As a part of the feminist artistic movement, Hannah Wilke spread her message through exploration of almost every art medium the world had to offer. She was a painter, a sculptor, a photographer, a performance artist, and a video artist. Wilke is one of the most remembered and renowned artists from the feminist art movement.
In 1940, Hannah Wilke was born in New York City. Wilke attended public school in Queens and graduated from Great Neck High School in 1957. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Stella Elkins Tyler School of Fine Art, Temple University in Philadelphia. After college, Wilke taught art at several high schools and eventually became a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York. At SVA, Wilke taught sculpture and ceramics, though these were not the only mediums in which she worked. Her work in the early 1960s started to gain a lot of press after she released her “vulval” terra-cotta sculptures. These sculptures, considered the first explicit imagery of the female body done by a woman, became Wilke’s signature work that she recreated in multiple sizes, styles, and mediums.
In 1972, Wilke was given her own one-woman gallery exhibitions in both New York and Los Angeles. Four years later, at University of California, Irvine, Wilke was given her own one-woman museum exhibition. Hannah Wilke’s content was both explicit and empowering. In 1975, Wilke began to work on a photographic body art piece entitled S.O.S – Starification Object Serieswhere she created tiny vulvul sculptures out of chewing gum and photographed herself covered in them. She photographed herself in various model-like and pin-up-like poses in order to create a contrast between glamour and something that, to her, resembled a tribal sacrifice. Eventually recreated this work in a performance setting live at the Galerie Gerald Piltzer, Paris by having her audience chew gum which she then sculptured and then placed onto papers which she hung from the wall. The Centre Pompidou in Paris acquired the S.O.S – Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication, 1975 in 2009 for the permanent collection.
In 1980, Wilke received an National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant for performance as well as grants for sculpture from the Alaska Council for the Arts (she had previously received grants from the NEA in 1976 and 1979 for sculpture). Throughout the 1980s, she continued to exhibit her works until 1987, when she was diagnosed with lymphoma. She underwent extensive treatment in an effort to treat her disease including a bone marrow transplant. While undergoing treatment, she received Pollock-Krasner Grants for Art in 1987 and 1992 and continued to exhibit her unique work. At this time Wilke began to work on a project she named “Intravenus.” “Intravenus” was a group of photographs to document her illness and treatments. The photographs were taken by her husband Donald Goddard and consisted of Wilke progressing from her normal self into a bald and destroyed individual. “Intravenus” was eventually published posthumously.
Throughout her career, Wilke’s art was striking for its risky content and motivation to empower women. The unique qualities of her work allowed Wilke to be widely exhibited, while remaining highly controversial. Her work confronts gender stereotypes, female sexuality, and promotes female power. Her work can be currently found in the permanent collections of the Centre Pompidou, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney.