The Other Venus – Hannah Wilke and Peter Brandt
By Laura Cottingham
From the book “Peter Super-T-Art”, page 32-52, 2007.
Artists necessarily rely on their ancestors. Like biological life, culture stands on the heads and ashes of those who came before us. When an artist consciously chooses an influence and imitates the technique, idea or form of another, it is usually in the hope that something else will occur to elevate the process beyond translation. Often there is an aspect of nostalgia in the desire to pay homage: to look to a predecessor is necessarily to look back. The past is a fixed position (even if our own perspective is always changing): history offers a point of steady focus, as well as a point of departure for new possibilities.
Peter Brandt’s new body of work, Peter Super-T-Art, 2005-07, is directly inspired by the work of Hannah Wilke, an American artist who was active in New York from 1965 until her death in 1993. In adapting himself to signature works from her production, Brandt defies and invigorates central tenets of the traditional European Modernist and avant-garde dictums that guided Wilke and other visual artists of her generation---specifically, the Modernist emphasis on originality and the post-war avant-garde ideal that performance art should draw its inspiration from anywhere but Art. By inserting himself into the conceptual body of another artist and explicitly acknowledging the
reference, Brandt avows that he is not original. This is thoughtful, funny, andoriginal. At the same time, Brandt’s interpretations of selections from Wilke’soeuvre suggest that, contrary to the admonishments of the twentieth-centuryavant-garde, Art can still be a vital inspiration for art. And Life.
Brandt’s title is taken from Hannah Wilke Super-T-Art, 1974, a work that
made its first appearance in a one-night event at The Kitchen, an alternative space in Soho devoted to experimental art practices that flourished during the 1970s. Organized by artist Jean Dupuy and modeled on similar private events produced at his loft on West 13th Street, the evening was named after the night’s menu: “Soup and Tart.” Along with the food, dozens of downtown denizens appeared in a hectic schedule of two-to-four-minute mini-performances, including Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Joan Jonas, Nam June Paik and Yvonne Rainer. Wilke’s performance was described a few days later in The New York Times as “a not entirely parodistic re-creation of seminude
Victorian erotic tableaux vivants.”1 Super-T-Art was Hannah Wilke’s
first public performance. She subsequently photographed the performance in-studio against a white backdrop as a series of frame-by-frame static poses; it is as a grid of black and white images that Hannah Wilke Super-T-Art, 1974, is primarily known.
The twenty photos document the artist as she reworks a white tablecloth to transform herself from a female goddess in a toga to a Christ figure (arms out-stretched, as if on a cross) wearing a loincloth. In each frame, Wilke wears high-heeled, open-toe sandals and stands on a low platform: both of these elevations would become regular accessories in subsequent performances. “She reminded her viewers,” as art historian Saundra Goldman observes, “that she
was presenting herself as a sculpture by wearing platformshoes to elevate herself and by standing on a pedestal.”2
Some viewers have recognized Venus in the opening frame, while others see the Virgin Mary (becoming Mary Magdalene); the goddess of love and the lover of Jesus both align with Wilke’s parodist self-appellation as a ‘tart’. Wilke’s work is full of visual and verbal allusions to Venus, to other (unnamed) goddesses of antiquity, and to the mother/whore duality implicit in Christianity’s view of women. The Jesus Christ reading is further encouraged by Wilke’s title, which simultaneously puns on Dupuy’s Soup and Tart and the popular Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. For Wilke,
a woman and a Jew, the figure of Christ represented gender and religious difference; and, as art historian Joanna Frueh has cunningly punned, the crucified god is “an ultimate pin-up.”3 Wilke later referred to the piece as a “female crucifixion” that related to being “crucified for her looks” and her feeling that “the crucifixion is a female fertility in disguise.”4 The references embodied in Super-T-Art---to sex, religion, gender, antiquity, food, popular culture, linguistic multiplicity, and striptease---recur throughout the artist’s career, but especially after 1974, when her practice shifted away from sculpture and toward performance, video and photography.
Hannah Wilke was one of the most interesting and original of the thousands of artists who emerged on the downtown Manhattan scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Her sensibility was ahead of its time, and generally misunderstood. Despite being the subject of numerous posthumous retrospectives in Europe and Scandinavia ---including the 1998“ Hannah Wilke: A Retrospective,” curated by Elisabeth Delin Hansen and others at the Nikolaj, Copenhagen- Contemporary Art Center, where Peter Brandt first experienced her work---Wilke’s reputation in the United States lags behind that of many of her
contemporaries (although perhaps not so far behind that of other women of her generation). Born in New York City in 1940, Wilke attended art school in the late 1950s, just as American painting was being championed in Europe and New York was emerging as a commercial and artistic center for fine art production and distribution. Her earliest works, in clay and terra cotta, were infused with the Abstract Expressionist’s emphasis on physical ‘gesture’ and
offered proto-feminist female genital forms, an iconography that she wouldexplore throughout her career. In the course of her development, her work collided with the dominant tendencies that surfaced in the New York gallery and avant-garde scenes of the 1960s and 1970s and might logically have been championed alongside any number of artists working in sculpture, photography, video and performance at the time. It was, however, primarily as a ‘feminist’ and ‘woman’ artist (the terms are, curiously, often interchangeable as fine art-related adjectives) that she was embraced.5 Though even her position in these art circles was often contested; Wilke called herself “the first feminist sculptor,” but other self-identified feminist artists in New York during the seventies weren’t so sure. In a 1975 article for Art in America, Lucy
R. Lippard, the primary critical voice for feminist art in the United States at the time, observed: “Hannah Wilke, a glamour girl in her own right who sees her art as ‘seduction’, is considered a little too good to be true when she flaunts her body in parody of the role she actually plays in real life. She has been making erotic art with vaginal imagery for over a decade, and since the women’s movement, has begun to do performances in conjunction with her sculpture, but her own confusion of her roles as beautiful woman and
artist, as flirt and feminist, has resulted at times in politically ambiguous
manifestations that have exposed her to criticism on a personal as well as on an artistic level.”6
Brandt’s selection of Wilke as inspiration, muse and collaborator embraces both the artist and the feminist. Although the majority of works created for Peter Super-T-Art are sculptural and photographic, the entire show is a kind of performance. At the basis of Brandt’s project is an aim to inhabit the Wilke personae, like an actor assuming a role. He adopts and adapts her ‘character’ in order to investigate her artistic process, to retrace the attitude, feelings, critical intelligence, and point of view embodied in her work. His project establishes connections (and suggestive differences) that unite him with her. Gender is a critical turning point. In redefining Wilke’s oeuvre Brandt is concerned,
as he says, with: “How the male is represented and constructed in our
culture, with all its stereotyping pictures and its suppressing mechanisms. My work is about freeing the man (and the woman) from the normative codes in our culture---a society, a power system that has decided collectively how we should behave as men and how we shall perform acceptable masculinity. If we don’t accept, agree and reproduce this form of acceptable masculinity we fail as men and I am interested in this ‘failure’, to giving it voice and dignity.”7 Like other contemporary artists on the international scene who have come forward in the wake of the Multiculturalism, Identity Politics, and Queer Studies discourses that entered academic and museum culture during the 1990s, Brandt accepts that the individual roles we play (as artists and as everyday people) are scripted for us by history and politics---but that each of us can choose, if we have the imagination and the verve, to re-write or at least modify our parts. Claiming Wilke as an antecedent is itself a disruption of the patriarchal tradition of erasing the cultural contributions of women; and like most of the first generation of women admitted into the gallery and museum network during the 1970s, Wilke was especially sensitive to the possibility of being erased (some of her titles, such as Needed-Erase-Her, 1974, refer explicitly to this).
The individual and serial works of Peter Super-T-Art are so closely (and deliberately) related to those of Wilke that they might even be called collaborations. Wilke often worked in artistic collaboration with other people, usually men (who were her lovers). Her most extensive and harmonious collaboration was with Donald Goddard (her husband at the time of her death) who photographed and/or appears in many of her works, including the extensive body of works grouped under the titles, So Help Me Hannah; Advertisements for Living; and Intra-Venus. Another friend and important inspiration was Richard Hamilton, whose bald head appears between Wilke’s naked legs in her Venus Envy, 1980, and who photographed her in Spain for I Object: Memoirs of a Sugargiver, 1977-78. Wilke also produced an extensive body of work in collaboration with her mother (to whom her 1984 gallery exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Support Comfort Foundation, was devoted). Names and faces of people who were important to her personally and artistically are ubiquitous in her work.
One of her most creative (and ultimately problematic) collaborations was with Claes Oldenburg, with whom Wilke began living in 1969 and for whom she worked (on his company payroll). Their relationship ended acrimonious-ly during the late 1970s. Litigious throughout her life (she was a lawyer’s daughter), Wilke sued Oldenburg for breach of an “oral lifetime employment contract” in 1978.8 The termination of their relationship also resulted in a contest over photographs she had taken of their life together. Wilke told one interviewer she: “had taken thousands of photographs with Claes” that “were lost when he got married in 1977.”9 It is unclear how many of these images existed (and how exactly they were ‘lost’). In 1989, over a decade after their break-up and just a few years before Wilke’s premature death, Oldenburg took legal action (citing his “right to privacy”) and successfully
prohibited three Wilke works that feature his image from being published in the catalogue produced to accompany her retrospective at the University of Missouri. The incident prompted an attorney, writing in Arts Magazine, to note the irony of Wilke’s loss: “It is fitting that Wilke should stumble upon these legal issues, since her art challenges the very notions of privacy that Oldenburg relied on to prevent publication of the photos. Her exposure of nude bodies and her use of vaginal imagery suggest that privacy about such matters is unhealthy, even hypocritical. Rights of privacy fit logically within a system---which Wilke appears to question---that regards the individual as the absolute master over his fortress of property rights.” 10
A few works Wilke made during the period of the ‘missing photographs’ exist and provide some insight into what was lost. Dear Claes, 1970-76, incorporates a photograph Wilke took of Oldenburg when they lived together. A diptych of two black and white images, the photo on the left is a close-up of the gentle face of a young doe or fawn (deer/”dear”) while the image on the right features Oldenburg’s half-naked torso stretched out on a bed. His pubic hair and semi-erect penis peek out from a sleeveless t-shirt. The framing of the image and the camera angle (which heighten the curve of the thighs while obscuring the chest and face) make it appear as if a woman (a lean, shapely brunette such as Wilke) is reclining with a penis (or realistic dildo) inserted between her thighs. What is curious is how this work anticipates Peter Brandt’s project: it presents an ‘androgynous’ image (that is genitally explicit as masculine). Another work rescued from the same period, Untitled
(Oldenburg), 1970-75, features the same transexualized picture of Oldenburg among a set of twelve images, all taken chez elle (in their
Soho loft, presumably). This series of portraits features Oldenburg: brushing his teeth in front of the bathroom sink, as if freshly bathed; in bed (with a very erect penis); on a toilet, reading; standing half-naked in the high-ceilinged loft dwelling of the successful gallery artist while a Bob Marley album looks on; squatting on the floor in his blue-jeans, on all fours, in sexual position; standing next to a happy, nude Hannah; face down on a leather couch with naked buttocks facing upward, as if waiting for a fuck; in a profiled close-up, with his head relaxed forward, as if someone is giving him a blow job. Untitled (Oldenburg), 1970-75, looks like stills from a European art film, as if Rainer Werner Fassbinder
remade Jean-Luc Goddard‘s Breathless and set it among artists in
New York; or if Warhol had chosen to immortalize the artistic and happy in their refurbished lofts (instead of the dead and the dying at the Factory). Embittered (and inspired) by loss, Wilke continued to ‘collaborate’ with Oldenburg long after their separation.11 Her personal loss was aggravated by the abridgement and legal denial of her artistic rights (on works incontestably attributed to Oldenburg that she had contributed to--- such as the Ray Gun Museum---as well as the Missouri verdict and the ‘missing’ photographs). Soon after their break-up she began producing revenge-art-works. For instance, So Help Me Hannah, beginning with its first incarnation as a performance and photo series in 1978, at P.S. 1, Queens, is a kind of extended experimental film noir project. The disturbed and menacing demeanor Wilke
projects is worthy of Joan Crawford: but Wilke drops Crawford’s ubiquitous fur coat to reveal the naked animal underneath. She is predator and prey, stalker and victim: this is a woman seeking escape and revenge simultaneously. Like all noir femme fatales, she carries a gun. An exaggerated sense of sexual value radiates from these images, as if Wilke is saying (to Oldenburg most likely): “See this pussy! You’re not getting any more of it!” That Wilke’s gun (and snatch) were pointed at Oldenburg is further suggested by the gun itself (one of the toys she collected for him) and by the timing, title, and specific selection of images from So Help Me Hannah she exhibited that year: her Snatchshots with Ray Guns was shown at P.S. in 1978 concurrent with a show of Oldenburg’s ray guns at The Whitney Museum. Even as late as 1991, Wilke was still working through the troubled Oldenburg legacy. In the phototext work Even-tu-ally, 1969-1991, she is pictured lounging against a pillow on the floor of a well-known Oldenburg installation that looks like a vulgar 1950s Hollywood bedroom. Superimposed over the image is a letter from Richard Hamilton that supports Wilke’s right to publish “any material relating to me she may wish to use, “ a position
in marked contrast to Oldenburg’s censoriousness. The multiple word play of the title---‘Eventually’ things will get better; Someday I’ll get ‘even’; Will you (‘tu’) ever be my ‘ally’?---underscores Wilke’s contradictory desires for both reconciliation and revenge.
Brandt’s So Help Me Peter..., inspired by So Help Me Hannah, is a series of six black and white photographs that feature the artist naked carrying a gun; crouched defensively; tumbling on a bare floor; aggressively spinning on his side; and stabilizing himself with his forearms on the ground as if preparing to re-face an attacker. Each frame captures the artist in motion, like stills from a motion picture. Revenge, betrayal, outrage, victimization, offense, defense,
anger, physical and mental anguish are communicated in the range of
feelings presented (in a billboard project for Poland the work was censored, because of the visible penis). The artist is remembering, replaying (in order to alter the outcome?), an attack he suffered in Rome in 2002 at the hands of strangers. The raw physicality of So Help Me Peter... is emotionally charged not only by its traumatic basis in the artist’s experience as a victim of a violent physical attack, but also by the emotional betrayal he subsequently suffered at the hands of friends. He says, “I want to kill everyone who has done injustice to me! …I also see the pictures as the role of men in society, being the victim of one’s own and the culture’s construction: A real masculine man is aggressive, it’s part of the masculinist law.”12 Like Wilke, Brandt relies on an artistic process that is simultaneously informed by art, experience, intellect
The theme of revenge is also implicit to his photo text work Needed-Erase-Him, 2006, which includes a textual extract from Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto. The quintessential revenge artist of sixties New York, Solanas shot Andy Warhol (“He had too much control over my life,” she said.) Briefly a feminist heroine, her manifesto (which her newly occasioned celebrity status after the shooting finally enabled her to publish) is one of the most outrageous documents of the American women’s liberation movement. The section Brandt quotes opens with the assertion: “The male rebel is a farce, this is the male’s society, made by him to satisfy his needs.” In Solanas’s worldview, male supremacy is indistinguishable from totalitarianism; Brandt’s citation
closes with the observation that men are responsible for war. Solanas’s strident sentences are visually interrupted by the image of Brandt’s nude body draped in a Palestinian cloth. His head is completely
covered,as if he is a woman in a chador, but more so—he is blinded by the fabric. Only his naked arms and legs are visible. The Palestinian cloth echos Wilke’s use of an Islamic headdress and represents the Arab world generally and the current wars between Christians and Moslems (which are nationalized and racialized, as well as religious, wars). The Palestinian cloth is a persistent prop in Brandt’s
project; he also uses it as a headdress, skirt, sarong and blindfold in the
seven Peter-Super-T-Art works. It signifies Scandinavia’s ethnic stereotyping of outsiders and functions as a sign of the patriarchal ideology Europe shares with the Arab nations. Brandt wants his viewers to reflect on the danger of all forms of identification: Whenever we identify ourselves with a group or idea, we participate in a form of exclusion and hegemony, of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Brandt’s project is developed out of the idea of being a ‘bad man’ (in English, the very etymology of ‘bad’ includes an Old English usage meaning ‘effeminate
man’.) Brandt is not investigating the idea of a ‘bad’ man in a traditional
moral sense, but in a political and social sense; in doing so, he calls into question the morality of gender and other social divisions.
An earlier project by Brandt identifies him with another woman of beauty and talent (who suffered abuse and abandonment). In Marilyn & Me, even ongoing since 1999, comprised of short films, photographs and small sculptures, Brandt worked with the image and legacy of Marilyn Monroe to create a eulogy to the tragic star (with whom he had developed a melancholy identification as a teenager). The films feature short snippets of some of the actress’s performances. Please Don’t Kill Anything, 1999, highlights a scene from The Misfits where a horse (like Monroe, whose husband wrote the script) is captured. In Ghost, 1999, the actress is shown as she wobbles across the stage at Madison Square Garden to sing “Happy Birthday” to the president; her skirt is so tight around the ankles, it is as if her feet are bound. The digital history painting Brandt presents in these film shorts suggest that
the life America gave Monroe was no better than the roles Hollywood gave her (and were often the same).
The titular work of Marilyn & Me is a self-portrait of the artist as Monroe
(similar, but not identical, to the close-up Warhol used for his Marilyns). In another self-portrait, Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe & Peter Brandt, 2001, Brandt synthesized his Monroe fascination with Warhol’s and presents himself as Andy being Marilyn (something Warhol would have loved to do, but was too shy). To become Marilyn for Marilyn & Me,
the artist used a wig, make-up, and necklace, a transformation Brandt hoped not just to achieve at the level of appearance but also on the level of feeling. His subsequent reflections indicate that he found some success: “One day I just had to know how it felt to be her that day at The Bell Air Hotel [sic]. I gazed into the camera and for a split of a second I was her. A moment of terrifying catalytic truth. I removed my make up and went out in the street. In a daze. It slowly dawned on me that I had touched a butterfly.”13
Comrades, 2002, another object in the Monroe group, is a small sculptural work composed of three rectangular glass baking dishes juxtaposed like a medieval altarpiece. Photographic icons rest in the bottom of each dish. The center dish is full of Brandt (as he appears in Marilyn & Me) and flanked, on the left, by a pin-up of Monroe holding an umbrella and, on the right, a selection from Wilke’s S.O.S. Starification Object Series, 1975. Wilke appears in Islamic headdress, her forehead and fingernails embellished with the signature vulvic forms she fashioned from chewing gums (and sought to ‘feminize’ the world with). These vulvic forms both decorate and scar her face. As Frueh
observes: “ the ‘ornaments’ decorating Wilke in S.O.S. are not only scars but also stigmata, making the model woman into a martyr. Venus, the goddess of love and sex (neither of which Western culture reveres) must be crucified. The beautiful resemble other groups that are feared, envied and hated for the marks of their difference.”14
Comrades is the obvious link between the projects Marilyn & Me and Peter Super-T-Art. The former’s devotion to an actress belies Brandt’s interest and training in the performing arts and sets the stage for his approach to Wilke’s oeuvre. While the plastic arts are primarily concerned with form, the performing arts prioritize process, feeling and attitude: technique, in a performative sense, is as much about attitude as action (and result). It’s worth noting that Brandt’s work with Monroe includes depictions of himself transformed, with wigs and make-up, into a portrayal of the actress while his project with Wilke eschews any such literal manifestations and presents, instead, his intellectual and intuitive response toward specific art works. The most consistent parallel in iconography is the presentation of his body, a parallel that is not a parallel, given that Wilke’s body was female and his is not. Brandt explores what happens to our perception of the male body (and
the political, emotional and social subjects it represents) when it is subjected to the kinds of representations previously reserved for the
female. One of Wilke’s artistic goals was to assist in the breakdown of Western philosophy’s binary oppositions: between good/bad, male/female, self/other, Jew/gentile. Black/white. Brandt’s project continues this deconstructive process.
Brandt’s video, On the Other Side of Venus, 2006, is a meditation on betrayal.It is built on a two-minute take of a photograph of two frames from Warhol’s Blow Job, 1964, which the artist filmed from an exhibition catalogue. Like other Warhol films (including Empire, 1964) known as ‘stillies’, Blow Job utilized a single 16mm camera set-up and is unedited. It consists of single-screen projection of the same framing of the same actor, Deverne Bookwalter (whose 1964 Factory screen test appears in Warhol’s compilation The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys). The leather-jacket tough-guy ‘clone’ look Bookwalter projects in Blow Job is adopted from James Dean, one of Warhol’s favorite male fantasies and, like Marilyn Monroe, a Hollywood tragedy.
For On the Other Side of Venus, the two faces of Deverne Bookwalter remain frozen in time as Brandt delivers Marlon Brando’s famous monologue about the betrayal of one brother by another (“I coulda been a contenda”). The Brooklyn accent of On the Waterfront becomes Germanic in Brandt’s interpolation (like Helmut Berger in Visconti’s The Damned). Part of what Brandt is interested in is how men betray men (in love and war). He suggests that patriarchal society, while encouraging and supporting male supremacy in politics, economics and power, is maybe not so male-friendly. After all, isn’t love between men forbidden under patriarchal law?
Physical and emotional love are themes Wilke pursued persistently, particularly in the context of her understanding of herself as “Venus,” “Sugargiver,” and “Super-T-Art.” References to food and other oral pleasures, such as the recurring chewing gum vulvae (genital mouths born in the mouth), abound in her materials and titles. “Food is a basic element in Wilke’s art,” observes Frueh, “a foundation for its poetics of pleasure and hunger(s), of eating, of using the mouth for nonverbal speech in which metaphors regarding the actions of the mouth as well as the foods themselves underscore her aesthetics of eroticism.”15 In the most classical piece of Peter-Super-T-Art, Brandt offers The Other Venus, 2005, a circular floor platform of clear fiberglass whose top
is coated with white sugar icing, as if a flattened image of the moon is on display at our feet.
Although Alfred M. Fischer asserts that: “Hannah Wilke is never acting. She’salways being herself”16, in fact, a crucial aspect of Wilke’s work, and one thatdistinguishes it from other performance works of the same period is that sheis acting. Goldman locates the artist’s movement away from sculpture into performance in 1974, with the exhibition of her first video, Gestures: “By including Gestures in an exhibition of her vaginal works, Wilke signaled her transition from sculpture to performance. As she moved into performative genres, the action of making—the gestures—became the work itself. In other words, there was an evolution from acting on materials to simply acting.”17 The more conspicuously she drew on her lived experience for material the
more Wilke moved away from the architectonic considerations of volume, form and space that preoccupy the sculptor and her creative process began more and more to fixate on words, phrases, characters, feelings and anecdotes and thus assumed the creative disposition of a poet, writer (and actress).
When Wilke began to deploy her own body as living sculpture in 1974, performance had been a vital aspect of American fine art culture for more than a decade. In particular, artists associated with Fluxus, Happenings and the Judson Church formed the basis of New York’s avant-garde during the 1960s. This milieu provided the artistic permission that enabled Wilke’s performances, but she was not a participant in any of these groups (although, not insignificantly, Oldenburg was identified with Happenings from the beginning
of the 1960s). The style and attitude of her work departs significantly from that of these dominant precedents, not only because of the feminist content. In fact, Wilke’s work with sexualized female imagery met with some of the same response that greeted the work of Fluxus artists such as Shigeko Kuboto, whose male colleagues disdained her 1965 performance, Vagina Painting, and Yoko Ono, whose overtly female-coded work was decried as “too animalistic”.18 An anti-art, often shambolic, sensibility characterized the artists and events associated with Happenings; a preoccupation with the quotidian and the serendipitous led the aesthetics of Fluxus; and the Judson Church group, despite its personal and artistic connections to visual culture was primarily a revolution in dance. The aesthetics of naturalism that inspired these groups does not really apply to Wilke. While others were anti-performing, she was,in fact, ‘performing’. Her “feminist and flirt” stance spoke to her professional, as well as personal, need for (male) approval. Her stylized gestures are often, as Goldman notes in regard
to the S.O.S. Starification Object Series, 1975, borrowed from advertising and fashion photography and by “her facial expressions
that often do not correspond to her poses, Wilke commented on
the beauty industry and stereotypes in general.”19 Hers is not an unmitigated critique: she is trying to make the coy pose ‘work’ for her.
A dominant current in the women’s art movement of the 1970s was to refuse participation in the spectacularization of the female form (Yvonne Rainer’s refusal to engage the audience, to keep her eyes averted while performing, is paradigmatic of this). Wilke chose to play to the spotlights. The female body (naked or otherwise) is a spectacle in patriarchal cultures: Wilke reified the spectacle (of herself). She utilized her own image to reflect and refract cultural projections. Her performance works continued the project of demystification advanced in the vulvic sculptural forms that constituted her production before 1974.
She saw her own scars (as woman, beauty, Jew, and Artist) as part of a largersystem of social identification that designates an outsider for every insider, ultimately making all of us losers: “Starification-scarification/Jew, Black, Christian, Moslem… Labeling people instead of listening to them… Judging according to primitive prejudices. ‘Marks-ism’ and art. Fascistic feelings, internal wounds, made from external situations.”20
In addition, her work is seldom simply ‘image making’ but the result of emotionally charged circumstances in her life, such as the loss of friends, lovers, family (and ultimately, herself) to conflict or death. However loaded with visual content, her gestures are not emotionally empty. She ‘lived the part’.
Of course, a man masquerading as woman (or as the ‘image of a woman’) Is nothing new in twentieth-century art. One of Wilke’s favorite artistic ancestors styled himself as Rrose Selavy; she addressed quite a number of works to Marcel Duchamp, many of which, like I Object: Memoirs of a Sugargiver, redress his use of female iconography.
Brandt’s appropriation of Wilke is not a simple gender reversal, not a drag show: his project embraces the sense of loss, betrayal and vulnerability that is at the emotional core of Wilke’s oeuvre, feelings that are not solely beholden to women (although the female image, in patriarchy, is usually used to represent them).
Brandt’s interpretation ‘sees through’ the spectacularized
naked female form that Wilke so often presented to her audience and
camera. His reading is precisely what Wilke hoped to achieve. Her repeated representation of her naked body concurred with the aims of the American Beat Poets, who hoped to de-stigmatize the English words considered vulgar or unspeakable---because they refer colloquially to bodily functions, including (especially) genital activities. Alan Ginsberg was fond of summing up his spectacular career with: “I have achieved the introduction of the word fuck into texts inevitably studied by schoolboys!” Likewise, Wilke sought to remove the aura of scandal from the female body. Her own reflections on language echo those of Ginsberg. As she informed an interviewer in 1978:
“Language has become extremely important to me. I think all my work has to do with language, which people haven’t said yet: the idea of prejudice in language. So I use a very simple word, ‘vagina’, ‘cunt’, ‘clitoris’, whatever. A female word which, to me, is a very important word. It’s the place where all children come from. It’s where one receives pleasure. But, essentially, it cre- ates culture, creates life. And yet this word causes fear, anxiety, neurosis. It causes war. It causes everything. But it’s a word that frightens people, primarily. To me, to change that---to make it like a flower---is very important. But
it is about language. To say ‘Jew’. To say ‘Cunt’. To say ‘Nigger’. These words cause these fantastic associations: so I wanted to get rid of the word. It’s funny to say that: the word. Because ‘the word’ is Hebrew, The Word of God, I guess---or Goddesses.”21
Her use of language---in text pieces and titles--- also owes a lot to the
process and the intentions of the Beats and the New York School. Like those poets, she picks up words from here and there, in places high and low, from Marx (“Exchange Values”) and Goethe (“Elective Affinities”) on some days; from the Beatles (“Take a sad song and make it better”) and the Gershwins (“No, no they can’t take that away from me”) on others. Her contribution to the 1973 Whitney Biennial, In Memoriam of My Feelings, 1973, is titled in homage to Frank O’Hara, whose Lunch Poems are now recognized as a classic in American verse (and whose premature death Wilke’s sculpture commemorates).
Her poem Stand Up Hannah Wilke Stand Up (recorded as song in 1982) is probably inspired from one of O’Hara’s most famous lines, itself inspired by a tabloid headline: “Get up Lana Turner, Get up.”
Brandt’s practice of ‘responding’ to specific works by Wilke with an ‘answer’ of his own resembles the ‘Answer Song’ of the pop music tradition, where a new song directly speaks to or ‘answers’ an earlier one by another artist. Every artistic generation makes its own questions---and finds that neither its answers nor its questions are likely to satisfy the next generation. The investigations of ego, gender, art history, personal identity and nationalism incorporated
in Peter Super-T-Art are vital concerns in the ever-shifting ground of
values that guide contemporary culture. Hannah Wilke would be pleased to hear Peter Brandt’s answer.
1 John Rockwell, ‘Soup and Tart’ at the Kitchen Is a Supper With Avant-Garde, New York Times,
December 2, 1974, npa.
2 Saundra Goldman, ‘Gesture’ and the Regeneration of the Universe, in Elisabeth Delin Hansen et.
al, ed., Hannah Wilke: A Retrospective (Copenhagen: Nikolaj, Copenhagen Contemporary Art
Center, 1998), 22.
3 Joanna Frueh, Hannah Wilke, in Thomas H. Kochheiser, ed., Hannah Wilke---A Retrospective
(Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989), 56.
4 Hannah Wilke, Hannah Wilke Super-T-Art 11, in Frank Wagner, ed., Unterbrochene Karrieren: Hannah
Wilke, 1940-1993 (Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft für bildenden Kunst, 2000), 143. Excerpted from Bonnie Finberg,
“Body Language: Hannah Wilke Interview,” Cover, September 1989, 16.
5 Her first appearance in Europe, and in a public art center, was at the Kunsthaus, Hamburg in
1972 for the exhibition American Women Artists; the 1973 Whitney Biennial, which was the first time Wilke exhibited in a
New York museum, was curated by Marcia Tucker. Likewise, excepting mostly sensationalist mention in the
mainstream press, published writing about Wilke since the beginning of her career has been written by feminists and
6 Lucy R. Lippard, The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth: European and American Women’s Body Art, in
From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976), 129. Reprinted from Art in America, 64,
No. 3 (May-June 1976).
7 Peter Brandt, letter to the author, June 20, 2005.
8 Hal Davis, Lee Marvin Case Colors Love Suit Against Pop Artist, New York Post, 1978. Reprinted in Wagner, ed., 142.
9 Hannah Wilke, Seura Chaya, New Observations, 1988. Excerpted in Wagner, ed.,149.
10 Tim Cone, Life Over Art: Oldenburg’s Privacy, Wilke’s Publicity, Arts Magazine, September 1989, Volume 64, No.
1, 25-26. According to Cone, the three works pulled from the catalogue were Artists Make Toys; What’ll I Do?; and a panel
from Advertisements For Living. Of these three works, only Advertisements for Living was intended to appear in the
exhibition, which it did.
11 Oldenburg’s first wife, Patty, appeared in many of his Happenings during the 1960s. Interestingly, Oldenburg’s credit line
and authorship on all works produced since his 1978 marriage is shared with his current wife.
12 Peter Brandt, email to the author, May 15, 2006.
13 Peter Brandt, text to accompany Marilyn edition, Copenhagen 2000.
14 Joanna Frueh, Hannah Wilke, in Kochheiser, ed., 52.
15 Joanna Frueh, HannahWilke, in Kochheiser, ed., 73
16 Alfred M. Fischer, Becoming Form and Remaining Human, in Delin Hansen et. al, ed., 54.
17 Saundra Goldman, ‘Gesture’ and the Regeneration of the Universe, in Delin Hansen et. al, ed., 20.
18 Kristine Stiles, Between Water and Stone--- Fluxus Performance: A Metaphysics of Acts, in Elizabeth Armstrong and
Joan Rothfuss, ed., In the Spirit of Fluxus (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1993), 77.
19 Saundra Goldman, ‘Gesture’ and the Regeneration of the Universe, Delin Hansen et. al, ed., 28.
20 Hannah Wilke, Intercourse with…, in Kochheiser, ed., 139 (text used in videotape performance and lecture at the London
Art Gallery, London, Ontario, Canada, February 17, 1977; originally written for Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant, 1976.)
21 Hannah Wilke, Language, in Wagner, ed., 143-144. Excerpted from “Artist Hannah Wilke Talks with Ernst,” Oasis d’Neon, Vol.
1, 1978. (Syntax altered for improved readability.)