In 1969, Hannah Wilke joined her then-boyfriend Claes Oldenburg in Los Angeles as he attended a residency. While there, she visited Judy Chicago’s studio to show some of the sculptural work she’d been making and selling since the late 50s and discuss her ideas regarding women’s place in art. Unsatisfied with Wilke’s artwork and dialogue, Chicago advised, bluntly, that she “give it up.”
The dismissal was emblematic of criticism Wilke received from (especially feminist) critics throughout her career. Phyllis Derfner claimed her work was “swamped by aggressive ideology […] boring and superficial.” Lucy Lippard wrote, “[Wilke’s] confusion of her roles as beautiful woman and artist, as flirt and feminist, has resulted […] in politically ambiguous manifestations.” Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman claimed, “in assuming the conventions associated with a stripper […i]t seems [Wilke’s] work ends up reinforcing what it intends to subvert.”
Wilke had her own criticisms. Of Chicago’s paintings, she quipped: “A lifesaver is not a vagina.” In the early 80s, she pieced together a poster warning of “Fascist Feminism” and wrote, “I felt feminism could easily become fascistic if people believe that feminism is only their kind of feminism, or, her kind of feminism, or, his kind of feminism.”
Wilke stands out among her feminist peers in the overlapping eras of cultural revolution and women’s liberation for her mission to grapple with the interlocking matrices of power inherent to the real-world spaces she navigated in her own life. As Chicago fashioned a monumental dinner party for women from centuries past, Wilke created one-fold gestural sculptures from the lint she collected when she washed her boyfriend’s laundry, which included bits of his skin and hair. In a photograph called “Venus Envy,” she subverts Freud’s controversial concept while complicating the artist/muse dynamic as she renders another boyfriend’s bald head into a symbolic cock between her legs. Of this work, she claimed, “Any woman who has had an orgasm has no use for penis envy. Penis envy really equals Venus envy.”
In her SOS: Starification Object Series performances, which we retain via a series of performalist self-portraits that she hired a man to photograph, Wilke created a game kit that included sticks of gum for audiences to chew. When all the flavor was sucked out of the gum, they’d give it back to her and she’d sculpt it then affix it to her body, therefore rendering that gum—products of both mens’ and womens’ mouths—into objects that operate like speed bumps on her skin, disrupting the objectifying force of the male gaze while reminding women who contributed their labors to the work to remember that they helped “mark” her, too.
As her early drawings—which included phallic and yonic forms alike—suggested an intermingling of men and women, her later art interrogates gendered entanglements and complicity at the same time as it carves out space for women’s subjectivities to be valued all the same. To Wilke, men and women were not going to create relationships that existed beyond the empirical—so perhaps, her work seems to suggest, we’d best figure out what to do about that in communion with each other.
I wonder what she might’ve said about perfume, which I’ve already claimed to believe is too often created unilaterally—by men, for women, and so that those women might be more attractive those men. If only her grander thesis had been better understood, if only she hadn’t died so young, perhaps eventually she may have been asked eventually.
I wish I could ask her.