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From her time at Yale, Hesse notices her difference from the other—mostly male—students and asks questions of the seeming conflict of being a woman and an artist: “Am I a woman? Are my needs for developing artistically and intellectually incompatible? Am I incapable of satisfying a man’s need of supremacy? Must I take an actor’s prompting from a director? Is my role to be there when a man wants me?”39 But what we might call Hesse’s feminism reveals itself first, and most vividly, in her frustrations over her marriage to the sculptor Tom Doyle. In a diary entry from January 1964, Hesse writes, “I cannot be so many things... Woman, beautiful, artist, wife, housekeeper, cook, saleslady, all these things. I cannot even be myself, nor know what I am, I must find something clear, stable and peaceful within myself.”40 In this, Hesse echoes Betty Friedan’s analysis of the apparently unexplained malaise of North America’s middle- and upper-class housewives in The Feminine Mystique, published the year before in 1963.41 Indeed, Hesse is told about Friedan’s book in a letter from her friend Ethelyn Honig while she is in Germany. Although not Friedan’s typical case study, Hesse’s litany of conflicting roles and her realization that she “cannot even be myself,” is a recognition of women’s domestic oppression. As Friedan famously commented, “The feminine mystique has succeeded in burying millions of American women alive.”42

Hesse and Doyle marry in November 1961; they live and work in close quarters in New York until 1964 when they go to Kettwig an der Ruhr. While in Kettwig, Hesse reads Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.43 In the text, she recognizes the gendered geometry of her oppression and also sees the potential for change. In her diary she writes:

I really need to take a firm, strong step in my work. I do feel a need to say something in my way. [Quoting de Beauvoir]: “In boldly setting out towards ends, one risks disappointments; but one also obtains unhoped for results; caution condemns to mediocrity. What woman essentially lacks today for doing great things is forgetfulness of herself; but to forget oneself it is first of all necessary to be firmly assured that now and for the future one has found oneself.”44 

2 Text / Image

Eva Hesse at work in her studio in Kettwig an der Ruhr, Germany,
c. 1964–65. Image courtesy The Estate of Eva Hesse.
Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

For both Friedan and de Beauvoir, women’s oppression lies in the diminution of their lives to marriage, domesticity, and patriarchy. In different ways they both argue that freedom resides in creativity, or in other words, in the imagination to think beyond the actually existing conditions of personal and public life. The personal realms of family, love, health, and friendship impact Hesse in profound ways throughout her life, but she meets these struggles with tenacity, the “need,” as she says, “to take a firm, strong step.” Not coincidentally, it is during her time in Kettwig that Hesse begins experimenting with work in three dimensions. Although she asks herself, “Is it right for a girl to be a sculpture?” apparently swapping sculpture for sculptor—object for maker—in a telling instance of catachresis, Hesse makes a breakthrough in the final months of the residency.45 Over this period she makes fourteen relief works and exhibits them in her first one artist exhibition.

While de Beauvoir’s feminist writing impacts Hesse’s life, she is never actively involved in political work. Her early death in 1970 means that she does not participate in even the early activities of the women’s art movement in New York, and there is no evidence that she describes herself as a feminist. Her close friend, the art critic Lucy R. Lippard, will only do so in late 1970, despite the stirrings of feminist activism in the late 1960s. Nonetheless, exhibitions of Hesse’s work, as well as the interviews and texts published posthumously bring her work to feminist audiences through the decade of women’s liberation and subsequently. It may be difficult to claim Hesse as an artist influenced by feminism, but her work has certainly been read through feminist thought and politics. Indeed, it is because Hesse is not involved in the women’s art movement that her work is productively read through feminist art history. As Anne M. Wagner argues, “To claim that Hesse’s work looks the way it does because she was female is to claim very little... It is... to resist reinscribing both Hesse and her viewers within an ideology of the female that it has been feminism’s main purpose to contest.”46 Wagner argues that Hesse’s art obscures gender difference through the ambiguity of its forms: “it envisions,” she writes, “viewers… who are human before and after they are male and female, embodied and sensate in ways more profoundly similar than different. Like Hesse’s objects,” she continues, “their similitude means that they can admit to difference, without that difference operating in ultimately disruptive ways.”47 The ambition of Hesse’s work that Wagner describes may be difficult to read as a feminist gesture, but feminist art history allows us to read it as lofty nonetheless, at a moment when the idea of the woman artist is almost an impossibility.

Wilke’s politics are seemingly easier to trace than Hesse’s. Her work across media explores gendered embodiment, sexuality, and the politics of representation; she participates in the women’s art movement extensively through publishing, seminars, and exhibitions, the first of which is the American Women Artist Show at the Kunsthaus in Hamburg in 1972, co-organized by her friend, the artist Lil Picard. She is also included in the Whitney Biennial with Louise Bourgeois in 1973 and in the important exhibition, Women Choose Women, at the New York Cultural Center in 1973, and numerous other exhibitions of feminist art throughout her life.

Nonetheless, Wilke’s relationship to feminism and to some feminists is ambiguous. The reception of her work in feminist art criticism and art history is varied and reveals many of the shifts and turns of feminist politics, from the essentialist to visual politics and deconstruction.

In 1974 the critic Barbara Rose discusses Wilke’s work in an article titled “Vaginal Iconology,” after encountering the artist’s sculptures in her first solo presentation at Ronald Feldman Gallery.48 Rose situates Wilke’s work in relation to other women artists who are newly politicized and showing their work in New York. Rose’s essay, like Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s essay on “central core” imagery, seeks to describe a new kind of art made by women, that breaks the status quo.49 For Chicago and Schapiro, the “central core” is a re-arrangement of the organization of the artwork—a vacant center from which energy radiates out—that produces a different phenomenological response. They find “central core” imagery in new work by women artists, potentially influenced by an emerging feminism, as well as retrospectively. For instance, they include Hesse’s work as an illustration to the published essay.

Wilke disputes Rose’s reading of her work, publishing a response to her in Art-Rite and naming a sculpture after the critic.50

As Rachel Middleman points out, Rose’s identification of Wilke’s work under the rubric of “vaginal iconology” is something of a misreading, both in the sense that Wilke’s sculpture is more vulvic than vaginal, and because Rose locates this iconography as new and a product of women’s liberation.51 However, Wilke has been making these forms since the early 1960s and has already exhibited them a number of times before 1970. Wilke’s vulvic sculptures are not a product of what becomes known as “cunt art,” enabled by the context of women’s liberation and the increasing attention to women’s bodies and sexualities, but a forerunner of it. Although they find an audience and a critical vocabulary in feminist writing, there is something more idiosyncratic in Wilke’s work, which Middleman and the art historian David Getsy both locate in an earlier moment in the 1960s.52

If Wilke’s sculpture is easily assimilable to contemporary feminism, her performances and her photography are less so. When she begins to exhibit works such as Super-t-Art (1974) and S.O.S. Starification Series (1974–75) in 1975, Wilke is met with ambivalence that, as Griselda Pollock writes, makes her “notorious.”53 The most infamous critical response comes from Lippard, Hesse’s staunch supporter. In her 1976 essay on women’s body art, Lippard asks of Wilke’s staging of her body, whether she can have it both ways, be “beautiful woman and artist... flirt and feminist.”54 Lippard’s anxiety in her questioning of Wilke’s art repeats a query raised of many women artists’ work: whether it could avoid capitulation to patriarchal conceits of woman-as-body. Wilke plays with the supposed binary between agent and object in her artmaking, and in doing so exposes the sexual economy of the art world as the advertisement for her 1972 Feldman exhibition, in which she stands drawing, wearing semi-sheer pantyhose, demonstrates. The caption of the image, an early performalist self-portrait, lists its photographer as C. Oldenburg, confidently broadcasting Wilke’s relationship with Oldenburg, the more famous artist, when it is published in Avalanche.55

4 Large Image a

Hannah Wilke
The Artist in Her Studio, Chateau Marmont, Los Angeles, August 1970
Black and white photograph used in photowork and advertisement
Performalist Self-Portrait with Claes Oldenburg
Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles

4 Large Image b

Hannah Wilke
Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism, 1977
Silkscreen on plexiglass
35 7/16 × 27 3/8 inches (90 × 69.5 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York; General Print Fund, Riva Castleman Endowment Fund, Harvey S. Shipley Miller Fund, The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art, and partial gift of Marsie, Emanuelle, Damon, and Andrew Scharlatt, Hannah Wilke Collection and Archive, Los Angeles.

The critical response to her body art angers Wilke and she responds to her critics again. In 1976, when invited to contribute to the feminist open exhibition, “What is Feminist Art?,” organized by art historians Arlene Raven, Ruth Iskin, and Lippard, Wilke sends an S.O.S. image of herself on a poster with bold typeface reading, “Marxism and Art, Beware of Fascist Feminism.”

In 1980 she writes:

I hope that women will not sacrifice their biological superiority to doctrinaire collectivism, or their intellectual equality in an artistic arena dominated by male ideology. In the narrow politics of feminism, art is only a weapon, which may endanger women’s art that is formally and humanly relevant but does not adhere to a specific political or commercial concept.56

Despite her own reservations about organized feminist politics, Wilke’s work makes a direct feminist intervention in the gendered biases of both the contemporary art world and the history of art. Take Super t-Art—originally a performance at the Kitchen commissioned for Jean Dupuy’s marathon Soup & Tart in November 1974 which included Carolee Schneemann, Charles Atlas, Joan Jonas, Gordon Matta-Clark, Laurie Anderson, Nam June Paik, Philip Glass, Richard Serra, Shugeto Kuboto, Yvonne Rainer, and others. Later presented by Wilke as a grid of twenty black and white photographs, the work comprises a series of poses through which Wilke transforms herself with a white sheet as her costume, from Mary Magdalene to Jesus Christ.

6 Large Image

Hannah Wilke
Super-t-Art, 1974
Twenty black and white photographs from a three-minute
performance at The Kitchen, New York, November 1974
40 1/2 × 32 1/2 inches overall; each: 6 1/2 × 4 1/2 inches
(16.5 × 11.4 cm)
Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.
Courtesy Alison Jacques, London.

Moving from reformed prostitute to Christian savior, Wilke performs a playfully blasphemous feat that asserts a continuity between Magdalene and Christ. Wilke’s transformation is staged through the iconographies of classical sculpture and the Crucifixion. In the performance, Wilke’s small pedestal does double-service as a plinth, which appears again in the photographs where Wilke’s gestures are now frozen in a series of static poses. Super-t-Art parallels feminist re-readings of both the Bible and its women characters, as well as their art historical representations. And yet, Wilke also comes to see this work as another response to her own feminist critiques. In 1989 she writes, “I looked too young for the artworld in the 1960s; I didn’t fit in. I looked very glamorous and pretty, and the social irritant of it made me create for my first piece Hannah Wilke Super-t-Art, which was a female crucifixion. ‘Cause I was being, I probably didn’t realize it, being crucified for my looks.’”57

If Wilke’s confrontations with art critics parallel those of other women artists of the same moment, then her responses to them also reflect the antagonistic qualities of feminist politics and the women’s art movement, which were collectively wrought, but also open and undefined. Since the 1970s, Wilke’s work has been the subject of much feminist thought and analysis, including perceptive rereadings of her performance work as an exploration of the culturally constructed category “woman.”58 Her work has also prompted reevaluations of earlier positions, and new attention to her sculptural output has brought with it new connections between feminist politics and eroticism.59

[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.

Wagner, pp. 220–221.

Hesse, quoted in Cooper, p. 27.

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (London: Penguin, 2010).

Ibid., p. 237.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (London: Vintage, 1997).

Hesse, “Thursday Nov. 19” & “22 Nov.,” Diaries, pp. 409 & 411.

Wagner, p. 251. See footnote 101, p. 321. 46 Ibid., p. 276.

Ibid., p. 281.

Barbara Rose, “Vaginal Iconology,” New York Magazine (February 11, 1974), p. 59.

Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, “Female Imagery,” Womanspace, no.1 (June 1973): pp. 11–14.

Hannah Wilke in “Un-Skirting the Issue,” Art-Rite, Rheumatism Issue, no. 5 (Spring 1974).

Rachel Middleman, Radical Eroticism: Women, Art and Sex in the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), pp. 117–146.

David J. Getsy, Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture and the Expanded Field of Gender (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2015).

Griselda Pollock, “Hannah Wilke: Elective Affinities,” Art Monthly (September 10, 2010), p. 34.

Lucy R. Lippard, “The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth: Women’s Body Art,” From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art, ed. Lucy R. Lippard (New York: EP Dutton, 1976), p. 126 [Art in America, 64, no.3 (May/ June 1976): pp. 73–81].

See Avalanche, no. 5, (Summer 1972).

Princethal, p. 64. [Originally “Why Have There Been no Great Men Artists,” Art News (October 1977): 77].

Princenthal, p. 64. [Originally to Bonnie Finberg, Cover, September 1989: p. 16].

Amelia Jones, Body Art/ Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), pp. 151–196.

Pollock, “Elective Affinities,” 34. See Middleman, Radical Eroticism.