Hannah Wilke was a sculptor, painter, photographer, performer, and installation artist, who experimented with a wide array of media. She was a pioneer of feminist art even though her distinctive use of her own body as a sculptural element and her take on glamour modeling put her at odds with the feminist movement. She riffed on the strictures of Minimalism, by arranging clay and other media into gridded arrangements, which made her photography and video work erotic.
Wilke attended the Tyler School of Fine Arts, Temple University and received her B.F.A. in 1961. She was in a relationship with the artist Claes Oldenburg from 1969-1977 and was an instructor in sculpture at New York’s School of Visual Arts from 1974-1991.
Her work in the 1960s and 1970s included her self-portraits, which were her attempt to counter feminine stereotypes. She created “Performalist Self-Portraits” where she acted out performances to be photographed. She often appeared topless or completely nude in poses that evoked fashion photography. But her faux glamour shots came with a jarring twist. She would be wielding a gun or photographed with a cautionary text, such as “Beware of Fascist Feminism.”
She made images of the vagina in clay, latex, erasers, bubble gum, or rolled-up laundry lint, rendering them into labial shapes and placing them on photographs or postcards. In 1960-1961, her “Five Androgynous and Vaginal Sculptures” were terra-cotta sculptures with oval openings in the top. She stated “Vaginal imagery represents the only universal symbol of creation and the most important function of human existence . . . “
In 1987, she was diagnosed with lymphoma from which she would die in 1993. An incredibly beautiful woman, she documented her own battle with cancer in jarring photographs of her own deteriorating body.
Even before her diagnosis, her art dealt with sickness and vulnerability. While contemporary women artists celebrated the strength and power of the female body, Wilke focused on its vulnerability especially during the time her mother was suffering from cancer. A 1978-1981 diptych consisted of one photograph of her mother’s chest after a mastectomy; the other was a photo of Wilke herself with small ritual objects placed on her own breasts.
The Roman goddess Venus regularly figured in Wilke’s work. Her early series “Venus Parve” 1982-1984 consisted of miniature nude self-portrait busts in edible chocolate. Later on they were made in plaster. In her last series Wilke created “Intra-Venus,” thirteen larger-than-life photographs of herself set out like the Stations of the Cross showing the destruction of her body during chemotherapy. While she was visibly sick, weakened, bloated, and scarred, she was not looking for pity. She was stoic in her exhibitionism and triumphant in her willingness to look at the “disappearance that everybody denies.”
Wilke’s work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions, including surveys at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Centre Georges Pompidou. Her “S.O.S” series is in the permanent collection in the Centre Pompidou. In addition to the Centre Pompidou her work is in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.