In 1977, the artist Hannah Wilke acknowledged the ongoing importance of sculpture to her practice. “Since 1960,” Wilke wrote, “I have been concerned with the creation of a formal imagery that is specifically female, a new language that fuses mind and body into erotic objects that are namable and at the same time quite abstract.”1 Between 1960 and 1963, Wilke made a series of small folds of terracotta [FIG. 2]. They look like kneaded lumps of dough, pummeled and pressed into bodily shapes which Wilke dubbed “vaginal.” In her 1967 essay “Eros Presumptive,” the feminist critic and curator Lucy R. Lippard paired an image of one of Wilke’s terracotta works with Alberto Giacometti’s Disagreeable Object from 1931, although it was a visual comparison Wilke did not care for [FIG. 3]. Her works were not, she said, “disagreeable,” but “agreeable” erotic objects; sensual registers of the female body which Wilke described as gifts to be exchanged between friends in a feminist gesture of love. This was in contrast to Giacometti’s “disagreeable object,” which Wilke memorably dismissed as “a very big prick with pointed spikes.”2
Wilke returned to the motif of the abstract-erotic sculptural form many times during the 1960s and 1970s, sourcing soft-to-hard materials that ranged from terracotta and rubber erasers to rainbow stripes of chewed-up gum and sheets of latex. One well-known series of photographs from 1974 titled S.O.S. Starification Object Series depicts Wilke’s body covered with the small chewing gum sculptures that proliferate across her naked torso as the artist adopts provocative pin-up poses for the camera [FIG. 4]. The S.O.S. Series, one of Wilke’s groups of performalist self-portraits, was a staged ideal of beauty marred by the intrusion of the pre-chewed vulvic forms that stud her body.3 Wilke also glued smaller versions to vintage postcards for the Needed-Erase-Her series, in which she wittily disrupted landscape and historical sites such as the Lincoln Memorial, with tiny vulvas formed from softened eraser to resemble intimate, miniature monuments of their own [see PLATES 20–23].4 By the early 1970s, Wilke’s sculptural forms had grown in scale and complexity, as she turned toward working with large latex sheets, bunched together into a plastic pastiche of flowers. The earliest were vertical wall works, including one she titled Agreeable Object [FIG. 5]. In later works, the latex leaves were held together by a series of metal snaps and butterflied into fleshy, labial folds [see FIG. 6 and PLATES 18, 19]. These latex pieces frill and fan out along a horizontal axis running over two meters in length along the wall, while others, such as Ponder-r-rosa 4, White Plains, Yellow Rocks, feature a cluster of flapping floral protrusions that punctuate the gallery walls in rounded blooms [FIG. 7].
Wilke’s description of her early erotic objects as both abstract and “namable” reads as a pretty accurate description of a number of other three-dimensional works made in the early years of the 1960s by other artists, including Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, and Yayoi Kusama. Each was then working independently to establish a formal vocabulary that oscillated between the namable, the abstract, the eccentric, and the erotic and, like Wilke, also sought to fuse “mind and body into erotic objects.” And yet, Wilke’s work is often excluded from the pool of artists typically discussed in relation to the advent of the eccentric, abstract object. Instead her work from this period is often framed as on the way to her explicitly “feminist” works, and the chewing gum pieces are seen as props to her performative photographic pieces such as the S.O.S. Series.
In this essay I focus on the emergence of Wilke’s sculptural practice in the 1960s, to situate it more firmly within its contemporary milieu. Others have noted the role of parody and humor in Wilke’s “self-performalist” works, in particular her love of witty word play and Duchampian double-entendre in her later conceptual and photographic works. I want to suggest that there is also something flat-out funny about Wilke’s sculptural work, an attitude shared with a number of works made by Hesse, Bourgeois, and others, although it is an aspect of their work that tends to get overlooked—too awkward, a bit embarrassing to an artworld for whom “funny” is often a dirty word.5 While Bourgeois was included in Marcia Tucker’s important New Museum exhibition Bad Girls in 1994, which focused on explicitly political, and often humorous feminist practices, neither Hesse nor Wilke were included. Both were abstract artists committed to a serious engagement with formal abstraction even as their work and materials veered toward a playful rendering of the abstract-erotic form in all its impudent, brazen forms. And, although Tucker noted how “funny, really funny” a lot of the work produced by artists aligned with the women’s movement in the 1970s was, my focus is on what happens when abstraction and funny met head-on at an earlier moment in the 1960s.6 I want to insist on the importance of humor when considering Wilke’s early abstract objects: the humor and even embarrassment produced by these “abstract yet unnamable” erotic, folded, flapping objects. This is not to detract from the seriousness of Wilke’s endeavors. Rather it is to emphasize the powerful means by which she marshalled humor and abstraction to deadly serious ends, formally and politically, as a feminist artist. As Wilke explained, “humor is much more difficult to attain than humorlessness.”7
According to Freud, “Humor is not resigned; it is rebellious.”8 Laughter occurs when there is an excess of energy—when psychic energy is diverted from its proper task of repressing precisely those emotions that end up being expressed in the moment the subject laughs (such emotions relate, Freud said, to sexual desire or hostility). Freud’s account has been discredited by subsequent theorists; certainly the levels of sophistication employed by today’s stand-up comics reveals a far more complex set of psychic operations at work in terms of what makes people laugh than Freud could have envisaged in 1927. However, there is something about the notion of laughter as a form of excess I want to hold onto here, and which I think gets to the heart of Wilke’s own sculptural excesses, both at a material and a conceptual level.
In an often-reproduced photograph of Wilke’s ceramic sculptures, the objects have been placed on a pristine white surface, arranged in two neat lines. They measure just five inches at their largest, and about an inch at their smallest. Wilke later described them as “layered vaginal forms in browns and terracotta,”9 as if these odd, boxy objects were somehow straightforward representations of female genitalia, although in fact they look more like archaeological finds of hardened matter than they do intimate renderings of the female form. These unglazed and roughly hewn sculptures resist clear-cut categorization, despite Wilke’s later insistence that they were “specifically female” in form, although notably, the caption identifies them as “phallic” and “excremental sculptures.” Squat, fluted, petal-like, and protuberant, they look only half-formed at points, as though the still-soft matter has been pinched into place only momentarily; teased and pressed, they are folded and forged into shapes both convex and concave, revelatory and closed.10 Wilke’s earliest ceramic sculptures pulse with what Freud dubbed “polymorphous perversity,” as a void becomes a vagina, becomes a mouth, becomes a penis, becomes an anus, becomes an ear. However, in the end, abstraction wins out. And, while they may invoke the body, and its excretions and excesses, these small sculptures also ape the minimalist sculptural logic of the time, even as they defy its neat geometric order at every bodily, tumescent, and absurdly soft-edged turn.
The phrase “abstract erotic” emerged as a shorthand for the loose assortment of sculptural forms that emerged on the New York art scene in the early to mid-1960s. A number of these works were brought together by Lippard in Eccentric Abstraction, the exhibition she curated at the Fischbach Gallery, New York in the autumn of 1966. Lippard included sculptures by Hesse, Bourgeois, Alice Adams, Bruce Nauman, Frank Lincoln Viner, Keith Sonnier, and Don Potts.11 Although Wilke’s ceramic “vulvic” forms were not included in Eccentric Abstraction, she was included in two other group shows that took place in New York that same year. The first was titled 3-D at Castagno Gallery, and the second, Hetero Is, at the non-profit space NYCATA, which opened on December 4, 1966, just a few weeks after Eccentric Abstraction closed.12
In spring 1967, Lippard’s article “Eros Presumptive” was published in The Hudson Review. The essay offered a critical round-up of the current crop of “erotic art” exhibitions that had opened across New York since the fall of 1966. Lippard reviewed Hetero Is alongside Erotic Art ’66, a Pop-inflected show of contemporary figurative erotica held at the Sidney Janis Gallery that October. Lippard dismissed them both as “entirely unsatisfying (on every level).”13 Lippard proposed Eccentric Abstraction as a counter-example for its inclusion of works “in which sensuous and broadly erotic qualities were far more conspicuous than in the unprurient peep-show up the street at Janis.”14 The promise of sexually explicit content by the exhibitions Erotic Art ’66 and Hetero Is had led contemporary critics to approach the “erotic art” season with what Lippard described as “lip-licking anticipation.”15 “Rumors have been rife,” she wrote, “of wickedness stored up in the studios waiting for the Trend to break.”16 For Lippard there was no such discernible trend, and she wasn’t impressed at all by those exhibitions that elected to prioritize the sexually explicit over the more subtle gradations of eroticism her own show championed.
Wilke’s work in Hetero Is was a thirteen-inch long “agreeable object” (this was the work reproduced in “Eros Presumptive” alongside Giacometti). The wall-mounted, rectangular slab of clay was split from the bottom up, its lower corners rejoined to produce a central slit that bags out slightly from the wall. A rolled, phallic (or is it clitoral?) object protrudes rudely from the frame. Despite its phallic form, Wilke’s work was one of the most abstract pieces included in Hetero Is, with other works in the show tending toward the explicitly sexual and determinedly heterosexual in orientation. As such, Wilke’s work is something of a surprise among the sea of readily recognizable nudes, genitals, and body parts [FIG. 8].
Lippard noted the “double-edged experience” Wilke offered, which refused to offer “momentary excitement” in favor of the “neutralization” of “opposing characteristics.”17 Despite its being surrounded by a plethora of buttocks and breasts, naked legs, and reclining female nudes, Wilke’s sculpture was, as Lippard wrote, more “androgynous” than overtly phallic, although it seems in the end Wilke did not make Lippard’s final cut of abstract-erotic art: when “Eros Presumptive” was reprinted a year later in Gregory Battcock’s important anthology of writing Minimal Art, Lippard removed her earlier reference to Wilke’s work from the essay, much to Wilke’s chagrin.18
For other critics, Wilke’s work stood out for different reasons. Joyce Greller, writing in The East Village Other, likened Wilke’s “huge startling sculpture” to “a portion of the male mounted on a wall plaque.”19 Greller went on to note that the work by women artists included in Hetero Is was “far more honest and unneurotic” than that of their male counterparts.20 In her writing on erotic art of the 1960s, Rachel Middleman argued persuasively how ahead of her times Wilke was—more than many contemporary critics recognized at the time.21 She described Wilke’s terracotta sculptures as foreshadowing the later feminist movement’s turn toward so-called “core” or “vaginal imagery” in the early years of the 1970s—all those flowers, petals, and circles championed by figures such as Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. In fact, since 1963 Wilke had been adding pink color to her sculptures, as if to insist upon their proximity to her own white, fleshy body as well as the color pink’s designation as a specifically female color [see PLATE 11]. The critic Lil Picard noted the preponderance of pinks in Wilke’s paintings and sculpture, listing “Clear rosy pink, pale pink, beige pink, yellowish and whiteish pink” as the artist’s preferred shades.22
Briony Fer has suggested that Hesse’s introduction of industrially produced colors such as hot pink to her work in the mid-sixties produced a “parody of femininity,” as well as advancing the notion that color as well as form can be “funny.”23 I want to claim something of this irreverence and humor for Wilke’s gestural, folded, clay and gum sculptures, too. Abstract, erotic, eccentric certainly. But I want to insist, too, on the funniness of Wilke’s gestural, folded sculpture; their negotiation, rather than mere “neutralization” of “opposing characteristics.” Not least because, as contemporary feminist theorists writing at the time argued, the subversive sound of the woman who laughs serves as a powerful and politically disruptive act—erotic, but with a power and charge fuelled not by an orgasmic gasp, but a burst of knowing laughter (Bourgeois knew this and exploited this in the many photographs of the artist posing alongside her works). Wilke’s Teasel Cushion (1967) is a case in point [FIG. 9]. A pastel pink vulvic form (Wilke readily referred to her forms as “cunts”) nestles against a thick bush, a ludicrous, lush abstract-erotic rendering of a vulva named not for soft flesh but a dry, spiky plant (as well, of course, as being a pun on the word “tease”). We see it too in other works by Wilke that, while serious interventions and the product of a critical practice, invite, or dare us, even, to recoil, but also to laugh.
Lippard also addressed the ways in which humor inadvertently erupts when viewing explicitly sexual or erotic works of art, noting how a “sophisticated or jaded audience is likely to find all erotic realism humorous rather than arousing.”24 It was a point Lippard had made the previous year in the essay accompanying Eccentric Abstraction, writing that a particular strand of humor underscored the work of Hesse, Bourgeois, Adams, and others. She suggested that the humor was produced by the introduction of “unexpected surfaces” and use of “synthetics,” such as Hesse and Wilke’s introduction of the color pink.25 It relied on the keen sense of “incongruity on which all humor is founded,” which Lippard argued, was “a prime factor in eccentric abstraction.”26 However, as Lippard cautioned, this model of incongruous wit was dangerous territory for advanced art. By introducing “humor”—laughter—into the “structural idiom” of contemporary abstract sculpture, the work of art threatened to veer into unfamiliar, and potentially non-serious ground, “where angels feared to tread.”27
In her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” published in English in 1976 at the height of Wilke’s success (she had two solo shows of her ceramic and gum sculptures and recent photographs that year), the feminist theorist Hélène Cixous argued that a woman who writes must strive to provoke discomfort through the act of writing, in order to “break up” existing rules. A radical feminist call to arms, Cixous called upon women to create, to disrupt and introduce the body back into the work: “Write yourself. Your body must be heard.”28
To do so, for Cixous, is a powerful, necessary and, in Wilke’s words, “specifically female” gesture. Wilke’s work offers a material articulation of Cixous’s call for the body to erupt in women’s creative work. And, while Cixous was writing about writing, Wilke also wrote with and through her body, and its soft, hand-molded representation in clay, latex, and gum. I’m reminded of Cixous’s description of writing as a kind of “insurrectionary dough kneading itself.”29 Beware the woman who creates, Cixous warned. For that woman who catches you off-guard? “She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”30 In his book Cracking Up, the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas interrogates the role of jokes and laughter in relation to the unconscious, drawing on Freud’s earlier essay on the same topic. For Bollas, humor “takes pleasure in the contradictory movements of two objects,” whether they be two people, or a subject and an object, or two objects. Bollas’s object-world here echoes Lippard’s description of the dynamic ways in which viewers encounter the “eccentrically abstract” work of art as well as the polymorphously perverse appearance of any number of Wilke’s early sculptures.31
I’m reminded of the contemporary abstract painter Amy Sillman’s account of having attended a series of improv comedy classes aimed at aspiring stand-up comedians. She saw a connection with her own mode of making (“I just work by the seat of my pants”) and the improvised strategies employed in the workshops.32 To get to the funny, Sillman points out, you have to get through the difficult part—the awkward pauses, the tries that fail, the bits that don’t work. “I like the parts that are uncomfortable,” Sillman said.33 Wilke’s small, chewed up, spat out, agreeable objects can make us uncomfortable; they may also make us laugh. To laugh—to crack up—means to open oneself to other ways of looking, and seeing, and being in the world. It’s a way of being in the world that, for Wilke, was “specifically female,” however uncomfortable that position ultimately proved to be. “It’s hard to make a joke” Wilke pointed out, because jokes are “the most serious things in the world.”34 For Bollas, having a sense of humor “is essential to human survival.”35 It is “the comic, the joker, the wit” (and I would add, the artist), whose work sets out to “remind their listeners of another world,” albeit with “varying degrees of effectiveness.”36
From the namable to the abstract-erotic, there is something insurrectionary to Wilke’s early work that is both beyond and contained by language. It addresses us directly in a challenge to face the uncomfortable—and, for her, the “specifically female”—in her works that was a radical, proto-feminist gesture. Wilke described her agreeable objects as “gifts,” unexpected offerings made with love—but, like a teasel, they are gifts spiked with that sharp reminder of another world inhabited by the “comic, the joker, the wit,” and maybe even the proverbial female “tease,” which continue to catch us off-guard, now as then.
I write this almost fifty years from the day I met Hannah Wilke. Feigen Downtown gallery on 141 Greene Street in SoHo opened in October 1968 with works by John Baldessari, Carol Brown, David Milne, and Ralph Pomeroy. New York Magazine reported that I managed it “without uptown interference.” But I was also busy at my desk at East 81st Street as I was helping to plan inaugural exhibitions for Feigen’s gleaming new Hans Hollein-designed emporium, directly opposite from Acquavella Galleries on 79th Street.
In the fall of 1969, I visited Claes Oldenburg at his studio on Broome Street to see his Fireplug Souvenir, Chicago, a red-painted plaster multiple commissioned by Feigen uptown. He introduced me to a gamine brunette whom I took to be his assistant and/or girlfriend. Hannah and I did no more than say hello and shake hands but shortly afterwards she visited me at Feigen Downtown and introduced herself as an artist. I made the usual noise about one day visiting her studio.
Artists predominated among the visitors that trickled into the five galleries that were in SoHo in 1969. Alice Neel often parked herself in the folding chair next to my rickety desk just inside the loading platform (I was asked by one collector if she was a bag lady) and established artists like Andy Warhol and Marisol were frequent visitors. I ran a bare-bones operation—ample space made up for a lack of elegance. I painted the brick walls and pillars white but left the rest much as it had been in manufacturing days, an uneven plank floor and noisy radiators.
On a subsequent visit, Hannah persuaded me to come and see her work. Her studio turned out to be a corner of Oldenburg’s and some subterfuge was involved since she wanted to make sure he would be out. This added a frisson of drama and besides, it was unusual for me to visit an artist without having any idea about what they made. I confess that I was beguiled by Hannah’s appearance and personality. She was simultaneously earnest and coy. As I grew to know her and her work, I was fascinated by the degree to which she could expose herself (in every sense of the word) yet maintain a firm boundary, an invisible frame.
Jo Applin’s essay in this catalogue discusses the humor in Wilke’s work, rightly so. My first reaction to the extraordinary terracotta objects she so delicately called her “cunts” was loud laughter. Thankfully, Hannah joined in and considered my response positive and appropriate. I would like to say we launched into a profound discussion about their meaning but to me they were simply both shocking and beautiful and I told her right away I wanted to show them. Pleased, Hannah smiled and said: “Claes will be jealous.”
I was planning an exhibition of ten painters for the spring of 1971 which was to be the last at Feigen Downtown since in the fall I was to take over the space as my own, less well-funded operation. I changed the title to Ten Painters and One Sculptor and gave the floor to Hannah. The paintings were all recent, one apiece by artists associated with the gallery like Richard Smith and Stephen Mueller and others such as David Shapiro and Pamela Jenrette whose studios I had been visiting. I put Hannah’s clay sculptures on individual white bases with plexiglass covers. They were very similar to Untitled, circa mid- 1960s [PLATE 11]. When I had the recent privilege of visiting the Hannah Wilke Collection and Archive, Los Angeles, with Hannah’s sister Marsie Scharlatt and nephew Andrew Scharlatt, I was surprised and moved to see installation photographs of this exhibition taken by Hannah which, if I had ever seen, I had long forgotten. They revealed that I had also included one latex wall work in a clear plastic Ziplock bag (Pull Strip to Open, c. 1971), a harbinger of the magnificent 1974 Ponder-r-rosa 1 [PLATE 18] in this exhibition.
By now, SoHo was getting traffic from uptown and the boroughs and Ten Painters and One Sculptor proved to be popular. On Wednesdays, we would have one or two busloads of intrepid pre-matinée ladies. I watched as they eagerly crowded around to peer into Hannah’s vitrines. Silently counting to myself, I would rarely pass “five” before heads jerked back in alarmed recognition, faces turned red or pale and their attention swiftly turned to the paintings on the walls.
Sadly no critical appreciation accompanied Hannah’s SoHo debut except for a perceptive description of her work by Ron Lusker in Craft Horizons: “...organic sensuousness demonstrated by juxtaposing suggestive form with textural opposites.” My last exhibition at Feigen uptown opened just as this one closed, a grab bag called Americans in which I gave Hannah’s work unmissable pride of place at the top of Hollein’s wide marble staircase, an epistle from SoHo to the Upper East Side and my attempt to épater la bourgeoisie.
As Hannah demonstrated so well, she and her work were one—visually compelling, provocative, uncategorizable, deeply moving, and laugh-out-loud funny. Being involved with this exhibition has vividly brought her back to me.
[BANNER] Michael Findlay at Feigen Downtown in 1971, photo by Hannah Wilke Image: Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles
Hannah Wilke, “Intercourse with…”, text used in videotape performance and lecture at the London Art Gallery, Ontario, Canada, February 17, 1977; originally written for Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant, 1976. Reprinted in Hannah Wilke: A Retrospective, ed. Thomas H. Kochheiser, essay by Joanna Frueh (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989), p. 139.
Lil Picard, “Hannah Wilke: Sexy Objects,” Interview, no. 29, January 3, n.p.
See Nancy Princenthal, Hannah Wilke (New York: Prestel, 2010), pp. 80–81.
Lauren Rosenblum compares these with Wilke’s series of landscape works in which she placed, then photographed, her sculptures in natural sites. See “Before Her Landscape: A Backdrop for Hannah Wilke’s California Series” in Hannah Wilke: Sculpture in the Landscape (Philadelphia: Tyler School of Art, Temple University, 2019), pp. 16–21.
On the role of parody and wordplay in Wilke’s work see Debra Wacks, Subversive Humor: The Performance of Hannah Wilke, Eleanor Antin, and Adrian Piper (New York: City University of New York, 2003).
Marcia Tucker, “Introduction,” Bad Girls (exhibition catalogue, New Museum, New York, 1994), p. 4.
Hannah Wilke, quoted in “Artist Hannah Wilke talks with Ernst (Part 1),” Oasis d’Neon volume 1, number 1, 1979, n.p. As cited in Wacks, p. 43.
Sigmund Freud, Humour , in S.E. 21: pp. 161–163, 162.
Interview with Bonnie Finberg, “Body Language: Hannah Wilke Interview,” Cover, September 1989, 16. As cited in Princenthal, p. 22.
These works also recall the Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre’s early Dog Shit sculptures from the early 1960s formed from wet cement.
See Jo Applin, Eccentric Objects: Rethinking Sculpture in 1960s America (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012) and Jo Applin, “Alice Adams: Woven Forms, Eccentric Objects” in Alice Adams: Woven Forms and Post Minimal Sculpture 1959-1973 (Boston: David Hall Fine Art LLC), pp. 1–4.
On Wilke’s inclusion in this show, and her early work, see Rachel Middleman, Radical Eroticism: Women, Art, and Sex in the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018).
Lucy R. Lippard, “Eros Presumptive,” The Hudson Review, volume 20, no. 1, (Spring 1967), pp. 91–99, 91.
Ibid., p. 91.
Ibid., p. 96.
On this, see Saundra Louise Goldman, “Too Good Lookin’ to be Smart”: Beauty, Performance, and the Art of Hannah Wilke (PhD Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1999), p. 53.
Joyce Greller, “Aesthetical Fuck,” The East Village Other, New York, December 15, 1966, p. 136, reprinted in The Hippie Papers, Jerry Hopkins, ed. (New York: Signet Books, 1968), p. 135.
Ibid., p. 135
Middleman, p. 36.
Briony Fer, “Eva Hesse and Colour,” October, no. 19, 2007, pp. 21–36, 27.
Lippard, p. 98
Lucy R. Lippard, “Eccentric Abstraction” (November 20, 1966), reprinted in Lucy R. Lippard, Changing: Essays in Art Criticism (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1971), pp. 98-111, 105.
Ibid. On this see Jo Applin, “Where Angels Fear to Tread: Phyllida Barlow’s quarry” in Phyllida Barlow: quarry (Edinburgh: Jupiter Artland, 2018), pp.12-22
Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer 1976), pp. 875–893, 880.
Ibid., p. 889.
Ibid., p. 885.
Christopher Bollas, Cracking Up: The Work of Unconscious Experience (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996), pp. 221–57, 244.
Amy Sillman, “Stages of Laughter 1,” Art in America, June 2015.
Hannah Wilke, quoted in “Artist Hannah Wilke talks with Ernst (Part 1).” As cited in Wacks, p. 43.
Bollas, Cracking Up, p. 243.
Ibid., p. 247.