Hannah Wilke - Biography and Legacy
American Photographer and Conceptual Artist
New York City, USA
New York City, USA
Biography of Hannah Wilke
Hannah Wilke was born in New York City, originally named Arlene Hannah Butter. Her parents, Selma and Emanuel (a lawyer), were practicing Jews whose families had immigrated from Eastern Europe. Along with her sister Marsie, Wilke went to a public school in Queens before attending Great Neck High School.
Wilke's interest in photographic self-portraiture started at an early age. When she was 14, she chose to be photographed wearing only a fur stole of her mother's, posing in front of a wall, which featured her name in large letters.
Early Training and Work
After high school, Wilke studied fine art at the Stella Elkins Tyler School, at Temple University in Philadelphia. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Bachelor of Science in Education in 1961. She married the designer, Barry Wilke in 1960, and taught in a Pennsylvania high school. After their divorce in 1965, she moved back to New York where she also taught at the high school level. In 1974 she began teaching sculpture at the School of Visual Arts, where she founded the ceramics department, and taught until 1991.
In the early 1960s, Wilke's work began to be exhibited widely. Her terracotta sculptures in vaginal forms were first shown in 1967 at Nycata, New York. These works constituted one of the first times that explicit vaginal imagery was used as part of the feminist movement. It was at this point that Wilke started to become a well-known artist.
In 1969, Wilke started a relationship with Claes Oldenburg, the American artist famous for his "soft sculptures". Until their relationship ended in the mid-1970s, the couple shared studios as well as lived together. Wilke frequently photographed Oldenburg, and also got Oldenburg to take photographs of her. These included one of her earliest self-portraits for an advertisement for an exhibition at Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, where Wilke had her first one-woman show in 1972.
While Wilke continued making sculpture and drawings, by the early 1970s her attention shifted to photography, video, and performance art. Throughout the 1970s, she also became increasingly involved with the burgeoning feminist art movement. For example, in 1974 she participated in feminist publications such as, "Anonymous was a Woman" and, "Art: A Woman's Sensibility." In 1975, Wilke met Donald Goddard at the opening of one of her shows at the Ronald Feldman Gallery. Goddard was working as the managing editor for Artnews at the time, and had two daughters from a previous relationship. A couple of weeks after the opening, Feldman offered Goddard tickets for the opera, where he met Wilke again. He later recalled, "The opera was Puccini's La Boheme. Hannah loved opera. She loved Puccini, and she especially loved women's voices. So that was the beginning of our relationship."
Wilke was full of fun and spontaneity. On one occasion, she was with Goddard and his two daughters in New York City, when she spotted an empty sculptural pedestal. She insisted that Goddard photograph her with the two girls posing on it, turning it into a work entitled Three Goddesses, Three Goddards.
From that point on, Goddard worked with Wilke extensively in her practice, taking photographs for her. He was particularly involved in the production of her So Help me Hannah series (1978). Despite his involvement in the process of Wilke's work, Goddard never saw himself as the author. He said, "I saw it as Hannah's work, and I felt wonderful to be a part of it."
At the end of the 1970s, Wilke's mother Selma was diagnosed with breast cancer. Selma lived with Wilke and Goddard for a while, and Wilke began to photograph herself and her mother as her mother's illness progressed, through her mastectomy and invasive cancer treatments. Goddard later recalled that "Hannah took a lot of pictures, and she said it was a way of keeping her mother alive. She hoped that it would literally do that. Of course it didn't." Her mother died in 1982.
Wilke continued her work with the same thematic focus in the 1980s, always exploring new media and different forms of self-representation. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1987. She had had a lump for some time, but her doctor failed to recognize the disease, which turned out to be lymphoma. She had to undergo extensive and invasive treatments, including chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. Throughout her illness, she had Goddard take photographs and film her.
During this time, her body, which had been a key component of her work, lost its conventional beauty as she underwent her treatments. In addition to losing her hair, she became bloated from chemotherapy and bruised from other invasive treatments. She documented these changes and her altered body in her Intra-Venus series. Wilke and Goddard got married in 1992, and Wilke died the following year. The Intra-Venus series of photos was published posthumously as a poignant record of Wilke's illness.
The Legacy of Hannah Wilke
Though her art was strongly and explicitly feminist, Wilke's work was often misunderstood by feminist and other critics who saw it as narcissistic, and reaffirming of women's position as an object of desire. It is only recently that Wilke's work has begun to be reassessed as a radical postmodern statement about women's control over their own bodies, the male gaze, and female objectification. While controversial, her art has also been inspirational for many artists, particularly in the genres of sculpture and photographic self-portraiture. For example, Wilke's provocative advertisement for her solo show at Ronald Feldman Gallery in the early 1970s laid the groundwork for similar works, such as Lynda Benglis' advertisement in Art Forum from 1974, which depicted the artist naked and clutching a large dildo.
Some of Wilke's performances also anticipated other feminist performance works, such as Carolee Schneemann's provocative Interior Scroll (1975), while her photographic works were a strong influence on Cindy Sherman's photographic practice based around self-portraiture. Artists following in Wilke's footsteps lay particular emphasis on issues of the female body, the self, and the gaze.