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Marcel Duchamp is an important figure for Hesse and Wilke, as he is for many postwar North American artists. Nonetheless, both artists engage with his work in their own way. This is most obvious for Wilke, whose Hannah Wilke Through the Large Glass (1976) uses Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) as a prop. Hesse’s relationship to Duchamp is less overtly concerned with the persona of the artist; traces of Duchamp are present in her titles and her playful interest in puns, something also evident in Wilke’s work. Both Hesse and Wilke’s sculptures also have a relationship to Duchamp’s small-scale erotic objects such as Female Fig Leaf (1950, cast 1961), a body cast in bronze from the female figure in his sculptural tableau Étant donnés (1946–66). Made from the imprint between the thighs of a female nude, Female Fig Leaf assuages direct representation through index, an abstraction that compares with Hesse’s ambiguous forms and Wilke’s vulvic sculptures, although both Hesse and Wilke revoke the implication of female lack central to Duchamp’s cast.

2 Large Image

Hannah Wilke
C’est La Vie Rrose, 1976
Hannah Wilke playing chess with I Sa Lo in still from
Wilke documentary, Philly, used by Wilke in a poster for
the film C’est La Vie Rrose.
Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.
Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix, New York.

Hesse visits an exhibition of Duchamp’s work in Bern before returning to New York from Germany in 1965. On her return to the studio she begins to incorporate found objects, the most Duchampian of which was a spoked wheel. Hesse’s take-up of mundane materials in her work at Scheidt’s factory precedes her visit to the Duchamp exhibition, and her use of these materials goes beyond Duchamp’s, but the juxtaposition of the erotic and the machinic—in both her sculptures and her drawings—echoes and transforms Duchamp’s project. Mignon Nixon explores Hesse’s, among other artists’, engagement with Duchamp in the 1960s through the psychoanalytical concept and the sculptural conceit of the “part object,” which allows Hesse to allude to the concrete signification of the gendered body, and to keep multiple allusions in play.33 The effect being to stage new and absurd continuities between phallus and breast, a makeover of Duchamp’s repetitive bachelor machines.34 Indeed Hesse acknowledges Duchamp as a precedent for her interest in the absurd in 1970.35

In 1976 Wilke performs Hannah Wilke Through the Large Glass as part of C’est La Vie Rrose, a color film directed by Hans-Christof Stenzel for German television. The title of the film is a redeployment of Duchamp’s female pseudonym Rrose Sélavy. For this filmed performance Wilke slowly strips behind Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) at The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Wilke’s Through the Large Glass is both feminist confrontation and artistic seduction. Like Hesse, Wilke both incorporates Duchamp’s legacy and transforms it, taking it over as if going, as the title of the work puns, “through the large glass.”

The performance, later made into a separate video, is a drawn-out striptease that critiques in live action the narrative of Duchamp’s bachelor machine. She says of the performance:

I was the bride stripped bare but also the bride as artist making the artwork, so that Duchamp’s Large Glass became all of a sudden, just a dead symbol, a prop for a moving, live woman. It didn’t matter if I was a work of art or not... The filmstrip was a pun; I stripped myself bare, but I stripped myself of the veil of being just the model for the man. I was now the model of the creative spirit, as the artist of my own ideology.36

During the taping of Hannah Wilke Through the Large Glass, an “auto-documentary” black and white video of the performance, titled Philly, is made by Wilke with Andy Mann and John Sanborn, which was finished the following year in 1977. The film provides a record of her preparations for the performance and the performance itself and ends with Wilke remaking the famous photograph of Duchamp playing chess with a naked Eve Babitz. Here Wilke is nude and playing against the fully clothed I Sa Lo, an Austrian actress. 

4 Pair Large Image

Hannah Wilke
I Object: Memoirs of a Sugargiver, 1977–78
Cibachrome diptych
Each photograph: 24 × 16 inches (61 × 40.6 cm)
Performalist Self-Portraits with Richard Hamilton
Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.
Courtesy Alison Jacques, London.

Later, in 1977, Wilke contends with another of Duchamp’s works, Étant donnés. In another playful remaking, I Object: Memoirs of a Sugargiver (1977–78), Wilke poses herself as the exposed nude from Duchamp’s famous installation. The photographs are taken in Cadaqués in Spain, on the rocks that used to be part of Duchamp’s home. Wilke’s invasion of Duchamp’s old territory transforms her act of self-objectification into a reclamation. The work is a diptych for the proposed cover of Wilke’s autobiography of the same name, whose title is a pun on Duchamp’s anagrammatic pseudonym, Marchand de Sel, or salt seller. Swapping the salt for sugar and the seller for giver, Wilke plays the opposite (gendered) role to Duchamp’s cool gaming, and simultaneously announces her resistance: “I object.”37 Importantly, these works are also part of Wilke’s intellectual and romantic sparring with another artist, Richard Hamilton. Hamilton, who reconstructed Duchamp’s The Large Glass in the mid 1960s–takes the performalist self-portraits of Wilke in Cadaqués at her direction.

If Hesse’s engagement with Duchamp has some continuity with the older artist’s challenge to Modernist abstraction, Wilke purposefully parries with his legacy in a feminist gesture of dealing with Modernism’s misogyny. Wilke’s engagement with Duchamp is part of a series of responses to other artists who either hold significance to her, or to whom she is personally attached. That Wilke uses her relationships as part of her artmaking is an acknowledgement of the social bonds that hold the art world together, and the precariousness of her own artistic identity. She names an epic 1978 sculpture Elective Affinities after the 1809 novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s inscrutable novel concerns the erotic attraction of an older, married man to a younger woman. Wilke’s work coincided with her break up with Oldenburg, and the title of the work is an allusion to those circumstances. However, Goethe’s novel is a far from straightforward account of infidelity; it was one of the first novels to investigate the biochemical condition of attraction against other manifestations of love and commitment. Wilke’s field of abstract, white ceramic one-fold sculptures perhaps alludes to the abstraction of biochemical response, in contradiction to the singularity of the love relation.

Wilke is not afraid to telegraph her feelings in her artworks, even if those she speaks of are less than happy. Oldenburg threatens to sue her unless she removes photographs she took of him and used in her artworks from the catalogue planned for her retrospective at the University of Missouri in 1989.

In response to Oldenburg’s retaliation, Wilke later makes Even-tu-ally (1969–91), a photograph with a superimposed letter from Richard Hamilton granting his permission for Wilke to use his image. In the photograph Wilke joyously reclines in an Oldenburg-bedroom installation.

Laura Cottingham writes of these works: “What’s unique about Wilke is that she was willing to enunciate some of the conflicts that circumscribed her sexual life with men, render them visible in her art—and in a way that functions in critical relationship to both the male domination of art history and the ongoing sexism implicit in contemporary art’s production and distribution.”38 

6 Text / Image

Hannah Wilke
Why Not Sneeze, 1992
Wire bird cage, medicine bottles, and syringes
7 × 9 × 6 7/8 inches (17.8 × 22.9 × 17.5 cm)
Courtesy Donald and Helen Goddard and
Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York

In this way Wilke is very different from Hesse, but even if Hesse does not reveal her personal life in her work, the access given to her diaries posthumously, and the mythology produced by her early death make the distinction between her artwork and life a moot point. Wilke’s dialogue with Duchamp continues until her death. Two of the last works she makes, Wedges of... and Why Not Sneeze (both 1992), made from medical radiation blocks and pill bottles in a bird cage, are responses to Duchamp’s Wedge of Chastity (1954, cast 1963) and Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? (1921).

[BANNER, LEFT] Photo of Eva Hesse in her studio, 1968, by Fred W. McDarrah / Getty Images. [BANNER, RIGHT] Photo of Hannah Wilke in her Broome Street studio, 1973. Image courtesy Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.

Mignon Nixon, “Posing the Phallus,” October 92 (Spring 2000): pp. 98–127.

For an alternate reading of Hesse’s lineage through surrealism see Yves Alain Bois, “Dumb,” in Eva Hesse, ed. Elizabeth Sussman (New Haven and San Francisco: Yale University Press and San Francisco Museum of Art, 2002), pp. 16–27.

Nemser, p. 7.

Linda Montano, ed., Performance Artists Talking in the eighties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 138.

Debra Wacks, “Playing with Dada: Hannah Wilke’s Irreverent Artistic Discourse with Duchamp,” in From Diversion to Subversion: Games, Play and Twentieth Century Art, ed. David J Getsy (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), pp. 105– 117.

Laura Cottingham, “Hannah Wilke: Some Naked Truths and Her Legacy in the 1990s’ in Hannah Wilke: A Retrospective,” ed. Elisabeth Delin Hansen et al. (Copenhagen: Nicolaj Contemporary Art Center, 1998) p. 59.