The Willful Jouissance of Hannah Wilke

ST. LOUIS — Pretty or gritty? Girly or galling? Delicate or in your face? Hannah Wilke straddled them all (often in stilettos), the femme priestess of 1970s body art whose irreverent take on objectification literally led her roving tongue to probe her inner cheek. Perhaps best known for her nude self-portraits and tiny vaginas twisted out of chewing gum, Wilke embraced a creative practice in which exhibitionism and interiority consciously crossed their ludic limbs; she was a sculptor turned sculpture, a pulchritudinous provocateur, a looker with the audacity to deliberately look.

“[W]omen must take control of and have pride in the sensuality of their own bodies and create a sensuality in their own terms,” wrote Wilke in 1976, “… without referring to the concepts degenerated by culture … to touch, to smile, to feel, to flirt, to state, to insist on the feelings of the flesh, its inspiration, its advice, its warning, its mystery, its necessity for the survival and regeneration of the universe.” If the concepts of survival and regeneration feel a touch lofty for a woman of wily pin-up poses, it’s worth asking: why expect anything less?

Installation view of Hannah Wilke: Art for Life’s Sake, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2021 (Artwork © Scharlatt Family, Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles; or, Artwork © Donald Goddard. Photo by Alise O’Brien, © Pulitzer Arts Foundation)

Nearly 30 years after her untimely death of lymphoma in 1993, Wilke may finally be getting her due. With Hannah Wilke: Art for Life’s Sake, on view at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis through January 16, curator Tamara H. Schenkenberg offers an accessible and a rigorous take on Wilke’s layered career, celebrating the levity — and gravity — of the artist’s oeuvre in the first major museum show devoted to her in a decade. Clearly indebted to those feminist scholars who have long taken Wilke seriously, Art for Life’s Sake chronicles a life and life’s work that constantly informed one another, affirming Wilke as a seminal mid-century artist both of, and ahead of, her time.

Invigorating the sunlit space of Tadao Ando’s minimalist structure, Wilke’s eclectic array of objects, collages, works on paper, videos, and photographs take on a life of their own. Vaginal ceramic vessels in pastel colors festoon the concrete floor like giant Jordan almonds; blood-hued latex petals bloom from a wall. A watercolor rose is a rose is a rose is a maybe more than rose? Pinks, yellows, and dove grays cluster on different surfaces from gallery to gallery. Artifice and orifice conspire and coalesce.  

Hannah Wilke, “Untitled” (c. 1970), latex, plywood, metal push pins, 20 7/8 x 17 3/4 x 4 3/4 inches. Collection of Alison Jacques, London (© 2021 Scharlatt Family, Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY)
Photograph by Michael Brzezinski, courtesy Alison Jacques, London

A few steps away from her more abstract artscape, Wilke’s more sexually graphic and overtly political work take on new resonance. Tucked behind (and in tension with) a towering masculine totem by Ellsworth Kelly, on permanent view at the Pulitzer, two galleries focus on Wilke’s 1970s output. Fourteen varicolored gum sculptures peek out from small Plexiglas boxes — resembling at once the vagina and the tip of a penis. Affixed to an assembly of vintage postcards of famous international monuments — the Coliseum, Lincoln Memorial, West Point — kneaded erasers folded into similar genitalia suggest the absence of women in places of power. 

On the opposite walls, nine gelatin silver prints from Wilke’s S.O.S Starification Object Series depict the artist in varying states of undress, parodying tired depictions of women common to mass culture. In one huge “performalist self-portrait,” as she called it, titled “Atrophy,” a naked Wilke balances in high heels on the precarious surface of an air compressor, presenting herself as “a trophy,” in her objectified state, and a pun on the diminishment of women only valued as such. In an age in which the clever selfie is utterly banal, it is easy to forget the radical nature of Wilke’s playful interrogations into the commodification of female bodies — claiming her own as both medium and agent of mindful transformation.

Installation view of Hannah Wilke: Art for Life’s Sake, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2021 (Artwork © Scharlatt Family, Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles; or, Artwork © Donald Goddard. Photo by Alise O’Brien, © Pulitzer Arts Foundation)

Writing of Wilke’s “radical feminine narcissism,” feminist art historian Amelia Jones claims that “Wilke’s works have never been about a superficial self, isolated as pretty picture, but about a female subject deeply absorbed in its own embodied self-reflection.” Moving into the final galleries, such depth of inquiry is impossible to ignore. Presented proximately to a 1979–83 photographic tribute to her mother, Selma Butter, whom she cared for during Butter’s last years battling breast cancer, selections from Wilke’s Intra-Venus series boldly confront the viewer with the artist’s own bodily experience of cancer in the early ’90s. A play on the Roman goddess of love and Wilke’s regimen of invasive intravenous therapy, these enormous prints dare us to cringe at the artist’s physical suffering and laugh at the ongoing folly of the body in decline, specifically a female body both formerly praised for its conventionally beautiful proportions and critiqued by some feminists as too attractive to be taken seriously in the art world. 

Two diptychs present Wilke satirically performing iconic female subjects of the art history canon: in one, she stares coquettishly at the camera, bald and cradling her face; in another she is wrapped in a blue blanket like a tranquil Virgin Mary. In a triptych from 1992–93 across the wall, a naked Wilke strikes a sultry pose on a white bedspread, her haunches and abdomen covered in stiff white medical bandages. Her hair is thinning, her toned physique gone, but her goddess gaze stares down the lens, as if to tease, “What do you think of me now?”

Hannah Wilke, “S.O.S. Starification Object Series” (1974), lifetime silver gelatin print, 7 x 5 inches. Collection of Michael and Sharon Young (courtesy Alison Jacques, London. © 2021 Scharlatt Family, Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY)

Where many people in a rapid process of dying would aim for the viewer’s sympathy, Wilke demands much more — to laugh and cry, unflinchingly, with her. No matter the assaults to her body, this woman clearly still wanted to live — to create, provoke, flirt, and flatter. Looking at these self-portraits in light of the ebullient body of work that preceded them, the concept of “jouissance” comes to mind — that which, in 1975, French feminist Hélène Cixous deemed the center of both female pleasure and creative power: “explosion, diffusion, effervescence, abundance … pleasure in being limitless ….” 

As Art for Life’s Sake makes clear, Wilke’s joyful effusions were nothing less than an act of tenacity, a reminder of the limitlessness of the body’s creative potential.

Hannah Wilke: Art for Life’s Sake continues at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (3716 Washington Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri) through January 16, 2022.

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