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Hannah Wilke
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Wikipedia About Hannah Wilke

Hannah Wilke (born Arlene Hannah Butter, March 7, 1940 – January 28, 1993) was an American painter, sculptor, photographer, video artist and performance artist. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Hannah Wilke, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

After studying at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and holding a number of high-school teaching posts, Hannah Wilke careered into the early 1970s New York art scene, which seemed to be in flux. However, with the art market consolidating the achievements of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and their Abstract Expressionist progenitors; the ascendance of heavy metal Minimalism; and the fashion for going out West and tearing up the desert, it was a resolutely boys-only club. Wilke’s emergence into this male subculture was all the more extraordinary in that it simultaneously confounded puritanical women’s lib agendas. Her striking looks and her relationships—including those with Claes Oldenburg and Richard Hamilton—were integral to an artistic practice that fused the flirtatious with the feminist and art with (love) life. She explored “Venus envy” with a desire to respect the objecthood of the body, and redressed classical art’s devaluation of female sexuality with a series of vaginalike sculptures, provocative self-portrait photographs, live performances, and sassy wordplay.

Wilke came to wider attention when her latex sculptures were exhibited at the 1973 Whitney Biennial. Pinned to the wall with layered delicacy, each sensuous work recalled ornamental flowers, diaphanous lingerie, or the blushing folds of vaginal skin. She would go on to employ a range of off-beat materials, such as lint, putty erasers, and chewing gum, to create her signature layered motifs, yet she had started out with a most traditional artists’ material, namely clay.

Teasel Cushion (1967) is one of her earliest ceramic works, an abrupt sculptural shorthand of pinkish, liquitex-dipped terra cotta for the pudenda and coarse plastic grass for pubic hair. “Nobody cringes when they hear the word phallic” she said. “You can say that Cleopatra’s Needle outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a phallic symbol and nobody will have a fit. You can say a Gothic church is a phallic symbol, but if I say the nave of the church is really a big vagina, people are offended.”1 Sans fig leaf, Wilke’s portrayal evokes what is often literally veiled and gives it transcultural, emblematic status.

Like many of her artworks, Teasel Cushion is in dialogue, directly or indirectly, with those by Marcel Duchamp—a riposte, perhaps, to his Female Fig Leaf (1950) or Wedge of Chastity (1954). Yet, as with her striptease behind his The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–1923), Wilke infused Duchamp’s aberrant sexual universe with social, personal, and political agendas.2 Like Gustave Courbet’s explicit Origin of the World (1866), Teasel Cushion discards the morbid peep-show gaze of Duchamp’s Etant Donnés … (1946–1966), replacing it with an aggressively cropped assertion—perhaps parody—of pornographic availability.

  1. Wilke quoted in Thomas H. Kochheiser, ed., Hannah Wilke: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1989), 48.

  2. This striptease performance at the Philadelphia Museum was made into a film called Through the Large Glass (1976). Wilke preferred to use male cameramen to document her performances, underscoring the scopophilia of the act of filming.

Andrews, Max. “Hannah Wilke.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center