New York

Hannah Wilke

Fifteen years after Hannah Wilke’s death, her oeuvre still confounds the desire to find in it a purely critical impulse. Though now firmly installed in the feminist canon (however oxymoronic such a concept may be), Wilke doesn’t rest easily there. Some still argue that she developed a practice whose bedrock—though veined with resistant acumen—consisted primarily of whatever was necessary to sustain its own gaze-baiting operations. But it is less Wilke’s detractors than her advocates who, in some ways, continue to register the clearest anxiety about her work. Indeed, those that most vehemently railed against her supposed navel-gazing or essentialism have for the most part made their reductive cases and moved on. On the other hand, supporters, even while arguing against accusations that Wilke’s practice was narcissistic, tend nonetheless to invoke the terms of that concept, thereby to some degree reinvigorating the very narrative they hope to lay to rest.

Yet one body of work is nearly universally acknowledged for its rigor and seriousness, to say nothing of its complicating any easy ideas of self-interest. Wilke’s series “Intra-Venus,” 1991–93, first exhibited at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in 1994—one year after the artist died of lymphoma—was met by critical acclaim and something else rarely seen: a kind of critical recanting. In large-scale photographs of a vulnerable, ill, alternately hopeless and hopeful Wilke, critics saw clearly what had been more ambiguous in the artist’s earlier images incorporating her then young, lithe, easily “beautiful” self. Astonished that the artist continued to ruthlessly document the texture of her life and body even as they both came undone, critics posited—with what might be read as a kind of strange relief—that in seeing the end of Wilke’s lifework, one could radically resee the earliest. Commenting on “Intra-Venus” in Art News in 1994, one reviewer went so far as to claim that “in the context of Wilke’s art as a whole, it not only becomes more meaningful but also cancels out the narcissism of her earlier work, imbuing it with more purpose than could be seen at the time.”

“Intra-Venus” is comprised of several parts: the aforementioned color photographs, as well as drawings, objects, and sculptures by Wilke. But the project had another component, too: over thirty hours of video, shot by Wilke, her husband Donald Goddard, and various family members and friends, documenting the last two and a half years of her life. Wilke always intended for this to be part of “Intra-Venus,” but it has taken until this year for the Intra-Venus Tapes to find the light of day, owing to funding issues and other obstacles. Now finally installed as Wilke had wished, in a grid of sixteen small monitors, the tapes chronicle the day-to-day living involved in dying. Here is Wilke talking with friends, playing with her pet birds, vomiting, crying, laughing, bathing, primping, posing, marrying Goddard.

Each channel has its own sound track, but rather than always being audible simultaneously, sound often seems to move from one monitor to another, so that viewers find themselves leaning in for snippets, banal and breathtaking, seemingly dropped and then whisked away. Watching Wilke moving closer and closer to death—and very bravely giving this progress over to documentation—is tremendously moving and difficult. But to privilege her decision to present this process of her life as her art—which is to say, to insist that it is somehow more serious or inherently critical than the rest of her work—is to discount the terror and rawness of her early experiments (which were, for the record, met with more than a little aggression) or, worse, to harness it for some teleology only borne out in tragedy and aesthetic breakdown. For in “Intra-Venus,” however heartbreaking it is, Wilke intentionally enacts nothing inherently more “meaningful” or any less “narcissistic” than before but continues to resist such hard-and-fast distinctions.

Johanna Burton