In 1975, the great and the good of the New York art world gathered to see Lynda Benglis’ new exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery. They were expecting an evening of sculptures by the woman who had just taken out a full-page ad in Artforum for a photograph of herself, naked and clasping a double-ended dildo. Instead, they were met by an unexpected striptease by the raven-haired artist Hannah Wilke.
Among the trailblazing feminist artists of the 1970s that we have come to know and love, Hannah Wilke cuts a solitary figure. The daughter of Eastern European immigrant parents, Wilke was tall and curvaceous, dark-eyed and elegant. In fact, she was just plain gorgeous. Too gorgeous some would say for the feminists that dominated the conversation of the time, including Mary Kelly, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Barbara Kruger and Carolee Schneemann. Wilke might have used her body in the same way as this sisterhood of artists, but there was something strange about the comfort she felt in her own skin. She wore high heels, she stripped, she moved lithely in front of the camera. The feminists argued that Wilke was just a narcissist. And Benglis hated being shown-up at her own private view.
Hello Boys (1975)
In one of her earliest works, Wilke poses in a sweater, boots and thin hosiery – the first of many self-portraits that peppered her career. Taken by her boyfriend at the time Claes Oldenburg (eleven years her senior and otherwise known for his soft sculptures of burgers and club sandwiches), the image was used on the poster for Wilke’s first exhibition, held at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. A confrontational, daring exploit that demonstrated Wilke’s awareness of the female body as an object as well as an agent of its own destiny – it paved the way for her sidestep from ‘traditional’ feminism.
Photography turned to performance in works such as Hello Boys (1975) and Hannah Wilke Through Large Glass (1976) where her sensual figure slides effortlessly from pose to pose, challenging the male gaze as she reveals and masks the body. In another video, Wilke pats and strokes her face into shape, tracing her hands over the flesh in a moment that should be entirely personal, but is laid bare for all to see. Wilke was also one of the first to use vaginal forms with a vengeance, kneading labias from erasers and terracotta to reclaim the negative connotations that female genitalia had been stuck with in the past. She scarred her body and face with vulvas made of gum, showing the female body as something ready be chewed up and spat out.
Her repetition of these vaginal motifs echoed parallel works of out and out feminist artists like Carolee Schneemann, who pulled a scroll from her vagina (1975) and Judy Chicago, whose Dinner Party (1979) set of dishes was layered with vaginas. So what is it that really divided Wilke from her contemporaries?
S.O.S. – Starification Object Series, 1974-82
The reason we don’t hear the name Hannah Wilke on a regular basis is largely down to the bad press she received from the Second Generation of feminists, who came to prominence in the 1970s. They balked at Wilke’s beauty and protested it had nothing to do with their own brand of feminism. In fact, for these women, who considered carefully the way they dressed and appeared in public, Wilke’s natural sex appeal positively encouraged the patriarchy rather than smashing it to pieces.
In Intercourse with… (1978) we hear some of the men in Wilke’s life, including Oldenburg and her husband and editor of Artnews Donald Goddard, fawning and cooing over her, eager to take some piece of Wilke for their own. Another reason why she never fitted in with the feminists – Wilke was far too willing to sacrifice herself on the altar of the patriarchy to make a point. In the same year, Wilke asked Goddard to photograph her in a series destined for New York’s P.S.1. Naked and clasping a small pistol, Wilke used these images as the backdrop to the audio recordings of male politicians, authors and artists, forcing the viewer to listen to the familiar words of Hitler and Nietzsche with a new understanding.
So help me Hannah (1978)
Wilke’s beauty, which had unsettled so many of her contemporaries, took a turn when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1987. Through the heart-wrenching effects of bone marrow transplants and chemotherapy, Wilke captured the transformation of her body up to the day she died in 1993. Wilke herself responded to the hypocrisy of her feminist critics by explaining how, by taking control of her body, she was able to draw attention its objectification and policing. She retorted, “people give me this bullshit of, ‘What would you have done if you weren’t so gorgeous?’ What different does it make?…Gorgeous people die as do the stereotypical ‘ugly.’ Everybody dies.”
What’s fascinating is the realisation that the playground antics between feminists are still happening today. Consider voices like Germaine Greer who was heavily criticised for her attacks against trans-women when she stated they were not women at all and the divisions within the #MeToo movement. Let’s learn the lesson and not allow an extraordinary artist like Hannah Wilke or the next trailblazer to be ignored while we squabble over what a real feminist looks like. We all die after all.
Alison Jacques exhibition of Hannah Wilke’s work continues until 21 December 2018.