Summary of Hannah Wilke
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.
- Wilke relentlessly explored stereotypes of the female body by drawing attention to the objectification of women in both high art and popular culture. Her use of her own body put her practice at the cutting edge of performance art, but her work in this genre was often misread by critics as a celebration of her own beauty and thus a reaffirmation of women's objectification.
- Wilke employed a wide range of media; her experiments with non-art material were not unusual for the time, but her chosen media were ephemeral and playful, including gum, erasers, chocolate, play-doh, cookie dough, and dryer lint. The common denominator in these materials is their malleability, something she used to express both stereotypes about women and women's vulnerability.
- Wilke's work was a significant element of postmodernism that dominated the art world beginning in the 1970s. Postmodern art is characterized by the breakdown of distinctions between high and low culture, a rejection of fine art materials, a challenge to traditional definitions of art, and a focus on spectacle. All of these were at the core of Wilke's practice.
Important Art by Hannah Wilke
Advertisement for an Exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts
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
In this half-hour video, Wilke uses her own skin as sculptural material, exploring her own facial features with pats, slaps, and strokes while also kneading and pulling at her skin. At times, she uses her head and hands for various expressions and gestures. The length of the video sometimes makes it uncomfortable for the viewer as these acts of self-exploration feel almost too private for the camera; the viewer becomes a sort of voyeur. At one point, Wilke smiles so hard that her face turns into a grimace.
The video seems to underscore femininity as a performance - as much pleasure as pain. She described it as "the pathos past the posing." As in all of her works she is purposely putting herself on display, becoming both artist and art object, but here going through the process of exploring her face for the viewer who cannot do it themselves.
S.O.S Starification Object Series
This is one of Wilke's best-known works; it constitutes a series of photographs of Wilke posing topless much like a glamorous pin-up girl in which she parodies traditional representations of "femininity". The difference between these photographs and typical glamor shots is that Wilke has created tiny sculptures out of chewing gum and stuck them to her body. The gum is formed into vulval shapes, a shape that she explored in other media throughout the 1960s. The title, "Starification" is a neologism that refers to a concept of creating a "star" or celebrity. The term also recalls "scarification," which could refer to the coming-of-age scarring rituals undertaken in some non-Western cultures or the numbered tattoos on Holocaust victims, while also suggesting a relation between women's bodies and wounds/vulnerability. By juxtaposing ideas of celebrity and scarring, Wilke points to the complexity of responses to images of women's bodies. This piece continues the theme underlying most of her works in which she is shown as both an object for viewing and as the agent of the objectification. Her goal, therefore, is to bring attention to depictions of women in popular culture, thus dismantling stereotypes about femininity and disrupting the pleasures of the male gaze.
Wilke's series received a mixed response. Many feminist critics in particular condemned Wilke for being narcissistic, and for confirming the conventional male gaze by using her own traditionally beautiful body as her subject. However, later interpretations see Wilke's work as openly questioning the representation of women. Joanna Frueh, for example, sees the Starification Object Series as evidence of Wilke "representing herself as a woman damaged by female embodiment in a culture that subordinates woman to man."
Wilke who also made independent sculptures from chewing gum, explained her use of this ordinary and everyday material: "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."
Photographs and chewing gum - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Wilke was one of the first feminist artists to create vaginal forms, something that she did in various media beginning with terra cotta in the 1960s. With these sculptures, she wanted to create positive associations with female genitalia "to wipe out the prejudices, aggression, and fear associated with the negative connotations of pussy, cunt, box." These shapes show up most famously in her Starification Series, where she used gum as a medium.
In the Needed-Erase-Her series, she uses kneaded erasers to make the vaginal forms, using word play to further underscore the feminist bent of her work. She placed these organic shapes in patterns on postcards of architecture and landscape, such as the Parthenon or the Lincoln Memorial that were meant to reference patriarchal history and tradition. In addition to overlaying references to patriarchy with symbols of female sexuality and reproduction. Wilke's use of geometric patterns in her layouts, appropriates the forms of the hyper-masculine Minimalist movement into a very different, Feminist context.
Erasers, like the chewing gum in Starification, are highly malleable and thus relate to cultural notions of femininity. Much as her Starification series implies the ability of women to be wounded (as well as the cultural association between vaginal forms and wounds), her Needed-Erase-Her series also recalls women's vulnerability in a culture that often wants to erase or ignore women's sexuality.
Hannah Wilke Through the Large Glass
This work documents one of Wilke's best-known performance pieces, in which she performs a striptease behind Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bride Stripped Bare is one of Duchamp's most famous works in which he reduces human sexuality to a mechanical process, while also starkly dividing the "male" bachelor section of the work from the "female" bride section. Wilke undercuts both of these elements.
Dressed in a fedora and a white satin man's suit Wilke plays both the bride and the bachelor so that they are no longer separated. Her dress evokes the style of fashion icons of the period such as recorded by Helmut Newton and Yves Saint-Laurent. Filmed, partially concealed, through the glass of Duchamp's piece, Wilke began the performance by striking a series of poses commonly used in fashion photography before she began to strip, thus returning desire and eroticism to sexuality and challenging Duchamp's mechanized view of sexuality. As with most of her work, Wilke's performance addresses images of women, here suggesting that both high art and popular culture are implicated in women's objectification- that not much has changed over the decades since Duchamp's The Large Glass. She is also cleverly inserting herself into the canon of art that is comprised largely of male artists while subtly interrogating the meanings inherent in Large Glass.
Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism
This is one of Wilke's most iconic works. It was done in the wake of negative critical responses from feminists to her Starification series. At a time when Feminist art was in its infancy theoretically many feminists were uncomfortable with Wilke's use of her own body, especially because it was conventionally beautiful. The theoretical tools that would have made it possible to understand her work within Feminism simply did not exist; because women's bodies had always been on display in traditional Western art at least since the Renaissance, these critics felt that Wilke was only perpetuating patriarchal ideas about women. In Wilke's brilliant response to the critics, she exposes the hypocrisy of feminists who would police how she uses her own body (as men had always policed women's bodies) by referring to these critics as fascists. It was only by taking control of her own representation that she was able to draw attention to the objectification of women. As an earlier response to these critics, Wilke had said "people give me this bullshit of, 'What would you have done if you weren't so gorgeous?' What difference does it make? ... Gorgeous people die as do the stereotypical 'ugly.' Everybody dies."
So Help Me Hannah
In 1978, Wilke was invited to create a series of works for New York's P.S.1. Her response was to go to the location in question and have her husband, Donald Goddard, take a series of photographs of her wearing nothing but high-heeled shoes and often carrying a small gun. In the shots with the gun, Wilke's slow movements across ten television monitors was captured; these were overlaid with a recording of Wilke reading quotations from male politicians, philosophers, and artists. The photographs were made to prompt viewers to listen to the quotations in a new context and without their usual cultural preconceptions - inserting herself into positions of male power and authority, something that was emphasized by the gun. As Wilke herself put it, "after a few minutes people forget the nudity and begin to listen to what I have to say in the quotations by Nietzsche, Hitler, Oldenburg, or other artists and historians." So Help Me Hannah, as Amelia Jones argues, constitutes a dynamic merging of body and mind, seamlessly combining Wilke's self-confident (female) posturing with the intellectual content of the chosen (male) thinkers, thus inserting women into male history in a dramatic way.
Goddard later recalled, "We must have taken about six hundred pictures all over the building: on the roof, in the basement, on the compressor, in the toilet. Hannah was naked the whole time. People would walk by with a kind of composed nonchalance. It was very funny and wonderful. But Hannah was very matter of fact about it." This reminiscence underscores Wilke's confidence in her own body and her use of it unflinchingly as a medium in a way that had not been attempted before in the history of art.
Silver gelatin print photographs - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Wilke's interest in self-portrait photography continued in sculptural form in the 1980s with a 3-D series originally done in chocolate and later painted plaster. The chocolate self-portrait was one of several produced by Wilke for consumption at an opening reception of a gallery exhibition. While turning the guests into participants in her performance, Wilke also ironically comments on notions of taste in the contemporary art world and makes a subtle commentary about women being eaten up by society.
As she related the consumption of food with that of women's bodies, Wilke was also exploring ideas concerning beauty and Jewish identity. The Hebrew dietary term "pareve" of the title (meaning neither meat nor dairy) is used to convey the concept of the universal. Thus, Wilke offered her classically nude body as a "universal" Jewish goddess of love, while examining myths of the ideal woman who is endlessly giving, even down to offering her own body for consumption.
It is not coincidental that these works were created in the aftermath of her mother's death. Early on, Wilke had first learned to work with malleable forms in the kitchen from her mother as they kneaded and shaped dough together.
B.C. (Before Consciousness)
In the late 1980s, Wilke began painting abstract watercolor self-portraits that focused on her face, once again, showcasing her wide range of media and her continued interest in autobiography and feminine representation. The works are very different from her previous self-representations in their use of vivid color, lyrical forms and, especially in the fact that her face is unrecognizable. When she was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1987, she continued painting these with her face becoming ever more abstract, perhaps suggesting a questioning of identity and self as the cancer invaded her body. She later exhibited these diaristic works as B.C. meaning Before Consciousness (of her cancer).
In 1991 Wilke began to document the physical changes caused by her cancer using her typical style of self-portraiture, with the help of Goddard. In this photo series of thirteen portraits, quite unlike in her earlier photographs, Wilke presents herself with a brutal honesty. They show the artist naked and bloated from her chemotherapy treatments, without make-up, and bruised where the intravenous tubes entered her body. These tubes give the series its name, Intra-Venus, which, typical for Wilke's work, makes a play on words that compares her post-cancer body to the "Venus" typical of conventional artistic representations of women. In one photograph, Wilke looks at the camera through the remaining strands of hair on her nearly-bald head, a far cry from the abundant dark tresses that are so key to her aesthetic in her earlier works.
These photographs act as a rebuttal to Wilke's critics, some of whom claimed that Wilke's works were purely narcissistic and self-congratulatory. This work helped shift critical opinion away from the idea that she focused only on her own "essence" as a woman, i.e. her own beauty and sexuality. Thus, this series further answers her earlier rhetorical question about what difference her beauty made.
These photos are a testament to Wilke's commitment to her practice. She asks the viewer to consider the objectification of women by society, and the way in which they lose media coverage and public visibility when they become old, ugly or ill. The work makes a strong feminist statement in the challenge it poses to societal expectations about the female body - the discomfort caused by images of a less-than-ideal body. By challenging this, as Amelia Jones puts it, Wilke "refuses the construction of woman as the pathetic, obscene, victimized subject of the patriarchal gaze" by "offering her body within a fully theorized array of expressions [...] that articulate a pro-active rather than re-active feminist subject."
Series of color photographs - Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York
Biography of Hannah Wilke
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 procedures. 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.
The Legacy of Hannah Wilke
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
- Cindy Sherman
- Carolee Schneemann
- Lynda Benglis
- Vanessa Beecroft
Useful Resources on Hannah Wilke
- Hannah WilkeOur PickBy Nancy Princenthal
- Hannah Wilke: GesturesBy Tracy Fitzpatrick
- Hannah Wilke: Intra VenusBy Hannah Wilke