‘Even though they look somewhat frivolous, they’re not frivolous at all,’ says Les Wollam, who took the photographs for artist Hannah Wilke’s powerful and provocative S.O.S. Starification Object Series (1974-79, above). ‘She carried across her ideas about feminism.’
Wollam first encountered Wilke on an assignment for New York Woman magazine in the early 1970s. ‘It was to photograph this up-and-coming artist named Hannah Wilke,’ he recalls. ‘So I went and met her, and we hit it off. About a year later, she called me and said, “I have this idea for an art piece, and it involves photography. Would you do the photographs?” And I said, “Sure, I would love to”, of course having no idea what it was going to be. That was her S.O.S. Series.’
Wilke — born in New York in 1940, and whose oeuvre combined sculpture, performance, video and photography — used her body as a tool to subvert conventional beauty standards, while exploring the art-historical paradox of a female artist depicting herself nude. In S.O.S. Starification Object Series, as in much of her work, Wilke is simultaneously the object of the viewer’s gaze and the driver of her own objectification.
Wilke began S.O.S. Starification Object Series in 1974 with a group of 28 photographs. The full set of 28 images will be offered at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art auction on 28 September in New York as part of Body Language: Reflections on the Figure, a spotlight section dedicated to the human form.
In these photographs, Wilke assumes a range of vampish poses, her body adorned with pieces of chewing gum shaped like female genitalia. The title of the series at once references the ‘starification’ of the cinema and fashion icons Wilke emulates in her poses, and the physical and emotional ‘scarification’ caused by the objectification of women in popular culture.
‘I chose gum because it's the perfect metaphor for the American woman — chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and pop in a new piece,’ Wilke once explained.
‘If you look at [the gum] as gum, you're always going to look at it as gum,’ says Wollam. ‘If you look at it as a metaphor, you can see what she was doing.
‘My contribution was to do a good lighting job and a good photography job, and Hannah was a good model. She knew herself, she knew how she looked, and she knew what she wanted.’
The series drew the ire of more than a few feminists, Wollam recalls, because ‘she showed her body. But she was just using it is a vehicle; she was using it as a palette.’
Although designated an artist’s proof, S.O.S. Starification Object Series was never formally editioned, and was given by Wilke to Wollam in return for the negatives. It has remained in his collection ever since.
‘To have a full set like this is pretty unusual,’ Wollam explains. ‘They were in a drawer and never saw any light, so that makes them pristine. To me it’s her seminal piece, and to see them all at once, all 28 of them, is special because you see the seriousness and the fun-ness.’ Other pictures from the series are now in the collections of MoMA, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Lauded as a pioneer and disparaged as a provocateur, Hannah Wilke challenged conventional representations of women in art and paved the way for further interventions by female artists in the 1980s and 1990s. She died of cancer in 1993, aged just 52.
S.O.S. Starification Object Series is a highlight of Body Language: Reflections on the Figure, a curated selection of works executed from 1951-2010 which reflect the late-20th century move away from abstraction towards a renewed interest in the body.
Drawing from a range of influences including Stone Age Venus idols, 16th-century Mannerist altarpieces and the advent of Cubism under Braque and Picasso, artists such as Marlene Dumas, Jean Dubuffet and John Wesley investigated the possibilities of figuration under a new abstractionist doctrine in which ingenuity was prized over skill. In their own way, Joel Shapiro and Keith Haring developed a form of minimalist kineticism that celebrated life, while artists such as Wayne Thiebaud, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Alex Katz explored the pursuit of immortality through portraiture.