Before she called herself Hannah, she called herself Arlene. She received the surname Wilke from a short-lived marriage in 1960 that she left. For first the 20 years of her life, she went by Arlene Butter.
Hannah was her middle name. That original surname, Butter, was chosen by her grandparents and parents upon their immigration to New York from Poland and Hungary in the 1930s. Her family was observant, and she grew to understand the name “Butter” as complicated and charged—an othering, even dangerous, name that stood in the place of and in the way of her origins. In her younger years, she externalized these many contradictions:
“As an american girl born with the name Butter in 1940, I was often confused when I heard what it was like to be used, to be spread, to feel soft, to melt in your mouth…fascistic feelings, internal wounds, made from external situations.”
This internal conflict manifested as a fear of being masticated and drove a lifelong desire to resist being consumed by the same fascism her family had fled. Art, as Hannah Wilke understood it, was a conduit to life: “art for life’s sake.”
Arlene’s early works visualize her efforts to create art through which she could operate on and work out those “internal wounds, made from external situations.” There is an invasive and recurring violence in these pieces, foreign and familiar at once. There is rape and atomization and bleeding. There is mastication, a sense of being chewed up and spit out.
But for all its violence, Wilke’s early work simultaneously demonstrates her invention process of an personal iconographical lexicon: a body vulnerable and open yet unafraid, unharmed. And in these works, unlike in her later output, a viewer is as likely to identify phallic forms as they might spot yonic ones—and sometimes the former is not a spear but a flower.
Butter itself also seems to appear: by 1962, she had developed a folded 3D form rendered from a flat plane of media. The finished product of this form resembles buttery, old-world pastry like kolache and hamentashen. And by the time she perfected these forms, she had learned to claim herself, express herself.
Defiantly, she called these sculptures her boxes at first. In time, she’d call them her cunts.