New York

Hannah Wilke, So Help Me Hannah Series: Portrait of the Artist with Her Mother, Selma Butter, 1978–81, two Cibachrome prints, each 42 × 31 3⁄4".

Hannah Wilke, So Help Me Hannah Series: Portrait of the Artist with Her Mother, Selma Butter, 1978–81, two Cibachrome prints, each 42 × 31 3⁄4".

Hannah Wilke

Ronald Feldman Gallery

Hannah Wilke (1940–1993) had her first exhibition with Ronald Feldman Gallery in 1972. Feldman—who retired from running his eponymous space last October—represented her for almost fifty years. The depth and familiarity he and his colleagues bring to her work is palpable, as the thirteenth solo exhibition of her art here, “Force of Nature,” demonstrated. With its revealing mix of greatest hits and deep cuts, the show was a tribute not only to Wilke’s singular blend of female pleasure and feminist critique, but also to her defenders, who, particularly since her death, have resisted pigeonholing her practice as “politically ambiguous” narcissism. Lucy Lippard, for one, labeled her work as such in 1976, pointedly accusing the artist of selling her body, even as Wilke professed to parody the transaction. But she did far more than offer up her naked (and yes, beautiful) physique to our attention. Hence the importance of this presentation, which countered the self-conscious provocation of pieces such as the “S.O.S. Starification Object Series,” 1974–82—in which a topless Wilke, dotted with wads of chewed gum folded into vaguely labial forms, strikes coquettish poses—with the delicate introspection of a 1976 pen drawing titled Self-Portrait as Angel with Dürer Wing and the gentle humor of Untitled (Phallus), ca. 1970, a snail-shaped latex-and-ceramic sculpture.

Perhaps as a rejoinder against negative appraisals, there have been multiple attempts since the 1980s to frame Wilke as a sculptor. She used her body as a medium, but performance and process were always paramount. At the gallery, the wall labels nodded toward such significance by subtitling photos such as So Help Me Hannah, 1978, and Stand Up Hannah Wilke, 1982, an image-audio piece that features a breathy pop tune written and recorded by the artist, as PERFORMALIST SELF-PORTRAITS WITH DONALD GODDARD (the characterization is Wilke’s). In giving the photographer, who happens to be her widower, credit in the production of these pictures, Wilke acknowledges them as exchanges—if not quite collaborations, then recorded interactions—even as the claim of “self-portraiture” goes against a suggestion of shared authorship. Wilke’s work with Richard Hamilton resulted in the waggish Venus Envy, 1980: three close-cropped Polaroids of the British artist’s head between Wilke’s naked legs. In the first shot Hamilton looks up at the camera, eyebrows arched in glee, but in the next two his face is increasingly obliterated by her closing legs, so that his broad forehead and long bulbous nose are all that remain in view. Venus Envy is the rare instance of Wilke manipulating another’s body, albeit with her own: The result is a pleasure to witness.

With Hamilton, Wilke also made the much better known I Object: Memoirs of a Sugargiver, 1977–78, in which she assumes the pose of the woman in Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés, 1946–66. Duchamp loomed large in Wilke’s art education and was a frequent point of reference in her practice, as the exhibition stressed. “Force of Nature” included Through the Large Glass, 1976, a performance filmed for German TV in which Wilke shed her clothes (but not her hat) in the Duchamp gallery of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as her 1992 Why Not Sneeze . . . ? The work was inspired by a 1921 Duchamp sculpture that features a pile of marble cubes, but Wilke’s version substitutes empty pill bottles and syringes for the stones. She also appropriated from him a particularly literal approach to language that frequently resulted in ham-handed puns: I Object versus “I object” functioning as a message of disapproval; the 1974–ca. 77 “Needed-Erase-Her” series of (you guessed it) kneaded erasers; and Intra-Venus as “intravenous.” More important, like Duchamp, Wilke was eager to remind us of the body’s role as a unit of exchange, often with the simplest of additive gestures: In the kneaded-eraser works, vintage postcards of iconic sites—including Benjamin Franklin’s tomb in Philadelphia and the New York Public Library—are adorned with grids of gray rubber loops, similar in shape to those she made from chewing gum. The “vulvae” cover a building’s windows or wrap around the sidewalk or march outward in neat rows. They suggest that sexuality structures commerce, learning, and even mourning, and embody a lesson Wilke seemed compelled to present to us again and again.