Hannah Wilke’s work remains as challenging and relevant as ever

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, Activism & Protest, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

Hannah Wilke: Art for Life’s Sake, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Missouri, until 16 January 2022, is the artist’s first career-spanning retrospective in over a decade

Hannah Wilke (1940–1993) came of age in the heat of the postwar era, amid the consolidation of powerful social movements – the civil rights organisation, the New Left, intensifying anti-Vietnam War sentiment, and second-wave feminism. Her work gained recognition as the women’s liberation movement emerged and against the background of the sexual revolution. Indeed, an affirmation of female life – the vitality and experiences of the female body and sexuality – grounds Wilke’s work. This manifests in the iconic folded forms that run through her oeuvre: vulvas – emblems of female pleasure – modelled in various materials and abstracted to different degrees. It also emerges in Wilke’s focus on her living, breathing body as a canvas for exploring themes: pleasure, illness, gender, sex, politics. “I have always used my art to have life around me,“ said Wilke. “Art is for life’s sake.” 

Hannah Wilke: Art for Life’s Sake, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Missouri, until 16 January 2022, spans the artist’s three-decade career. The loosely chronological exhibition showcases the breadth of her experimental practice, comprising sculptures in clay and other unconventional materials, alongside photography, video, and works on paper. Her sculptures from the 1960s reveal the artist’s early experimentation with the vaginal form: solid, clay models slowly loosening into lighter variations sculpted from gum, latex, and even kneaded erasers. Meanwhile, her work in photography and video takes up the museum’s lower galleries.

Intra-Venus Series Triptych, 1992-3 Performalist Self-Portrait with Donald Goddard three chromagenic supergloss prints 26 x 39 1/2 inches each. Copyright Donald Goddard. Courtesy Donald and Helen Goddard and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York.
Intra-Venus Series Triptych, 1992-3 Performalist Self-Portrait with Donald Goddard three chromagenic supergloss prints 26 x 39 1/2 inches each. Copyright Donald Goddard. Courtesy Donald and Helen Goddard and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York.
Intra-Venus Series Triptych, 1992-3 Performalist Self-Portrait with Donald Goddard three chromagenic supergloss prints 26 x 39 1/2 inches each. Copyright Donald Goddard. Courtesy Donald and Helen Goddard and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York.

For her SOS Starification Object Series (1974–82) the artist enlisted a professional photographer to capture her in model-esque poses with tiny mounds of vulva-shaped gum coating her body. “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,” said Wilke. She created the “cunts” or “boxes”, as she described them, from pieces of gum chewed up and softened by viewers during public performances that preceded her image-making. Peppered across Wilke’s body, the vulva-shaped forms critique the objectification and control of the female form in fashion, advertising and beyond, resembling wounds or welts deforming the artist’s body.  

Alongside SOS Starification Object Series, the artist’s project Intra-Venus (1991–93), is also on show. Wilke’s focus on the female body, specifically her own, was a point of criticism throughout her career. The artist was conventionally beautiful, white and straight. Her critics honed in on this, asserting her nudity was narcissistic, exhibitionist and simply working to reinforce society’s narrow beauty standards; arguably a projection of their conservatism instead of an accurate reading of Wilke’s work itself. The Intra-Venus series further defies this critique. It would be the last work Wilke made before she died of lymphoma in 1993. The project chronicles her battle with cancer through direct and honest images, which do not attempt to mask the deterioration of her body ravaged by chemotherapy and illness. 

Intra-Venus Series #4, July 26 and February 19, 1992. Performalist Self-Portrait with Donald Goddard. Courtesy Donald and Helen Goddard and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York.

In a 1985 interview, several years before her diagnosis, Wilke asserted: “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.” Her sustained documentation of her body to interrogate social and political themes evidenced her commitment to this element of her practice until the end. A practice that, in its subject matter and radicality, continues to resonate powerfully today. 

Hannah Wilke: Art for Life’s Sake is on display at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St Louis, until 16 January 2022. An accompanying catalogue is available via the foundation’s website.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.