From that point on, Goddard worked with Wilke extensively in her practice, taking photographs for her. He was particularly involved in the production of her So Help me Hannah series (1978). Despite his involvement in the process of Wilke's work, Goddard never saw himself as the author. He said, "I saw it as Hannah's work, and I felt wonderful to be a part of it."
At the end of the 1970s, Wilke's mother Selma was diagnosed with breast cancer. Selma lived with Wilke and Goddard for a while, and Wilke began to photograph herself and her mother as her mother's illness progressed, through her mastectomy and invasive cancer treatments. Goddard later recalled that "Hannah took a lot of pictures, and she said it was a way of keeping her mother alive. She hoped that it would literally do that. Of course it didn't." Her mother died in 1982.
Wilke continued her work with the same thematic focus in the 1980s, always exploring new media and different forms of self-representation. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1987. She had had a lump for some time, but her doctor failed to recognize the disease, which turned out to be lymphoma. She had to undergo extensive and invasive treatments, including chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. Throughout her illness, she had Goddard take photographs and film her.
During this time, her body, which had been a key component of her work, lost its conventional beauty as she underwent her treatments. In addition to losing her hair, she became bloated from chemotherapy and bruised from other invasive treatments. She documented these changes and her altered body in her Intra-Venus series. Wilke and Goddard got married in 1992, and Wilke died the following year. The Intra-Venus series of photos was published posthumously as a poignant record of Wilke's illness.
Though her art was strongly and explicitly feminist, Wilke's work was often misunderstood by feminist and other critics who saw it as narcissistic, and reaffirming of women's position as an object of desire. It is only recently that Wilke's work has begun to be reassessed as a radical postmodern statement about women's control over their own bodies, the male gaze, and female objectification. While controversial, her art has also been inspirational for many artists, particularly in the genres of sculpture and photographic self-portraiture. For example, Wilke's provocative advertisement for her solo show at Ronald Feldman Gallery in the early 1970s laid the groundwork for similar works, such as Lynda Benglis' advertisement in Art Forum from 1974, which depicted the artist naked and clutching a large dildo.
Some of Wilke's performances also anticipated other feminist performance works, such as Carolee Schneemann's provocative Interior Scroll (1975), while her photographic works were a strong influence on Cindy Sherman's photographic practice based around self-portraiture. Artists following in Wilke's footsteps lay particular emphasis on issues of the female body, the self, and the gaze.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Useful Resources on Hannah Wilke
| Hannah Wilke |
By Nancy Princenthal
| Hannah Wilke: Gestures |
By Tracy Fitzpatrick
| Hannah Wilke: Intra Venus |
By Hannah Wilke
| HannahWilke.com |
Hannah Wilke's official website
| Andrea Rosen Gallery |
Collection of works, publications, and press
| Hannah Wilke, 52, Artist, Dies; Used Female Body as Her Subject |
By Roberta Smith
| Exposed Wounds: The Photographic Autopathographies of Hannah Wilke and Jo Spence |
By Tamar Tembeck
| Hannah Wilke: In her Time |
By Taylor Holliday
| Hannah Wilke |
By Leslie Dick
| The art of Hannah Wilke: 'Feminist Narcissism' and the reclamation of the erotic body |
By Jennifer Linton
| Everybody Dies...Even the Gorgeous: Resurrecting the Work of Hannah Wilke |
By Amelia Jones
| Looking Through Hannah's Eyes: Interview with Donald Goddard |
By Tina Takemoto