Hannah Wilke: Sculptor and Sculpture

Uploaded by BrooklynMuseum on 28.04.2010

Good afternoon, and thank you for being here, and joining us. I'm Elizabeth Sackler and
it's a pleasure for me to welcome you to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
As most of you know, the center opened in March of 2007. Our mission to raise awareness
of Feminism's cultural contributions and to educate new generations, about the meaning
of Feminist art. To maintain a dynamic learning facility, which this forum has become for
us. To present discussions on Feminist activism, and Feminist art.
We have, over the past year and a half, had five news making exhibitions, and scores of
lectures, and panel discussions. We continue to influence supporting Feminist artists,
and women artists, in museums and also in the market place.
So it's a very happy moment in time as we go towards this new year. We'll be having
our second anniversary in March and it has been a very, very good year and a half. Since
Maura Reilly, the founding curator of the center has left, Lauren Ross is our interim
curator. She's here with us today.
This lecture would not have been possible, without Lauren So I want to thank her very
much for her commitment, and her assistance to making this happen. First Saturdays at
the museum, as many of you know, are quite extraordinary and it takes an entire staff,
of an entire museum to prepare for the crowds that descend upon us in a couple of hours.
It was Lauren's commitment, to this exhibition, and to the center that made it possible for
us to be here. Also, that we'll be taping this lecture, so that we can put it on our
website during the run of the exhibition.
Hannah Wilke's Sculptor, and Sculpture, is going to be presented by Tracy Fitzpatrick,
as I say, plus one. You will see why in a moment, for those of you who don't know already.
I'm delighted to have this as an invitational lecture in honor of Hannah Wilke. We have
the magnificent Rosebud, outside. It's lent by the Arthur M. Sackler collection's trust
for the benefit and in honor for the center and that it is being included in the current
exhibition, Burning Down the House. Building a Feminist collection is, a wonderful thing.
I was going to go into a whole long mystery of life having run into Tommy Schwartz, which
means you know how long I've known him. Because most people know him as either Tom, or Thomas
Schwartz. Who's president of SUNY Purchase, at the Neuberger Museum, which is where Tracy
hails from.
I ran into him at an art table lunch. A couple weeks later- I had invited him my house, and
a couple of weeks later I had received a letter. From the Neuberger, asking for assistance
for their absolutely fabulous and fantastic Hannah Wilke gestures, which is up at the
So I returned the call and it was Tracy, and I did what I could to assist in public programming
for it. Tommy came to my house for the party, and I said- I did respond positively to the
letter. He said what letter.
I didn't...
I know, it was marvelous. He said I don't know what you're talking about. I said that's
good news because it means somebody is really doing their work.
I want to say that not only was Tracy doing, good work in contacting me. I very much appreciate,
being part of that exhibition. But she has curated an absolutely fabulous and important
exhibition, which is up at the Neuberger Museum. I want to thank you for it, Tracy. I think
if you haven't been there you should really make the trip up to see it. It will be up
until January 25. I thank you for inviting me to participate in it and I thank you for
participating today. We hope we'll get through this afternoon without having to call an ambulance.
Because I'm going to introduce Tracy Fitzpatrick plus one.
Dr. Fitzpatrick is a curator at the Neuberger Museum of art, and an assistant professor
of art history in the undergraduate program, and the masters degree program in modern and
contemporary art, criticism and theory at Purchase College SUNY.
Combining curatorial work with curricular initiatives, Fitzpatrick organizes exhibitions,
and teaches in the areas of modern American art and museology.
Fitzpatrick has curated many exhibitions including Facing Abstractions: Refiguring the Body in
the 20th Century in 2006. Underground Art: A Centennial Celebration of the New York City
Subway 2005. Another Dimension: Sculptures and printmaking, and Artful Advocacy: Cartoons
From the Women's Suffrage Movement.
Her forthcoming book, Art in the Subway New York Underground will be released in Spring
of 2009 and I very much look forward to seeing that. She is a recipient of fellowships from
the Mellon Foundation, The Henry Luce Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies.
She is, of course, a member of the AAM, art table and all those organizations we know
and love. She received her PhD from Rutgers University, also a great sister of this museum.
I would like you to, assist me in welcoming Tracy Fitzpatrick plus one.
Thank you. Thank you so much Elizabeth.
You're welcome.
I would like to thank you so much for, being so generous with your support for the- I'm
going to knock these cords down...exhibition and for inviting me here today, and Lauren
also. Thank you so much.
Let's put this here on water on it, and put this microphone on. Which I was told to do.
S o this talk is derived from my work on the exhibition on Wilke Gestures, which is on
view on the Neuberger until the 25th.
I'm sorry, I don't usually sit when I'm giving a public presentation, but I think if you'll
excuse me in my current condition, while I am talking. I think we'll all be better off
if I sit while talking.
I've been interested in Wilke's work for a long time and the aspect of it that has interested
me most recently is really the idea behind the exhibition. Which is that she's generally
thought of mainly as a performance artists, mainly as a photographer, and that somehow
the roots of her practice as a sculptor, seem to fall by the way side.
The idea of the exhibition is to retrace those roots, recover some of that practice, and
then link it to the performance, to the photography, link it really to almost every aspect of what
she did.
I think that the definitions of her as a performance artist, as photographer are a little bit narrow.
And that it's possible that this has occurred or that this definitions have emerged because
of the way people have written about her work, because of the way her photographs, particularly
the photographs from her "IntraVenus series", her last body of work, have been distributed
in journals and magazines and so forth.
A lot of these kinds of objects, for example the "IntraVenus series" when it was originally
exhibited, it was shown with sculptural components. Like "The Black One" and "Why not sneeze."
But people don't see the installation shots of the way these objects were originally shown.
They really just see the photographs. And so I think this has contributed to the loss
of thinking about her really as a sculpture.
"Why not sneeze" by the way is related to the Duchamp piece, Why not sneeze. And Duchamp
was one of Wilke's very important sources.
Hanna Wilke created a sculpture through gestures. Simple folds of movements, or simple folds
and movements of materials whether it was clay, or bubble gum, or Play Doh. It was really
gestures that turn them and herself, I'll argue in this talk, into sculpture.
And here you see her in her studio in a kind of sea of her clay folds, and she produced
these folds throughout her career. She began experimenting with both radical form, and
content, at a young age. Continuing this path as an undergraduate, a sculpture major at
Tyler's School of Art at Temple University. She graduated from there in 1962, with a Bachelors
of Fine Arts, and a Bachelor of Science in Education.
Some of the earliest sculptures that she produced there, like this two part on the left. This
two piece untitled work from about 1960. Were fashioned out of plaster of Paris. These are
very sort of crackly looking works, they have very fragile surfaces.
You can see when you look closely at a work like this, you can actually see the artist's
fingerprints left in the plaster where she was working it while it was still wet. This
is figurative and abstract.
The work on the right is an example of painted fiber glass and metal. The anthropophonic,
form for 1963. This is another material that Wilke worked in very early in her career.
Wilke described these works as, "abstracted arm and leg like structures reaching up with
big separate centers connecting them."
They do look like- or this one does sort of look like a sort of an over grown flower,
and the surface is very modeled with this very rich kinds of greens. And you see the
tentacles that are extruding from it.
Now after working for a period of time using plaster, using fiber glass. She determined
that these materials were not malleable enough. She had also been working with clay. And it's
about at this moment when she really turns to clay, as a mainstay of her work.
Among the earliest examples, of her use of clay are these very small delicate forms she
called blooms, or boxes. Which is a pun, on contemporary slang for the word vagina. And
almost all of the works that Wilke did during this period were abstracted images of the
body, particularly vaginal forms. To give shape to female desire, to give shape to sexual
The anthropomorphic form, also. It has a kind of a secret. You can just make out in the
centre of it. You can see the white table underneath it.
It has kind of secret center to it, but it's hidden by these petal like folds. And, these
were definitely images of the female body, that Wilke was making during this time.
The boxes- and here you see one of her clay boxes from the early 1960's. They're these
sort of deep caverns. They are constructed of layers of clay, sometimes with these...you
can see in the detail these little slits at the bottom. Built up by these overlapping
layers, where she would, in this particular case, add texture to the clay by pressing
burlap or some other kind of fabric into the clay while, it's still wet.
At first she was quite reticent to talk about the content of her work. She would explain
it to her peers in school and otherwise, but she rarely revealed the subject matter of
the work to her teachers at Tyler, or to her earliest employers. She was quite fearful
of, people knowing what it was that she was making imagery of. And, of course, this is
very early. This is the 1960's. Not the 1970's. When it becomes more commonplace for women,
particularly of the feminist art movement to make imagery like this.
She was also quite reticent to reveal what she was making. The content of the work to
the art world at large. She later observed in 1974 that in the early '60s- she says,
In the early 60's, I was scared to show my work around because you were put down if you
were making images of female genitalia.
Her work and the complications surrounding her revealing its contents to her teachers,
her employees demonstrates some of the key problems and paradoxes that feminist artists
working later in the 1970's would face, as they argued against perceptions of gender
and gendered roles through the use of clearly gendered forms.
Negotiating, through varied artistic and conceptual concerns, Wilke was always adventurous, exceptionally
adventurous, in her exploration of the sculpture process. There was simply nothing that was
out bounds for her in her search for malleable materials. In the 1970's, for example, she
molded this raw bacon on a plate.
On the right side you see one of many little, Play-Doh folds that she created. Kind of emphasizing
the playfulness, of her work. She made kind of families of this. So this blue, basically
it's a round of blue, and white, and yellow Play-Doh that she roles out and then turned
into a fold.
These are by far the most fragile objects or the most fragile material that she worked
in I think. We'll talk about the latex in a minute, but even more fragile than the latex.
Of anything that on view in the exhibition at the Neuberger right now, this is the piece
that I most fear something happening to. They're just incredibly fragile.
I mentioned the latex a minute ago. This is one of the earliest materials that she worked
in, this liquid latex. She would create small folds out of the liquid latex. She would pour
it over clay folds. She would pour it over lengths of twine. She would pour it out on
a plaster of Paris surface, and the plaster of Paris would kind of suck some of the moisture
out of it and make it easier to work with.
Among the more unusual examples of the small fold or teasel cushion (I'm sorry I don't
have a picture of that), but it's a small work from 1967 that she actually placed on
top of artificial turf. Which was a very unusual material for artists to be working with, at
the time: something that emerged, in the early 1960s, and became popularized, as a substitute
for grass, when it was installed in the Houston Astrodome, for the first time in 1965.
She would also create these very large wall pieces, pouring the latex into rounds, bending
it like clay, and, then, using snaps and pushpins, to piece the objects together. Some of them
are very large: "Centerfold", for example, an early latex work, was twelve feet high
and five feet wide.
Unfortunately, the latex formula that she used, at first, was not stable. And, so, almost
all of the latex pieces that she made up to about 1974 have either disintegrated or become
so fragile that they can no longer be exhibited.
In '75, she changed her formula, and "Vertical Verde for Garcia-Lorca" is an example of one
of the pieces from that period of time, based on a stanza of a poem, by one of her favorite
poets: Federico Garcia Lorca. And, so, this is from 1975. And, then, "Rosebud", which
is on loan to Burning Down the House exhibition. I think is also '75. I think.
75, 76.
75, 76. So that also, survived, because it is made from this new formula. She used a
new formula of latex and, then, combined it with liquitex, so that it would strengthen
the latex and also, allow her to tint the objects. Works like Rosebud, in particular,
are kind of sensual, and fleshy.
And, if you haven't seen it, it's out in the right as you first walk in to the exhibition
here. It has sort of soft petal-like folds, which are very vulnerable in appearance. In
1972, the critic Douglas Crimp described the early versions, of these very vulnerable looking
objects as, not only vulnerable in their ability to be undone/unsnapped, but also that they
were sort of crying out to be touched.
The vulnerability of Wilke's work, which Crimp observed, became particularly important to
her artistic production. So, raw bacon would rot. The thin rounds of Play-Doh could crack,
under the slightest amount of pressure.
She observed in 1975, the same year she began to work with the new latex formula, quote
"One strength of American art right now is that we are involved in a culture that is
about destructiveness. Some of the best art has a planned obsolescence".
So, although she didn't know that her earliest latex pieces would fall apart, it was something
that she not only endured but, eventually, came to appreciate, as a critical part of
her process.
This idea of vulnerability, of potential violation is a theme that runs through her body of work,
particularly in objects that appear fragile, easily torn, broken. It's important to remember
that she, Wilke, the artist, is always in control, to a certain degree, of those objects
that appear fragile of that violation.
One of the ways that she explored this idea was to start exhibiting work on the floor.
She did this for the first time in an exhibition in 1974, at Ronald Feldman Fine Art, called
the Floor Show. This was one of the most unusual, works that she exhibited in the Floor Show.
You can see the installation shot in 1974, and then recent photography of this work called
Laundry Lint CO's. That's how it looks right now in the Neuberger exhibition and the detail
of one of the pieces in the upper right hand corner.
This is made, literally, from laundry lint, nothing else, that she collected over the
course of about two or three years from her then partner Klaus Oldenburg's dryer.
She essentially followed the same methodology that she had used from the other folded works,
the clay works and whatever. She would essentially fold flat lengths of this compressed laundry
lint into objects. Then here, again, exhibiting on the floor.
They're very kind of surprising when you look at them and their material and how delicate
they are. They give the appearance of being very easily broken apart, very easily able
to disintegrate and at the same time, they're remarkable for their color. They've got extraordinarily
vivid color.
If you think about laundry linen, the laundry linen that comes out of your own dryer probably
doesn't always have this bright, beautiful pink hue or yellow hue. Mine does not. It
tends to be rather gray.
So it's remarkable that the lint looks the way it does and it has what lint has in it.
It has fibers and labels and hair and dust. It is one of the ways in which she addressed
feminist concerns. Because, of course, she's essentially seizing the garbage of women's
labor, doing the laundry, certainly what was construed as women's labor at that time, and
converting it into this creative production.
This is another piece that she showed, in the Floor Show. 176 one-fold gestural sculptures.
This is a group of sculptures that very in size, from just over an inch to over five
inches in width or length, placed in random patterns on the floor. Some of the forms are
open, some are closed, some are smooth, some are very craggy. Together they create a kind
of, sea of clay forms. It was first shown as 176 one-fold gestural sculptures.
Now it's shown as 159 one-fold gestural sculptures. Very, very vulnerable. Very like the Play-Doh,
kind of frightening to a curator installing in their exhibition space because it sits
directly on the floor and you can walk right up to it. It is a good demonstration of the
way she turned to work that has that kind of vulnerability, to it, or experimented with
Another very unusual material she installed on the floor in that exhibition was a long
line of store bought fortune cookies. In the 70's she began purchasing cookies.
She would keep them in her studio and they would sort of, according to her account, slowly
disappear. Probably being taken by small creatures that would come into the studio at night and
borrow them or nibble on them. She saw the cookies as being very related to the folds
that she was making visually, conceptually. They are also extremely, extremely fragile.
The idea of buying store bought objects or prefabricated objects and exhibiting them
as her own work of art was, of course, a conceptual act; something that we now term appropriation
art, and clearly inspired by Duchamp, again, who was, as I mentioned before, sort of touchstone
for Wilke.
Of course, some of his best known pieces- his store bought urinal, his store bought
bicycle wheel and stool- were works that he sometimes modified, referred to as readymades.
And really, what Wilke's fortune cookies are, are readymades in the spirit of Duchamp.
Just some other materials that she worked in. These are works made out of kneaded eraser.
She not only loved work that was conceptually challenging but also loved language and wordplay.
Puns were staple of her work.
She used...This is among her earliest uses of wordplay, the kneaded eraser series, which
she also exhibited in the floor show. She would make these small, folded sculptures
out of varying sized kneaded erasers, and place them on square boards. The color of
the erasers vary from work to work. The color of kneaded erasers varied from eraser to eraser.
Some were very, very tiny, only an eighth of inch wide. Some are arranged in random
patterns, as you can see in the work on the left, number four, or arranged in the grid
pattern, as you see in the work on the right.
The kneaded erasers don't dry. They are pliable just like clay. They are typically used for
the removal of graphite or charcoal or as a method of subtractive drawing, in which
the artist would actually use the eraser to lighten or remove elements of drawing.
They are unique, in that, they will absorb...unlike other erasers, they will actually absorb the
color of the thing that they are erasing. So, they change color. They always stay the
same size, but they will wear out from over use, becoming less pliable and less absorbent.
So she's really shifting the use of a tool for correction or subtraction to a tool of
sculptural construction. And as she adopts the kneaded eraser, she not only modifies
its use but she also draws on it conceptually, as she puns the word kneaded eraser.
So, in the 1970's, when she's making this work, the idea of erasure would have been
particularly important those interested in reinserting women into the art historical
cannon. There's also sort of the more personal aspect of it, as referencing her experiences
in romantic relationships.
She used kneaded erasers in other ways. She used them on postcards. As an example of just
one of the postcards- Franklin's tomb of 1976. She used them on utensils.
And here you see knife and fork, 1974, and saucer and spoon of 1974, both of which are
on view in the exhibition. The work on the right, I believe, has not been shown before,
so it's exciting for us to have that piece in the show.
These are works that evoke surrealist objects, and surrealism was something that was also
very important to Wilke. And here, just an example, I am showing you Meret Oppenheim's
object from 1936, this fur-lined cup, saucer and spoon, which is the kind of object that
would have influenced Wilke in her thinking about the pieces at time.
Kneading- whether it was kneading clay, needing eraser was something to which she was clearly
very devoted. Among the materials that she eventually needed was her own skin. And this
is a still from a video called Gestures from 1974. It was also included in the floor show.
And you're seeing a still and then photographic stills into a series of photographs.
On the right hand side, this is a 35 minute video, 35 plus minute video, really one of
her first uses of video.
And here she manipulates her flesh in the way that she manipulated all other malleable
materials, really sculpting it into form. So she would just sort of knead her face over,
and over, and over again, creating different gestures and different facial features and
After Gestures she uses her body... She continued to use her body as sculpture material. And
this is a performance she did in 1974 called Super-t-Art.
It was part of a multimedia event held at the kitchen in New York City where many, many
artists were invited to give these kind of two minute performances. And here you're seeing
stills from the performance.
Super-t-Art was a pun on the title of the event, Soup and Tart. A pun on the popular
rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar. That the rock opera opened in 71 and was released
as a film in 73, just the year before she did this performance.
For the performance, she stood on top of a little pedestal draped with this white table
cloth worn over her shoulder. And over the course of the two minutes she struck a series
of poses or tableaus, moving the cloth, her torso, her limbs and her facial expression.
Now she described this work as a transformation from the Virgin Mary, in the upper left hand
corner, to the crucified Christ in the lower right hand corner. And you can see how she
rolls up the materials so it creates a kind of loincloth around her body in the final
image that was taken from that performance.
And so she's queering ideas about the boundaries of religion and faith and the body within
the framework of Christianity.
And at the same time, I think that this work can be placed squarely within ancient Greek
sculptural traditions, which is something that's not talked about with reference to
Wilke's work all that often.
But at time that she produced this, she was well aware of Greco-Roman sculpture. She had
traveled to Greece, she had been to the British Museum, which of course has many, many examples
of Greek sculpture. She had been to the antiquities, seen the antiquities in the original Getty
Mansion during a trip to Los Angeles.
Super-t-Art is particularly reminiscent to my eye of Hellenistic traditions.
And Wilke's gestures in the performance and in the stills that she chose from the performance
to create the photographic version of the event. Evoke a spirit of Hellenistic pathos
in sculpture. And the Hellenistic world sought the expression of emotions that were both
transitory and fleeting.
And in sculpture, those were rendered through pantomimic gesture, pantomimic posing that
were both dramatic and exaggerated. Those were the kinds of gestures that Wilke's creating
in the Super-t-Art performance.
So her use of what's called pathos, what's called the pathetic approach, not in the way
we think of pathetic now. But linking to the word pathos was reinforced by her use of the
drapery and in this case the white table cloth. One of the things that Greek sculpture was
most praised for was the way in which Greek sculptors evoked what's called empnoos, in
their work and this was the idea of a sculpture that was full of life or literally full of
This was a level of sculptural accuracy that most all Greek sculpture aspired to. There
was a kind of magic, to the sculptures where a sculpture that appeared almost animated,
lifelike, and here we see Wilke making these life sculptures, these living sculptures.
This is something that was highly, highly praised among the Greek world. There was also
ephratic writing about these sculptors. Meaning writing in the arts about how these sculptures
looked as though they were literally alive and sometimes they required watchful eyes
or required being chained to their pedestal so they wouldn't just leap up and run off.
An often-cited example is a marble cow by the sculptor Myron, which was on the Acropolis
in Athens.
According to descriptions of the cow, the cow was so lifelike that shepherd boys would
try to yoke it and calves would try to suckle from it, bulls would try to mount it. There's
no particular evidence that Wilke was thinking about this particular aspect of Greek sculpture
when she made these works. But, there's no question that her use of the Greek tradition
in thinking about the way she positioned her body, and the way she used drapery. Is rooted
in that tradition of the living sculpture, the kind of Greco-Roman living sculpture.
This was also tied to the way in which marble Gods and Goddesses were treated. For example,
on the left you're looking at a votive that's reflective of the way the Athena Parthenos,
would have looked like, and on the right is the Aphrodite of Knidos. These are among the
most renown representations of marble Gods and Goddesses, who were treated like real
human beings, and they were made offerings to in their temples.
They were literal inhabitants of their temples. They were prayed to, they were adorned, they
were provided offerings, sometimes ritualistically bathed. In several of her living sculpture
projects she transformed herself into a Goddess, often the Goddess of love and beauty Venus,
the Roman version of Aphrodite. This is a recurrent theme throughout her work.
She produced latex pieces in the early 70's, Venus basin, Venus cushion. For the Greek
world, Aphrodite had multiple links to this idea of a living sculpture.
It was Aphrodite who, according to legend, inspired the sculptor Pygmalion to fabricate
his ideal woman out of ivory, naming her Galatea. Pygmalion fell in love with his creation,
prayed to Aphrodite, who then brought the work to life. In the fourth century, Praxiteles'
Aphrodite of Knidos was so shocking.
It so shocked Greek society because it was one of the first life-size representations
of the female nude. There is writing about the Aphrodite of Knidos similar to the writing
about the cow where she had very dewy eyes, that marble created a kind of sensuality that
hadn't been seen in sculpture like this before.
Wilke used the Venus figure in other life sculpture projects that she did. One in an
event called "Life Sculpture" that was orchestrated by Lil Picard sculpture, now, in 1974, and
another that same year, where she also posed as Venus as a life sculpture in an event called
"White Sheets and Quiet Dots".
And then one of her best known performance on July 4th, 1976, she performed "My Country
'tis of Thee" at the Albright Knox Museum. There were earlier versions of this. She performed
at first a version of it for cable television and at an artist's rights exhibition in 1975;
then at the Whitney, and another version of this in 1976.
And for the Buffalo Project, which is her most fully formed version of the idea, she
placed these three, 11 foot goddess photographs of herself along the south facade of the museum
in front four caryatids by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
The Albright Knox Museum being modeled after the Erectheion in Greece.
And, here, clearly she's repeating patterns that you can see. It's hard to see in the
image on the image, but she's repeating patterns. Let's see, I think I have another... Yeah,
you can see that she's repeating the drapery in the photographs that she has on the lower
half of her body. That's repeating the drapery that the caryatids that the female figures
that literary hold up the facade of the building that they are also wearing.
Then on the left hand side, you see her during the "My Country 'tis of Thee, " creating chew
gum freeze. So she's working on the sidewalk with people walking by, lots of children and
other people, where they would come and they would chew gum and then she would form little
sculptures out of it. Chewing gum being one of her other signature materials that she
worked with.
She would take the chewed gum, create the little sculptures, put them on rag board.
And then you see how she arranged the rag board around the building as a kind of a frieze.
She observed that the frieze that she created was a way in which to "put color back into
the architecture." And, of course, she's referencing the way in which ancient buildings, Greco-Roman
buildings, which now appear white to us actually were polychromatic when they were first made.
The frieze is not only a way in which to embellish the building, but also links through her love
of language to a pun. And here's she's, of course, punning the song, the traditional
patriotic song my "My Country 'tis of Thee".
This is the July 4th, 1976. This is the Bicentennial. And, of course, the founding of the United
States was inspired by Greek ideology, and the link between Greek ideology and American
democracy was manifested in the importation of Greek forms to our architecture in the
United States in the 19th century.
So if you think of the mall in the Washington, that's all this Greco-Roman form that all
links back to the way...and the way of our system of democracy links further back to
Greek ideology.
She is making a frieze that would essentially take the place of narrative, on a Greek building.
So the freeze is the place where you tell the story of the building or tell out some
other significant kind of story. Here she's forming a narrative out of these little sculptural
folds, that she referred to as "cunt forms. " Thus lending architectural and ideological
form to her punning the word cuntry, and also re-inscribing...
Of course, you know, "My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land
where my fathers died ..." this is a gendered...it's a patriotically song. It's a clearly a gendered
song, but actually is a song that is derived from a gender neutral song, which is: "God
save the queen, or god save the king, " depending what ruler happens to be in...depending on
the circumstances of monarchical rule.
So she's not only re-inscribing the female into this whole patriotic system, but also
into the anthem itself.
Her version of "My Country 'tis of Thee" demonstrates the ways in which she not only investigated
the body as sculpture, but also queried cultural constructions of female beauty.
And her reliance on ancient Greco-Roman forms, for example, played a critical role in the
way she considered how beauty is defined and viewed. And, of course, there's the Greek
formulation of perfection, of correct proportion, is a canon that was also a gendered canon.
It was based on the male body; the sort of the perfect male body.
And this is this place is in which she, Wilke, uses her work to investigate the notion of
perfect and the notion of perfection as a gendered idea and as culturally inscribed.
And if you look at these two images, a still from "Super-t-Art" from 1974 and then one
of the photographs from "Intra-Venus, " you can see how throughout her body of work she
is considering these ideas.
So the "Super-t-Art" image- she's life, she's nude, with the exception of the fabric from
the waist down and her shoes. By contrast, in the "Intra-Venus" work, which is the last
body of work that she does, where she effectively documents her own death from lymphoma in 1933,
she holds her hands up; she balances an urn of flowers on head, striking the classical
caryatid pose again.
But this time the nude body is aged. The nude body is bloated. Dressed not in a skirt or
a tablecloth but covered by bandages near her waist, protecting the wounds from her
cancer treatments.
And so, she is, again, positioning herself as embodying the classical body, the body
of Venus, but giving further revision to the way in which she investigates the classical
form, and again, queries this idea of the cultural construction of perfection and the
cultural construction of beauty.
The chewing gum that she used in the performance in 1976, she used that about a year and a
half after the first time that she started using chewing gum, which was for her "S.O.S.-
Starification Object Series".
This is mastication box that she produced in late 1974 for an exhibition called "Artist
Make Toys, " which was on view in January 1975.
This is an exhibition that had many different kinds of toys by variety of artists, including
Mark di Suvero. Oldenburg exhibited in this show with Trisha Brown and Jarred Bark. They
made a four foot horse that opened up to reveal a theatre inside. And then Red Grooms and
other artists who participated in the show made a giant wooden picture puzzle.
Her box, the mastication box, had these unopened, chewing gums of different kinds of flavors
and brands. These tiny gum sculptures encased in plexiglass boxes, playing cards, and these
28 of these little photographs that you see in the lower right of her with gum. She's
in various poses with gum attached to her body.
By placing the gum on her body and then having herself photographed for the mastication box
she really made a kind of final collapse between her body and her sculpture. She observed in
an artist roundtable in 1975 'my chewing gum sculpture is about me, my body and me.
"I make body art where I put chewing gum sculptures on my body. I become my art. My art becomes
me." It was from the mastication box that several other works and ideas emerged.
Here you see in 1975 she was invited to participate in an exhibition in Paris. This wonderful
description of what occurred when she went there and did her performance with the chewing
gum: 'Wilke arrived with no less than 3, 000 pieces of brightly colored gum unavailable
in Paris'.
That's true that the colors she was using in her gum were only available in the United
States. 'And did a three hour performance at the opening. Amid nonstop television cameras
and flashing bulbs, she offered super cherry, apple green, and chocolate flavored gum to
the elegantly attired guests.
The chewed pieces were either returned to Wilke, who rapidly molded them into 120 sexual
sculptures push-pinned to the wall or fastened to the artist's half-nude body'.
So she saw the gum not only as a part of herself, but also a part of the people who participate
in the SOS project. She said people chew the gum for me, I make an object from the chewed
gum which contains remnants of their saliva after the gum's sweetness is removed. Part
of their body was in the object, which was later preserved on the paper as sculptural
So it's in this way that her body not only becomes part of her art, but also the bodies
of her audience.
In the SOS project, 'starification' was a pun on the word scarification.
Throughout the course of her career she framed the use of scarification in the SOS series
in several ways. She linked the practice of scarring to tattoo numbers with which Jews
were marked in concentration camps.
She observed, as a Jew, quote 'I would have been destroyed had I been born in Europe at
that time'. She also related her scarification with gum to the practice of African scarification,
in which the body is incised with a sharp tool to create patterning and to create gender
She said, 'I decorated my body relating to the African scarification or to the caste
system, or macho male photographs with cowboy hats and guns or little uniforms, maid outfits
and hair curlers. So they were psychological poses that related to me as emotional wounds
that we carry within us that really hurt us.'
These kinds of scars as they pertain to Jews in the Holocaust or African culture were permanent
modifications of the body that fixed a kind of status of the scar, a kind of social status
or status otherwise linked to female sexuality indicating, particularly in African culture,
stages of adolescence and puberty.
In Wilke's version, the scars are not fixed. They are temporary. They can be removed at
any time.
The SOS series is often linked in the way her own body was marked by her battle with
lymphoma, and also the way in which her mother's body was marked through her battle with breast
cancer. This is a work called In Memoriam: So I'm A Better Mommy from 1979 to 1983.
Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970, underwent a radical double mastectomy.
As Wilke's sister, Marcy Charlotte observed to me, she said we were both devastated when
she had the surgery.
The surgery was on Hannah's 30th birthday. She said in those days a woman was put to
sleep not knowing whether she would awaken without a breast. Wilke didn't often link
the SOS series to her illness, at least not to critics, really until later.
It was really not until she started making photographs of her mother after her mother
suffered a stroke, that that prompted her cancer to return that she began to link the
SOS series to the way her mother's body was ravaged by her illness. The way in which her
mother's body had disintegrated, and then later, the link being made to the way her
own body would disintegrate from her own illness.
Given her concerns with fragility and permanence, changeability, disintegration it may seem,
and it certainly did to me at first, illogical that her sculpture practice was also largely
concerned with monumental art, with public art. Which is probably the least well-known
aspect of her practice.
At the same time she was, like most artists, very concerned about her artistic legacy and
focused, I think, far more attention on this monumental public sculpture aspect of her
work, than is known.
She in 1978 and 1979 experimented in casting, and foundry, while she was an artist in residence
at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. It was there she created bronze models as proposals
for monumental sculptures. What I'm showing you here, are some cast bronze folds that
she created, while she was learning to work in the foundry.
Another example of a work that she produced as a monumental sculpture, this is Color Fields
monument for large sculpture at Federal Plaza, of 1985. This is a work that was produced
for an exhibition that called After Tilted Arc- that was held at the store front for
Art and Architecture in New York City in November, 1985.
It was earlier that year that a Manhattan jury ordered the removal of Richard Sara's
Serra's 1981 Tilted Arc, which you see in the bottom right-hand corner.
The exhibition, according to the organizers, was not intended to be critical of Sara or
his sculpture. But rather to redirect the argument surrounding the piece because the
argument had become so heated and derisive they really wanted to engage in a discussion
about what is public art, what work can be accepted and understood by the viewers? What
is the artist's responsibility?
This is Wilke's contribution to the exhibition, these ten what would have been large-scale
painting of colorful folds shown in a grid pattern. Just a couple other examples of her
interesting monumental sculpture. This is a drawing for a proposal for a sculpture on
a golf course.
These had kind of a humorous side to them. You can see the drawing on the right hand
showing you the models for soft pyramids, which are tiny, tiny little models made out
of various materials, bronze, lead, these are undated.
So experimenting with what a golf course would look like if she was given the opportunity
to create her monumental sculpture on a golf course.
These are a group of five drawings that she created in which she adorned advertisements
for estate properties being marketed by this high-end realtor with drawings for monumental
You can see on the right hand side she's essentially showing you what your big estate would be
if you gave her the opportunity to build her large sculpture on your front lawn or on your
beach front property over on the left hand side.
In the largest drawing in the series, the one in the center, she quotes a passage from
Karl Marx's Das Kapital, which was published in 1867 as a criticism of the way in which
capitalism had redefined commodities from the purchase and sale of goods to the purchase
and sale of labor.
This is something, this idea of exchange values, something that she addressed over and over
throughout her body of work, this idea of using Marx's name as a pun. She's punning
his name, she leaving her own marks on the estate.
Also sort of querying her role as a laborer, as an artist who is marketed and who has to
market her work.
In conclusion, making her mark on the landscape, on her body, and clay bake, and Play-Doh.
Hannah Wilke was always concerned with the sculptural quality of her work. It was, I
believe, always an underlying theme, and methodology that permeated almost, everything that she
did From her earliest sculpture all the way through her final series, the Intra-Venus
Thank you very much.
Is there time for questions? I'd be happy to answer questions, or stay a minute after.
Did she ever realize any monumental... sculpture?
No, I should have put that in the beginning. It's a very good question. Not as far as I
know. Although I have been asked if maybe the Neuberger would like to pay for that.
I don't think the Neuberger would like to pay for that, but it has come up.
Are there any proposals that they would like to support?
Anyone else? Thank you very much.
No, I have a question still. It's not sculpture-specific, but I was wondering why she changed her name,
that Wilke was not her actual name.
Well, Wilke was her married name from her first husband and Hannah was her middle name.
Her given name as Arlene Hannah Butter, and she did kind of work with that name, Butter,
because butter can be easily spread. She writes about that. My son's in the room now, so I'm
not going to go any further. Anything else?
I'd like to thank Tracy for venturing out on the eve of her new son's arrival.
Well, not the actual eve I hope. The metaphorical eve.
The metaphorical eve. And for the information and bringing to life and to light some more
dimensions, I think, of Hannah Wilke and her artwork.
Steven Sollins, who is a male feminist artist who is in this show, Burning Down the House:
Building a Feminist Art Collection, here at the center, is going to be lecturing here
at the forum at seven o'clock.
Next Saturday, December 13, Gloria Steinem is moderating Sex Trafficking: the New Abolitionists
with a wonderful panel and it will be in the Cantor auditorium, on the third floor We're
going to have then a reception here at the center immediately afterward.
Sunday the 14th, here in the forum. Jennifer Cody Epstein is going to be here reading from,
and discussing her novel The Painter from Shanghai.
Again, I thank you very much, Tracy, and thank you all for being here this afternoon and
enjoy the day.