Hannah Wilke, a painter, sculptor, photographer, video maker, and performance artist, was a key figure in the American feminist art movement. Her applications of self-portraiture and vulval imagery in her works are powerful reexaminations of the male gaze, traditionally phallic sculptures, and culturally accepted ideas and ideals of feminine beauty. Born Arlene Hannah Butter in 1940 to a Jewish family in New York City, Wilke attended public school in Queens before continuing on to study art at Stella Elkins Tyler School of Fine Art, Temple University, Philadelphia. Throughout her career she taught art, and in 1972 she joined the faculty at the School of Visual Art in New York City.
Wilke first gained recognition for her terracotta sculptures of vulvas exhibited in New York in the 1960s, which cemented her status as one of the most important feminist and conceptual artists of the period. Alternately accused of narcissism and of playing into societal standards of beauty and female objectification by using her own conventionally beautiful body as the subject and object of much of her work, Wilke used her practice to take control of her own body’s erotic potential. Later, while undergoing treatment for the cancer that would eventually kill her, Wilke took similarly powerful ownership of her body’s own breakdown. The resulting work, Intra-Venus (1994) documented her body’s response to chemotherapy with the same fiercely confrontational attitude with which she had previously approached feminine sexuality. Intra-Venus eerily mirrors the artist’s earlier series Portrait of the Artist with Her Mother, Selma Butter, which contrasts Wilke’s young, strong body with her mother’s withered torso, scarred from a mastectomy.
Prior to her premature death from lymphoma in 1996, Wilke created some of the most striking and influential artworks of the 20th century. Hannah Wilke: Works from 1965–92, her posthumous retrospective at Gallery 400, contains twelve works spanning the course of her artistic career. Displayed works include I Object: Memoirs of a Sugargiver, in which Wilke confrontationally mimicked Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés, replacing the anonymous nude female with her own naked form. (The title is also a reference to Duchamp, who sometimes referred to himself as Merchand du Sel, or salt seller.) Masticated Box Sculpture, from the series S.O.S. Starification Object Series (1975), is part of a body of work Wilke made using pieces of chewed gum fashioned into small, elegant vulvas. Wilke affixed these chewing gum sculptures to her body, transforming them into small, puckered wounds, and then had herself photographed. In Masticated Box Sculpture, the “cunt/scar” forms, as Wilke called them, are displayed mounted on paper, in grids of sixteen pages on each panel. The exhibition of her work at Gallery 400 makes these canonical works available to a Chicago audience.