Hannah Wilke (1940-1993)

Gestures (1974)
Intercourse with... (1978)

Hannah Wilke
B. 1940, NEW YORK; D. 1993, HOUSTON

Hannah Wilke was born Arlene Hannah Butter in 1940, in New York. She attended the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia from 1956 to 1961, graduating with a BFA and a teaching certificate. Although she is best known as a feminist artist, she was also a teacher for approximately 30 years. From the year of her graduation from Temple University until 1970, she taught art at two high schools, one in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania (1961–65), and the other in White Plains, New York (1965–70), and between the years 1972 and 1991, she taught sculpture at the School of Visual Arts, New York.

Wilke used the various mediums of photography, performance, sculpture, and video to examine and challenge prevailing notions of femininity, feminism, and sexuality. She was one of the first artists to use vaginal imagery in her work with the purpose of directly engaging with feminist issues. During the late 1950s through the early 1970s, Wilke worked on creating a type of female iconography based on the body, constructing abstract, organic forms that closely resembled female genitalia. She displayed these forms on the floor or wall in a highly organized and repetitious manner that recalled Minimalism. During the 1970s, she began to use her own body for performance pieces that she called her "performalist self-portraits." These performances, immortalized on video or in photographs, confront erotic stereotypes by calling attention to and making ironic the conventional gestures, poses, and attributes of the female body. In one well-known piece, the S.O S. Starification Object Series (1974–79), Wilke posed half-naked for a series of black-and-white photo stills, adopting the accoutrements and attitudes of female celebrities, but with her torso literally "scarred" with chewing gum shaped into tiny vulvas. The chewing gum interrupts the viewer's desiring gaze, calling attention to the objectification of woman's bodies.

Wilke received several major grants, including ones from the National Endowment for the Arts (1976), John Simon Guggenheim Foundation (1982), and Pollock-Krasner Foundation (1987, 1992). She exhibited widely both in the United States and abroad during her lifetime, and though considered somewhat controversial for the use of her own (generally considered) attractive body in works meant to challenge traditional notions of feminine desirability, continues to figure centrally in accounts of feminist art history. Her works have appeared in numerous exhibitions at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York (starting in 1972 and continuing on to the present), and in shows at the Washington Project for the Arts, Washington, D.C. (1979), and Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2002). Her work was also included in a major exhibition of feminist art, WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution, which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C.; P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Queens, New York; and Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada (2007–09) Recently, Wilke's work figured in an exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York (2010–11). In the late 1980s Wilke was diagnosed with cancer and struggled with the illness for the last years of her life. Shortly before she died, she photographed herself naked in the hospital, her emaciated body connected to an intravenous drip and her head bald from her treatments. These large, color photographs were Wilke's last testament to the art world before she died on January 28, 1993, in Houston, Texas.