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HESSE | WILKE: A CHRONOLOGY

EROTIC ART

1966–67
In her 1967 article, “Eros Presumptive,” Lippard announces erotic art as a new phenomenon in the New York artworld of 1966–7. Discussing two exhibitions, Hetero Is at NYCATA Gallery and Erotic Art 66 at the Sidney Janis Gallery, along with her own exhibition, Eccentric Abstraction, at the Fischbach Gallery, Lippard comments on the “lip-licking anticipation” for the “Erotic Season,” which follows on from the “Pop, Op, Primary Structure Seasons past.” Although now largely overlooked, this “Erotic Season,” and Lippard’s situating of her own “Eccentric Abstraction” in this context, is significant. It is also an important connection between Hesse and Wilke’s work because both are discussed in Lippard’s article, and both artists show work over the season: Hesse in Eccentric Abstraction and Wilke in Hetero Is.

Lippard describes Wilke’s work—an untitled sculpture from 1966 included in Hetero Is—as an “androgynous terracotta,” which “though conceptually less advanced than other works” discussed in the essay nonetheless, “confront[s] opposing aspects of the same form or surface and systematize[s] the resulting concept of change.”61

Excepting Wilke’s work, the problem Lippard has with both the NYCATA and the Sidney Janis Gallery exhibitions is the inclusion of representational and realist works, particularly at Sidney Janis, which focuses on pop art. Damningly, she writes that “subject matter without style does not make a trend.”62 Lippard goes on to claim that “the best erotica being made today is abstract, concentrating on a purity of sensation which in turn engenders a stronger response.”63 This is indicative for Lippard of a rejection of expressionism and its climactic tendencies:

The cool sensibility that approves understatement, detachment, the anti-climactic in art, tends to approach the erotic non-romantically, non-subjectively, often even nonmetaphorically... it is well served esthetically by an anti-dynamic or at least post-dynamic sensuousness characteristic of provocation, fore or after play, rather than of climax.64 

2 Text / Image

Eva Hesse
Several, 1965
Acrylic, papier-mâché, latex, rubber
88 × 11 × 7 inches (223.5 × 27.9 × 17.8 cm)
(dimensions variable), four units
Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland. 
Images courtesy The Estate of Eva Hesse.
Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

Lippard’s argument that abstract eroticism overcomes the climactic work of expressionism is revealing, especially given that she encourages Hesse to include Metronomic Irregularity II (1966) in the exhibition. The wall-based sculpture is split into three panels, which are connected through a series of wavy, overlapping cords, like abstract strokes of paint rendered in three dimensions, uncontained by the picture plane. Not products of a climactic, expressionist gesture, these undulating cords are carefully placed and arranged in sensuous forms.

Interestingly, Hesse also acknowledges her own interest in the eroticism of her work. In 1967, a year after Eccentric Abstraction, she participates in a panel discussion on the “Erotic Symbolist” at the School of Visual Arts, with fellow exhibitors Bourgeois and Lindsey Decker, along with Paul Thek and James Wines. She already acknowledges the bodily associations of her work in a 1965 letter to Sol LeWitt after making Ringaround Arosie, writing that “The 3d. one now actually looks like breast and penis—but that’s O.K. and I should go on with it.”65

Hesse continues to make forms that play with gender difference by using repetition as a means to confuse the singularity or coupling of phallic and breast forms. Just as Lippard picks up on Wilke’s “androgynous” sculpture, so too is she interested in Hesse’s ambiguous sculptural forms; she also included Hesse’s Several (1965) in Eccentric Abstraction

Middleman argues that Lippard’s interest in the abstract erotic in “Eros Presumptive” and Eccentric Abstraction foreshadows her later definition of a “female sensibility” after her feminist politicization in the early 1970s. Middleman writes: “Eccentric abstraction... moved beyond specific sexual subject matter that implied particular subject positions for viewers and instead offered a more inclusive alternative. Paradoxically, this universalizing aesthetic of abstraction exposed the specificity of a long tradition of male-centered erotic art.”66

Wilke’s works have been read as equivalents for female genitalia, and in some ways as a further explication of her own sexuality. However, the potential of abstract eroticism opens up a different way for thinking of Wilke’s work as open and contingent. Middleman notes the potential for such a reading in the “unfinished” quality of Wilke’s sculpture, particularly the early works, which exists “in a material state of becoming.”67 Quoting Getsy, Middleman writes that abstract sculpture in the 1960s allows for “less determined and more open ways of accounting for bodies and persons,” that go beyond the gender binary.68

Despite these early experiments in abstract eroticism, Wilke’s later work, and particularly her use of her own body and her personal life in her art, takes her eroticism in a different direction, and marks a departure from Hesse’s work.

4 Text / Image Right

Hannah Wilke
Untitled, 1977
Unglazed ceramic (three gestural fold sculptures)
2 1/2 × 6 3/8 × 3 5/8; 2 1/8 × 4 1/8 × 2 3/4; 2 3/8 × 4 7/8 × 3 1/8 inches; (6.5 × 16.3 × 9.2; 5.5 × 10.5 × 7; 6 × 12.5 × 8 cm)
Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.
Image courtesy Alison Jacques, London.
Photo: Michael Brzezinski.

In 1975 Wilke performs her S.O.S. at the opening to 5 Américaines à Paris, at Galerie Gerald Piltzer, Paris, asking guests to chew gum which she makes into sculpture and affixes to paper that she hangs on the wall. While in the city she also makes the video Hello Boys, in which she performs nude behind a fish tank. She had apparently performed this action earlier, while living in California with Oldenburg in 1970, behind another fish tank, because she notes in her interview with Linda Montano that the effect of the “snails which seem to mark my face like scarification wounds” led her to make the S.O.S. series (though snails do not appear in the video).69 In the Hello Boys video Wilke is seemingly trapped in the tank, performing a seduction, sometimes addressing the fish and sometimes the camera. The layering of screens anticipates Wilke’s video Hannah Wilke Through the Large Glass, made the year after in 1976. 

Later in 1975 Wilke makes another important work that stages her relationships—her sexuality implied in the title— albeit in a more personal mode. Intercourse with... was made for the Lives exhibition at the Fine Arts Building, New York. The work consists of an audiotape lasting for 120 minutes of telephone messages left for Wilke between 1973 and 1975, as well as a book documenting the calls. The listings include Wilke’s mother, sister, niece, art-world friends, and also a number of lovers and partners. Another performance also titled Intercourse with... is videotaped in February 1977 at the London Art Gallery, London, Ontario, Canada, a live performance in which Wilke reacts to messages from the earlier audiotape, and eventually strips to reveal the names and initials of some of the callers on her body. As the performance continues, she removes the initials and names. 

6 Large Image

Hannah Wilke
Intercourse with..., 1977
Stills from video of the performance at London Art Gallery Museum and Library, London, Ontario
Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.
Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix, New York

Even if Wilke makes intimate relationships the subject of works like Advertisements for Living (1966–84), an installation of nine cibachrome diptychs, or Intercourse with..., these are less erotic artworks, or examples of a “female sensibility,” than ambitious feminist meditations on relationship, gender, sexuality, and artmaking. Although Wilke receives criticism for the photographic and performance works from some feminists, she does find others who also explore similar themes and face similar challenges. In 1973 Wilke had joined The Fight Censorship Group founded by the artist Anita Steckel, with Judith Bernstein, Martha Edelheit, Joan Semmel, and Louise Bourgeois, who had in 1967 also spoken publicly with Hesse on the subject of erotic symbolism. The feminist art historian, Arlene Raven, was a great supporter, sending Wilke a note of approval upon receiving Marxism & Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism (1977), Wilke’s entry for the exhibition What is Feminist Art?

[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.

60
Lucy R. Lippard, “Eros Presumptive,” The Hudson Review 20, No. 1 (Spring 1967), p. 91.

61
Ibid, p. 96.

62
Lippard, “Eros Presumptive,” 91.

63
Ibid.

64
Ibid., p. 96.

65
Cooper, p. 33.

66
Middleman, p. 131.

67
Ibid., p. 126.

68
Ibid. See Getsy, Abstract Bodies.

69
Montano, p. 139.