Los Angeles

Hannah Wilke, Untitled, 1991, watercolor on paper, 12 × 9".

Hannah Wilke, Untitled, 1991, watercolor on paper, 12 × 9".

Hannah Wilke

Let’s begin at the end, with a group of four untitled watercolors that Hannah Wilke made in 1991, at the age of fifty-one, while slowly dying of lymphoma. Each drawing features an outline of a magenta flower (perhaps a zinnia or dahlia) rendered with long, dripping strokes, allowing the white of the paper to stand in for the lanky wilting flesh of each petal. Wilke used the medium to great effect: In one image, a deep black-purple becomes a wine-stain burgundy that bleeds into the dark crepuscular yellow of the central floret—the same color as bruised pale skin. The petals sag downward, causing the lines to appear to be leaking. They are pretty, but bleeding.

These works were among the latest on view in this exhibition of Wilke’s art titled “Flowers 1973–1991,” and presented a sampling of the drawings of flora she made after her cancer diagnosis in 1987, some of which were created on pillowcases (not included here) at the hospital where she was recovering from a bone-marrow transplant. Her later flower pieces are a softer and lesser-known exploration of decay, especially when considered against the artist’s bold “Intra-Venus” photographs made in 1993, the year she died—unflinching self-portraits that showed the toll of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy on her unclothed form. Even as Wilke lost control of her body, she still found a way to use it to give the middle finger to male-centric, art-historical notions of “greatness,” which she had done throughout most of her career. Wilke’s images of her ailing flesh are powerful because we already know her naked, healthy body so well. We remember how she weaponized her preternaturally beautiful physique for deliciously ironic pieces such as Through the Large Glass, 1976, a video in which the artist records herself slowly disrobing in the sanctified Duchamp wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In the 1970s, Wilke claimed flowers for the cause of women’s liberation. In a 1975 interview with art historian and Feminist Art Journal cofounder Cindy Nemser, she said: “Georgia O’Keeffe made sensual art, but she didn’t say those flowers are vaginal. Maybe they weren’t . . . for her. I admitted these things went past the flower image and were icons for females.” Even as she claimed them as yonic symbols, Wilke’s flowers from this time still flirted with illegibility. Her drawingSingle Orange Parade (Iris), 1973, is a great example of this. Titled for an actual type of iris, this work barely takes the form of a bloom at all. Whereas Wilke’s older flowers are all line, this one is composed of pale pools of pink color rimmed with an accumulation of dark-peach pigment that softly gestures to the interior of the floral form. The paper itself softly undulates underneath this accumulation of puddles, taking on a vaguely fleshy quality.

Beyond using them as feminist motifs, Wilke had a far more expansive interest in the metaphorical associations between flowers and the human body. While describing her work in the Nemser interview, she references Robert Creeley’s 1966 poem “The Flower,” which reads: “I think I grow tensions / like flowers / in a wood where / nobody goes. / Each wound is perfect, / encloses itself in a tiny / imperceptible blossom, / making pain. / Pain is a flower like that one, / like this one, / like that one, / like this one.”

Creeley’s buds are delicate little receptacles that tightly confine distress. Anguish is intimately known, but somehow made banal—“like this one, like that one.” In stark contrast to his buds, Wilke’s final blooms were painfully and viscerally open—exposed, bleeding, and quietly astonishing.