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Sculptor and performance artist Hannah Wilke is born

March 7, 1940

“I become my art, my art becomes me … My heart is hard to handle, my art is too.”

Considered the first feminist artist to use vaginal imagery in her work, Hannah Wilke used an extremely personal approach to her creative work, a perspective at times too close for early critics, but one that has over time made her an archetype for individual expression. Wilke’s work developed over the years as an exploration of the female body—usually her own: its beauty and scars, its status as an object, its fragility and final demise.

Working in ceramics, photography, sculpture, drawing, video, assemblage, performance and installation, Wilke explored introspection through a public lens and changed the process of communicating through creation.  Ordinary objects like chewing gum, lint, chocolate, and latex were transformed from the everyday to become lasting impressions.

Born in New York City, she received two degrees from Temple University and taught art in high schools before joining the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan in 1972, where she founded the ceramics department and taught sculpture and ceramics until 1991.  She was one of the first artists to move to Soho and create loft studio space in a former industrial building.

She began with a series of photographs and performances, Starification Object Series S.O.S. of 1974–1975, in which her body was exposed as an object of desire but also “scarred” with pieces of chewing gum shaped in vaginal forms. Wilke explained one aspect of these scars as reminders that “as a Jew, during the war, I would have been branded and buried had I not been born in America.”

Wilke elaborated, “Since 1960, I have been concerned with the creation of a formal imagery that is specifically female, a new language that fuses mind and body into erotic objects that are namable and at the same time quite abstract. Its content has always related to my own body and feelings, reflecting pleasure as well as pain, the ambiguity and complexity of emotions. Human gestures, multi-layered metaphysical symbols below the gut level translated into an art close to laughter, making love, shaking hands...”

In a 1984 installation titled Support, Foundation, Comfort, Wilke used nude photographs of herself and her mother, who was dying of breast cancer, to explore their close mother-daughter bond, the mortality of the human body, and Jewish mourning rituals.

Individual shows in the 1970s, including two exhibits at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles in 1977 as well as numerous international shows, established her groundbreaking reputation.  Diagnosed with lymphoma in 1987, she incorporated her illness into her art in “IntraVenus,” a group of monumental photographs documenting her disease and treatment.  She died on January 28, 1993.

As she wrote of her artistic vision, “To diffuse self-prejudice, women must take control of and have pride in the sensuality of their own bodies and create a sensuality in their own terms, without referring to the concepts degenerated by culture.... to touch, to smile, to feel, to flirt, to state, to insist on the feelings of the flesh, its inspiration, its advice, its warning, its mystery, its necessity for the survival and regeneration of the universe.”

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Sculptor and performance artist Hannah Wilke is born." (Viewed on July 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/mar/07/1940/this-week-in-history-sculptor-and-performance-artist-hannah-wilke-is-born>.

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