--- “By the time Wollam took the photographs that would become the SOS series, Wilke had a clearly developed idea of what she wanted to do. According to Wollam, it was "something sexy, partially nude, but with a different feeling," from what her work had been like before. ... Wollam continued, "She would just be playful in front of the camera, change ideas, change her hair, change her clothes, change her pose. ... She wanted it to be fairly glamour-like without it being like Vogue...It was almost like a performance for the camera." Wilke, who always controlled the photographic process as both artist and subject, wanted a spin on fashion photography, glamour without the commercialization of glamour, sexy and beautiful but covered in gum, critiquing the notion of the perfect body or face." (Les Wollam, quoted in phone interview with Tracy Fitzpatrick, quoted in T. Fizpatrick, “Hannah Wilke: Making Myself into a Monument,” in Hannah Wilke: Gestures, exh. cat., Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, New York, 2009, p. 49)
-- ”Innovation was the most important idea to me at that time; what could I do that thousands of male artists hadn’t done already? … I wanted to make my own statement.” (Hannah Wilke, quoted in R. Iskin, “Hannah Wilke in Conversation with Ruth Iskin,” Visual Dialog: The Quarterly Magazine of the Visual Arts, June, July & August, 1977, p. 17)
Possessing a fierce intellect matched only by her undeniable beauty, the radical Feminist artist Hannah Wilke remains one of the most progressive figures of her generation. In her now legendary photographs, performances and sculpture, Wilke featured her own naked body as an expressive, exploratory tool, as she fundamentally interrogated the historical representation of the female nude. The present selection features a rare and important example of Wilke’s most significant body of work, the S.O.S. (Starification Object Series), for which she adorned her own nude body with tiny bits of chewed gum while vamping in fashion-model poses. Conceived in 1974, the S.O.S series is the first in a decades-long series of self-portraits photographed by Wilke’s friends and lovers under her direction. The present work features the full set of the original twenty-eight photographs taken in Wilke’s Greene Street studio in collaboration with her friend and colleague, the photographer Les Wollam. Despite its designation as an “artist’s proof,” a formal edition was never produced, making it a remarkably rare artifact from a formative era. This particular work was personally given to Les Wollam by the artist herself, where it has remained in his collection ever since. Other examples from the series are held in in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; and the Centre Pompidou, Paris.
The breadth and depth of Wilke’s savvy intellect is unfurled across the twenty-eight photographs featured in the S.O.S. (Starification Object Series), one of her earliest and most iconic series. In the present work, Wilke vamps, primps and poses for Wollam’s camera, her body nude from the waist up, adopting different disguises throughout. In one, she’s the sexy housewife in a crocheted apron, in another, she’s a Hollywood ingenue hounded by the paparazzi. In the next frame, she’s the bad girl, sporting a cowboy hat with blazing toy guns. In still others, she wears a turban that partially covers her face, like an exotic courtesan, or sports a man’s tie upon her bare chest. Wilke’s arresting beauty is nearly breathtaking (many of the photos could easily be lifted from Vogue), but she drew ire and wrath from Feminist artists and critics who derided her work as exhibitionist, even slutty: "A powerful magnet that she used to attract those who were open to it, and repel those whom it made uneasy, or suspicious, or envious...beauty was at the center of her identity” (N. Princenthal, Hannah Wilke, New York, 2010, p. 66). By posing topless, Wilke wielded the power of her own beauty like a deadly weapon, turning the male gaze in on itself by seizing the means of production and controlling images of her own body on her own terms. In doing so, Wilke was light-years ahead of artists like Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince, whose own work seems inconceivable without Wilke’s pioneering first steps. Simultaneously, Wilke’s work pays homage to important artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, who acted as trailblazers.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Wilke’s S.O.S Series are the tiny pieces of chewed gum that she uses to adorn her body throughout the series, which she sculpts into delicate approximations of a woman’s labia, a recurring motif that Wilke had explored as early as 1959 while a student at Temple University. Later termed “essentialist imagery,” Wilke’s sculpted labial forms incorporated a wide variety of media -- ceramics, kneaded eraser, dryer lint, cookie dough, play-doh -- even bacon -- though chewing gum provided the most versatile means, with an added symbolic content that Wilke enjoyed: “I chose gum because it’s the perfect metaphor for the American woman,” Wilke said. “Chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and pop in a new piece” (H. Wilke, quoted in A. Berman, “A Decade of Progress, But Could a Female Chardin Make a Living Today,” ArtNews, vol. 79, no. 8, October 1980, p.77). Indeed, Wilke repeatedly incorporated different colors and flavors of chewing gum in her performances. In her 1975 performance at the Gerald Piltzer Gallery in Paris, she purchased 3,000 pieces of chewing gum and handed them out to her guests. Having chewed the gum, Wilke’s guests handed it back while Wilke sculpted hundreds of the sexual forms that she used to adorn her own body along with the gallery’s walls.
Given the sheer perfection of Wilke’s youthful body, with nary a wrinkle or blemish, the proliferation of tiny, lumpen chewed-gums casts a sinister haze over the piece, evoking disease, sores or cancerous growth, which is all the more prescient given Wilke’s later diagnosis of lymphoma, which ultimately took her life in 1993. Furthermore, Wilke’s free-wheeling use of her own nude body in conjunction with the saliva-slick pieces of gum would be utterly incomprehensible just one decade later, when the AIDS virus had ravaged New York City. Discussing the piece with Wollam, Wilke herself likened the chewed-gum lumps to scars on the body, and later related the experience to her own Jewish heritage and the tattooed numbers of Holocaust victims. Their delicate, tactile surface, though, continues to fascinate viewers, which Nancy Princenthal has so aptly described: "the gum is, always, a beckoning license to touch. A work shaped by both mouth and hand, these tender buttons, scattered all over Wilke's body, suggest themselves as a means for operating the body they adorn--a very sticky form of connection between viewer and subject" (N. Princenthal, op. cit., p. 51).
Wilke’s S.O.S. Series displays a level of maturity and sophistication heretofore unseen in her work, a fact that is undoubtedly related to her collaboration with Les Wollam, a photographer whose masterful sense of composition is outdone by his almost painterly handling of light and shadow. Wollam was working as the assistant to legendary photographer Arnold Newman at that time, whose iconic photographs of Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso made him one of the most sought-after photographers in New York. Wollam had previously photographed Wilke for an article in New York Woman one year earlier. It was only natural, then, that Wilke should turn to Wollam for this new body of work. Les maintains an infectious, ebullient persona and easygoing rapport that undoubtedly allowed Wilke the freedom and confidence to explore her newly-burgeoning ideas, bringing a level of professional sophistication to the imagery and giving Wilke the “look” she so desired.
Wilke later gave Les a small postcard covered in kneaded-eraser forms that take the look of rolling hills upon a verdant green landscape. Titled Vermont, the work illustrates Wilke’s interest in the symbolism of woman as life-giving nurturer as related to the earth goddess Gaia while also demonstrating a foreshadowing for postmodernism’s interplay of text and image.
Throughout the course of her tragically short career, Wilke’s wry depiction of her own nude body rankled even the most stalwart Feminist critics for their alleged exhibitionism and wanton gratuitousness. But Wilke’s most significant body of work, the S.O.S. (Starification Object Series), remains a powerful reminder that Wilke was light-years ahead of her time.