Hannah Wilke, Athens, 1979, bronze, clockwise, from top: 7 × 4 3/4 × 3 1/2“, 5 1/2 × 4 × 3 3/4”, 3 × 2 1/4 × 2".

Hannah Wilke, Athens, 1979, bronze, clockwise, from top: 7 × 4 3/4 × 3 1/2“, 5 1/2 × 4 × 3 3/4”, 3 × 2 1/4 × 2".

Hannah Wilke

Hannah Wilke, Athens, 1979, bronze, clockwise, from top: 7 × 4 3/4 × 3 1/2“, 5 1/2 × 4 × 3 3/4”, 3 × 2 1/4 × 2".

Though not quite a retrospective, this judiciously focused presentation, primarily composed of Hannah Wilke’s object work in sculpture and related drawings, implied the continued scope of the artist’s percolating influence some twenty years after her death. Copied onto a gallery wall at the exhibition’s entrance, her moving, ambitious text A Letter to Women Artists, 1975, set the tone: “I want to overwhelm you. I want to touch your feelings . . . Feel the folds.”

Here, those folds, those little pieces of nature, as she called them, were grouped according to material, the major curatorial focus of the show. Bronze, terra-cotta, kneaded erasers, chewed gum, and painted ceramic each appear as pressed, twisted, scratched, or curled envelopments, folded inward and over themselves, or, as in her 1979 bronze suite Athens, as if to protect some hidden core. Some sculptures resembled deflating layers or withering flowers, for instance Sweet Sixteen, 1977, in which four rows of four pink, painted ceramic folds that could easily fit in one’s hands were displayed on a white board and pedestal low to the ground in an upstairs gallery. The formal tension between the blush-colored delicacies in an austere grid perfectly encapsulated Wilke’s subversion of the Minimalist/Conceptualist concern with systems, while also demonstrating her genius for fusing her personal, bodycentric feminism with the formal issues and rigorous philosophy of Conceptualism.

The performances, films, and photography in which Wilke depicted her own body in rakish nude poses, which served as a lightning rod for both feminist triumph and ire, were represented here only by a small selection of photographs, including three from her face-as-sculpture performance Gestures, 1974. The recompense was a selection of seven of the artist’s drawings, an oft-overlooked area of her concise but tenacious output. Typically scrawled in pastels and occasionally bisected by spare graphite lines or watercolor curves on tissue-thin Japanese papers, all untitled and dated from the 1960s to the ’70s, those on view here showed amorphous, abstract forms conjoining, colliding, meeting, and melding with palpable erotic tension. The material support, colloquially called rice paper, allowed the artist to carry over from her sculptures the one-two punch of provocative, sensual shapes and bright, fleshly colors of pinks and creams on a foundation of fragile materials. In Wilke’s time, this punch was deflected by a discourse unprepared to deal with her radical gesture of handling vulnerability “like philosophy, at some remove,” as Chris Kraus noted when reflecting on Wilke in her 1997 novel, I Love Dick—in the effort, as the artist herself once put it, to “make objects instead of being one.”

Seeing a range of Wilke’s work across diverse media exhibited together, while a rare opportunity, is no throwback; the formal play between rigid/soft and representational/abstract feels perfectly contemporary. Wilke’s radical-feminist position, though often misunderstood, still reverberates, and given the recurrent trend of Minimalism returning as vacant formalism, Wilke’s aesthetics, highly loaded with the historical, cultural, and social, continue to be relevant to any art that seeks expression of the personal without denying the contextual aesthetic and political issues of its time.

Paige K. Bradley