To live one’s life as art has advantages over living one’s life for art, not the least of which is that it is often more fun. Hannah Wilke’s work—currently the subject of a retrospective at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis—is testament to art’s generative and relational potential. Wilke developed a practice in which the boundaries between herself and her art dissolved. “I become my art, my art becomes me,” she wrote in “A Letter to Women Artists” in 1975, and in a 1986 interview with Linda Montano: “I made myself into a work of art” and “my entire life is the work of art.” She said she made art to “have life all around.” If art can invite life as a force into a single life, life is art enriched by more art, which brings more life, which goes on and on this way in a process that is exponential and combinatory. This compounding liveliness—a liveliness that indicates something like liberation at a historical moment when many were trying to work out all that word could mean—is the prevalent tone in Wilke’s work, even when it approached caring for her mother during breast cancer treatment and then facing her own death from lymphoma at the age of fifty-two. “Art,” said Wilke, “is for life’s sake.”
By contrast, subjugation to art—the mythic, romantic, often disappointing approach of the self-sacrificial artist—is notorious for making the practice of art itself the center of life’s suffering. Life as art has more promise. To live as art is always to investigate the strangeness of pleasure. A life practice integrated with an art practice has the capacity to intensify meaning, even during the strangeness of life’s crisis experiences—those near-inevitabilities of grief, illness, and pain. Liveliness in art, artfulness in life—each has the potential to expand and address contradictions and uncertainties, including those intensified by one’s moment in history. During Wilke’s lifetime—1940 to 1993—both art and life convulsed with change, one influence being feminism’s intervention.
“Expressive, precise, gestural”
If liveliness was Wilke’s tonal norm, her go-to material was gesture, and the go-to gesture of her art in the 1970s was the fold. From the beginning of her practice, Wilke worked in clay and created genital-like vessels, but with her first folded pieces in the early ’70s, she found an action that worked in balance with the forms she made, so that the diverse materials she used—initially terra-cotta, and then chewing gum, erasers, rubber, and more—became a kind of proliferating record of an obsessive act. Folding is the gestural equivalent of paradox, in that it takes what has neither inside nor out and, without transforming its substance, gives it both. Before a flat plane is folded, we know it as surface—superficial, exposed. Once a flat plane has become a fold, the same material becomes an intriguing half-secret—the fold alerts us to the once clandestine affordance of surface. A folded plane has points of entry in which we might understand the once shallow surface as it relates to depth. Again, the substance of the material hasn’t changed but each folded plane acquires more difference from the next than any flat plane had to the other. Our experience of the material is then upended both by the fold and by its multiplicity and uniqueness. When something is folded—as in Wilke’s one- or two-fold, vulva-like repetitions—it is transformed, repetitively, by gesture. Desire—as curiosity, wonder, adventure, mischievousness—is activated. What was once shallow and knowable is now mysterious and deep.
Important too to Wilke’s work is that the fold is a gesture linked to feminized labor, what was once understood as “women’s work”: doing laundry, diapering babies, preparing dough. The efficiency of the fold, done over and over, mimics the ongoingness of folding as care work, while it simultaneously creates mystery out of shallowness, dimensional form out of apparent flatness. Folding remains for many of us a regular aspect of caring for ourselves and others—folding the towels, the sheets, the paperwork—and we might also do it, like Wilke, efficiently and repetitively, but such efficiency and repetition often obscure the fold’s formally paradoxical nature. Wilke’s fold, as the gesture is imprinted into durable material, is a moment’s illumination of a reality once obscured in everyday dullness, both the reality of materials and the reality of our relations with others. Wilke’s work points outward to all of us who also fold: our hands conduct formal miracles in even the most ordinary minutes.
That Wilke’s folded sculptures resemble vulvas threatens, in the post-pink-pussy-hat world, to be the least interesting thing about them. The vulva has sometimes become linked with misunderstanding that the sexes are two and that genitals are a reliable sorting mechanism, but this misapprehension of the variety of human experience is not the vulva’s fault. These shapes were convincingly attention-arresting in their context of the sexually distraught twentieth century, when art still had to perform a kind of sexual education for Sunday school veterans, often introducing frank and various forms of sexuality to a still repressed, sometimes homophobic general public, and sometimes paying—thanks to Jesse Helms and other “family values” crusaders—a significant price to do so. At times, Wilke was worried that she would lose her job as a high school art teacher because of her work with the form. In the context of their creation, the vulva shapes also signaled a clear liberatory intention: a visual retort to prudishness and narrow misogynies, even if now the same symbol is sometimes used as a crude reduction of gender to genitals.
The vulva shape isn’t as single-note as biological essentialists would make it, and the variety of Wilke’s vulva-esque shapes also suggests the real, variable expression of gender and sexuality. Even as Wilke understood herself to be creating a “specifically female” formal imagery, she also repeatedly claimed for these images an “androgyny.” These are not entirely contradictory claims. What the work does is generalize and reveal the forms that a sexist, sexually repressed society obscured and particularized. The vulval is as universal as the phallic, and even a casual look at any human body will reveal the thrilling polymorphism of shapes, purposes, pleasures, and patterns we each bear: each one of us is a being of protuberances and folds. Even the human brain has folds.
Despite its current plight, the vulva at least retains—like all sex organs—its comedy, especially in Wilke’s obsessive multiples. Vulva shapes preserve a shadow of profundity, in that they are intimately involved with each of us being born—or if not profundity, at least a dignified absurdity, also intimately involved with giving birth. It is difficult for me to see Wilke’s folded work and not think of some slightly bored demiurge forming human life in clay in casual, half-attentive production, casting each of us to earth where we compare and contrast. Wilke herself saw in them the proliferation of cells into an organism. It is also the case that beyond their comedy and their profundity and their present symbolic ubiquity, vulvas are the site of a lot of pleasure. Genitals are the flowers of humans, a least as much as flowers are the genitals of plants, and multiple genital-ish objects, unattached to bodies, formed by a simple gesture—a single fold—on the gallery floor is a lot like a bed of roses, which is what life could be too, if each were freed up for the pleasure and play inherent in Wilke’s work.
“The loose arrangements of love vulnerably exposed”
Among Wilke’s folded sculptures on display at the Pulitzer is Elective Affinities (1978), named after Goethe’s 1809 novel. Four low, square wooden platforms display evenly spaced white porcelain, single-fold, vulva-shape objects, arranged in increasingly larger grids (3-by-3, 4-by-4, 5-by-5, 6-by-6). Elective Affinities, one of Wilke’s favorite books, is a novel with ample aspirational pleasure in it, especially the kind that comes from a life lived with privilege and intentionality—what we may call today a “curated” life, in which a small group of affluent progressives aspires to an interesting and beautiful existence. In the novel, the men are a bit incompetent, or at least single minded, and the women bear the administrative and emotional weight of maintaining the refinement and progress of the estate. As one of the ensemble, Charlotte, explains at the beginning of the novel: “Men think most of the immediate—the present . . . women, on the other hand, more of how things hang together in life; and that rightly too, because their destiny—the destiny of their families—is bound up in this interdependence.” It is the women who keep the progressive paradisial estate paradisial, organizing tableaux vivants, gardens, art displays, educational opportunities, and so on, all while going to extraordinary lengths to suppress their drives and maintain what they understand to be their virtue. When the men disappoint, the women compensate, but when the women disappoint, the failure is total, eviscerating, and deadly.
Wilke’s choice of porcelain for her Elective Affinities heightens the manifold tensions both in Goethe’s novel and in her work itself. There is tension between material and symbol, between refinement and passion, between aspirational femininity and messy human actuality, between idealized European history and gritty American reality, between concept and process. Unlike the rough, unglazed terra-cotta or contemporary materials of vinyl, kneaded eraser, and chewing gum in much of Wilke’s other folded work, porcelain is so “cultivated” via heat as to be nearly vitrified, diminishing its earthen qualities and taking on textures and resemblances to glass, water, and shell. Yet, that the porcelain objects have been folded, and by hand, retains an echo of her other work with less mediated materials, and reminds us of the malleability of its once unprocessed state. That it is folded into the hyper-organic vulva-esque shape while arranged in the hyper-ordered, rationalized, and measured ascending squares, deepens the piece’s dialectical import.
Elective Affinities, the novel, is at least partially about the failure of the rationalizing impulse to deliver happiness. It too is a work stretched on the tenterhooks of desire. Nothing can be so organized or so aestheticized as to overcome what Goethe understood as a kind of chemical magnetism, the passions that defy societal virtue or administered life. It is also a book that exposes, however unintentionally, the unequal burden placed on women as custodians of that rationalizing process who are simultaneously made to bear the contradictory symbolism of being the “irrational” sex. The novel and the sculptural work exist, then, in conceptual symmetry. The “irrational” vulva shapes, made through repeated, ordinary gestures, each relating to care, each made almost alien from their origins, are arranged in rational order, each accruing a relation with the next. The impossibility is exposed here, but not resolved.
Much like the feminist artists and critics of Wilke’s era, who had to sort out all the problems of art like any artist but felt pressure at the same time to sort out millennia of structural oppression and exploitation, it was the women in Elective Affinities who had to figure out how to live for themselves while also bearing the charge to make everyone else’s life harmonious and beautiful. In both cases, the women have been assigned this greater responsibility at least in part because of their supposed sophistication about human interdependence. Idealized “woman” is made, because of this knowledge, an archetypal administrator of a progressive paradise, and in both, this demand often results in higher stakes and more catastrophic losses for actual women. Wilke—like the feminist critics who engaged with her work—was put in this bind: in second-wave feminism and second-wave feminist art there was the sense that to fail at all meant women’s liberation itself might fail. Each failure, then, was punished mightily, not the least by other women, even while these feminists were continuously challenged by stubborn reactionaries clinging to a tired vision of the world. These second-wave feminist artists were called to a nearly impossible task in a mostly hostile environment: to make art, to remake art, and simultaneously, to remake the world.
As all who write about Wilke never seem to fail to remark, Wilke was attractive, which caused a stir among her circle of feminist artists and critics. Pretty like a TV actress or a perfume model, that is, in a way that corresponded to the racialized, gender normative standards of her time and place, Wilke spoke about her appearance openly, both when discussing her work and in it. As her work shifted toward self-representation in photography—especially in the “S.O.S. (Starification Object Series)” series (1974–82)—it was met with mistrust, as many of her feminist peers were trying to sort out the problems of representation, objectification, and sexual competition. This self-representative work, featuring her own image often nude or partly so, in familiar and often sexualized poses, though at the same time, covered with folds made of chewing gum, put additional pressure on the issue at the prime moment when that pressure was already keenly felt. Or, as artist and critic Leslie Dick succinctly summed up the controversy in a 2004 review, “feminist critics put her down as a narcissistic flirt.”
Wilke’s performative photographs often allude to the canned poses and stereotypical gestures of women in mass media. They suggest print ads from the 1970s and ’80s, even as they are often made abject by their being speckled with gum—often, gum chewed by others, as if to heighten the gross-out effect. It is the irony of the gum and the familiarity of the poses that causes me to read the naked, clowning Hannah Wilke of the “S.O.S.” series as directly adjacent to the commercials of the day. Wilke’s images remind me of the 1980s Pantene shampoo commercial with model Kelly LeBrock saying, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” To say “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” is to set yourself up to be hated at least doubly for it: not only for being beautiful, but for admitting you know it. The irony folds in on itself: it is this self-knowledge as well for which forgiveness is sought. Wilke’s later photos in the 1978–82 series “So Help Me Hannah”—which include, along with nude performances, a group of photos of Wilke, again completely nude, posing around PS1, an elementary-school-turned-art-space—seem to be saying “OK, hate me because I’m beautiful if you must.” No longer bearing the abject marks of the chewing gum, Wilke allows something new—a kind of ethereal dignity, or perhaps a determined refusal of self-punishment—to appear in the work. Then even later, when she is dying of cancer and her conventional beauty has been replaced with that generic appearance that cancer patients so often bear (bald head, swollen face, proliferating and puffy sickliness), her work seems to be saying “don’t you regret that you hated me because I was beautiful, having missed the point?”
Beauty doesn’t have to answer for itself, but there is something great about it when it shows up and makes its own defense. Nudity, claimed Wilke, is “synonymous with universality.” What might have been shocking in the emerging context of feminist art has now become, like vulva images, prevalent to the point of trivialization. Images of autoerotic nudity have become so diffuse as hardly even to read as erotic anymore, they’re just kind of auto. So too have once-shocking representations of illness become less galvanizing. As the technologies and infrastructures of self-representation expand, so grow the varieties of bodily experience on view in our common culture. Even without experiencing it firsthand, most of us now know what chemotherapy looks like. People have bodies and cameras, and will use both.
Gorgeous people die too, Wilke suggested even before she had cancer. I suspect some of her contemporaries who criticized her “narcissism” ultimately realized that the point of her nudity in photos and performances wasn’t just to show off. These works were a set of connected explorations into the life of the body, including objectification and commodification, but also including folding, caring, feeling pleasure, feeling pain, being desired, desiring, getting sick, and dying—as Wilke called them in her “Letter to Women Artists,” the “multi-layered metaphysics below the gut level, like laughter, making love, or shaking hands.” Wilke’s documentation of her mother’s and her own cancer retains her life-as-art playfulness, but does not obfuscate the eviscerations of cancer treatment. Just as art was an important site of sexual education in the twentieth century, so too it began to instruct society about the conditions of the body beyond pleasure, like those of illness, disability, pain, and disease. Wilke was as unflinching with her disease and disfigurement as she had been with her beauty and apparent health.
In 1978 Wilke’s mother, Selma Butter, discovered her breast cancer had returned after a period of remission, and Wilke took a break from her studio practice, devoting the next four years until her mother’s death to her care. Wilke documented this period in hundreds of photos, some of which are used to shrine-like effect in the mixed-media work In Memoriam: Selma Butter (Mommy), 1979–83. This triptych of photos—six per frame—includes a series of words: FORM, CAUSE, MAKE; SUPPORT, FOUNDATION, COMFORT; and BOND, INTIMATE, PART. It hangs over three platforms on the floor, on which new folded objects rest in pairs, now rendered in primary colors. This work is a tightly bound knot of interrelations, suggesting both the care that Wilke’s mother had given and the care she received, both the creation of life and the creation of art. Butter, at turns playful, open, and loving in her gaze toward the camera despite the apparent costs of cancer treatment, meets her daughter’s complexity and liveliness with her own. The folded sculptures deepen the memorial quality of the piece, recalling not just the memory of the body and gesture, but also the forms of Wilke’s previous artistic work, what had been put away for a time so that the work of care could take its place. The folded objects take on the aspect of the clay votives that the sick and their loved ones once brought to the temples of the healing gods. What has come before in Wilke’s art practice has not been forgotten, it has been deepened and integrated by the practice of life itself.
Like the gestural, folded sculpture and her self-representative earlier work, Wilke’s late work is made up of gestures, or traces of such. During and immediately after her mother’s death, Wilke worked on a series of watercolors of her own face, soon to be called “B.C.,” for “before cancer,” by which she now meant her own. Her iconic photo series “Intra-Venus” (1991–93), a collaboration with her partner, Donald Goddard, was created well into her own treatment for lymphoma. These photos have a poignant comedy about them. In one image from the diptych, Intra-Venus Series No. 4, July 26 and February 19, 1992, Wilke is hands on face, assuming a cheeky, playful expression; in the other, her head is wrapped in a blue blanket, looking faux-beatific and saintly. Wilke is still playing, even as she is obviously bald, sallow, and sick, IV line visible. It is through gesture that she is able to assure the viewer that despite the obfuscating, objectifying trappings of cancer treatment, the artist is still there.
To live one’s life as art ultimately requires an expertise in gesture. Gesture exists for itself, is paradoxically both wordless and communicative, is reliably available to all, is both inexpensive and precious. It is also possibly the material under every other material, media, or tradition: visual art itself is a canonization of gesture as memorialized in objects and traces of them. Gestures connect instants, which in turn connect life, and repetitive gestures accrue into a kind of identity. We know each other by our shrugs. Gesture is the bridge between art and life, between life and identity. To live as art is also a gesture, also to declare you are doing so. To live as art is perpetually to become—an unfixed, unstable, continually increasing and changing being—and it is also to become what you love, which means that as long as you are available to yourself, art is available to you.
This living as art often brings to one’s life a freedom from convention—as it did for Wilke—but it also usually requires a ground of preexisting freedom. In many times and places and instances, at the first sign that a child might decide to live as art—that is, to live in extreme and expressive states of ambiguity, irony, sensitivity, and so on—the people around that child meet it with a swift backlash of normativity, the seeming impossibility of it often growing more impossible according to repressions dealt out by race, class, and gender. This backlash is often born of love or concern for that child’s future in a hard world but sometimes born just out of society’s mortal fear of brilliant weirdos. For some, the whole process ends in compromise: a person can make art, but not live life as such, and the art that the person should make should be subordinate to economic and social responsibilities. Historically, women—especially affluent women with access to the leisure and resources to think about art in the first place—might have been the special inheritor of this sort of compromising permission. Women could make art, if it was virtuous and tame, or they could inspire art, as a muse, but to live as art was unthinkably bold and possibly deviant. To live as art is dangerously close to living for one’s own pleasure—a semi-sexual scandal.
Hannah Wilke was unthinkably bold, possibly deviant, living inside her own pleasure. Her art of the body as it moved through gesture was, in its way, educated by open and daring sexuality in a manner that prepared it for what would come next: the greater taboo of death and illness, also upended. Knowing the social expectations of women and the risks of art, she enthusiastically discarded the limits imposed on her, twisted them, repurposed them, folded and reworked them, moving energetically toward a new understanding of art, not as an alien product, but as an integral aspect of a liberated life.
This article appears under the title “Living as Art” in the September/October 2021 issue, pp. 38–47.