Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Hannah Wilke: Venus and IntraVenus

Hannah Wilke was born Arlene Hannah Butter on March 7, 1940, in New York City, a month before Nazi Germany invaded Denmark and began their conquest of Western Europe. Hannah’s only sibling, her sister Marsie, had been born 15½ months earlier, just days after Kristallnacht, when the persecution and destruction of the Jewish population in Germany had begun in earnest.

Hannah Wilke at Westbeth, NY, with one-fold gestural ceramic sculptures before firing, 1973 (Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York)

“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. To also remember that as a Jew, during the war, I would have been branded and buried had I not been born in America. Starification-Scarification . . . Jew, Black, Christian, Muslim …Claes, Richard, Donald . . . Labeling people instead of listening to them . . . Judging according to primitive prejudices. Marxism and Art. Fascistic feelings, internal wounds, made from external situations. Sticks and stones, break our bones, but names more often hurt us . . . Yet to name a thing wherein I caught the consciences of the King as well as the Queen . . . to keep on naming a thing . . . to wear my hat, the memory of all that, until that thing is really something. To exist instead of being an existentialist, to make objects instead of being one. The way my smile just gleams, the way I sip my tea. To be a sugar giver instead of a salt cellar, to not sell out . . . The memory of all that, now that’s really something . . . Oh, no they can’t take that away from me . . . No, they can’t take that away from me.” --Hannah Wilke, (statement used in her video performance at the London Art Gallery, London, Ont., Can., 1977, originally part of her application for a Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation grant.)

There have always been grave markers, it seems, fields of them in the ground and under the sky, repeating the ancient forms of monuments that mark human conscience as well as death, presence as well as absence. They were important to Hannah, perhaps because of the Holocaust, and her father’s death when she was 20. She played among them and, in defiance, or continuity, created her own life markers, in sculpture, painting, drawing, performance, photographs, and moving images, insisting on herself and on every form that came out of her. It is the nature of her feminism, a question of original will (and interaction). Everything she did is assertion and evidence of self, her gestures in shaping clay and chewing gum, the posing and movement of her body, her relationships to those around her and in her life.

Beginning with her earliest work, Hannah’s imagery is generative. Fiberglass pieces she did during and after art school in Philadelphia have such titles as The Sun, Fountain, and Anthropofaunic Form. Her drawings and ceramic sculptures of the 1960s are amazingly direct in the abstract energy of their vaginal, occasionally, phallic, and always sexual imagery. Increasingly in the late 1960s and into the ‘70s, her work in ceramics, then latex, kneaded eraser, and chewing gum, is the immediate expression of gesture, of how she shaped the materials with her hands, and by extension her body, rather than by carving or modeling. There were also new contexts, a pictorial proliferation, for the shapes—grids (for the chewing gum pieces) and landscapes (the floor for groups of ceramics, postcards, and abstract extensions thereof for the kneaded erasers).

Hannah did the latex wall pieces, which became great blossomings of sensual and sexual feeling, only through 1976, but she continued to make glazed and painted ceramic sculpture for the rest of her life. The last one, a floor piece finished in 1992, is a grouping of black-painted shapes on a square eight-by-eight-foot grid of 25 black-painted boards—a memorial, like all her work.

Untitled, 1987-92 (Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York)

But in the early‘70s Hannah also began to use photographic images of herself, and this too was to continue until her death. In her first video, Gestures of 1974, she pushed and pulled at her face as though to feel her emotions after hearing of her former brother-in-law’s death. Hannah Wilke Super-T-Art, also 1974, is a five-by-four grid of black-and-white images in which Hannah cloaks her naked body in a white sheet, assuming poses familiar from the history of Christian art, from supplication to Crucifixion. In the same year, she posed outrageously, and nakedly, as a fashion model adorned by various significant hats, vests, sunglasses, and patterns of chewing-gum sculptures as wounds in S.O.S. Starification Object Series.

Among other things, she then did a striptease, Through the Large Glass, for a German movie about Marcel Duchamp; an installation called So Help Me Hannah: Snatch Shots with Rayguns involving 46 black-and-white photos, 100 quotes about society by (mostly) male artists, politicians, philosophers, etc., and omnipresent gun objects; hundreds of photos of her mother as she lived with terminal breast cancer; and finally, of course, the watercolors, drawings, photos, and videos that accompanied her own battle with cancer from 1986 through 1993.

WILKE--So Help Me Hannah, 1978 (Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York)

I worked with Hannah on several projects, including the last one, and I always felt, as I held the camera, that she was looking at herself, the coordinates of space around her, and the world in general from her eyes through my eyes. The grid of The IntraVenus Tapes collapses time and space, as the grid always did in her work, to contain the simultaneity of life. I hope it turned out the way she would have wanted it, but then she had as much faith in others as she had in herself. Hannah is still present, as we all are. And all of us can still see from her eyes. --Donald Goddard

Don Goddard views “IntraVenus” for the first time at "The Incubator" at Varak Park, Cambridge, NY (Photograph: John Carlson 2007)

IntraVenus will be opening Sept. 8, 6-8pm shown at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, 31 Mercer St., New York, NY, and shown through Oct. 13, 2007.

The piece will be previewed here in Cambridge, NY, Sunday July 29th at The Incubator in Varak Park, 15 W Main Street from 1 pm – 5 pm and 7 pm – 9 pm.

For information contact

(Note on IntraVenus Installation) ”The installation was made possible in part by the Franklin Furnace for Performance Art, supported by the Jerome Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.”


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