No More Nice Girls

IN HER 2010 MONOGRAPH ON HANNAH WILKE, Nancy Princenthal writes this:

. . . . throughout her graphic oeuvre, the issue of beauty is as central as it is in her photographic self-portraits.

She might really believe that. Nevertheless, Princenthal’s comment is indivisible from the abuse of language that constitutes so much contemporary art writing. It can hardly be called criticism. On the academic/critical circuit, words mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean. It is all a rhetorical game aimed at producing judgmentless judgments that have the required ring of sobriety about them. Galleries, in concert with collectors and museums, hire writers like mercenaries to create an aura of cultural value around the very productions that signal the collapse of culture properly understood.

The only thing central to Wilke’s oeuvre, graphic or photographic, is the culture of narcissism on which the art world has come to turn.

Since 1960, 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 nameable and at the same time quite abstract. Its content has always related to my own body and feelings.

Such sweeping self-absorption has been in full throttle since the 1960s, at least. [You can push it back to Breton and the surrealists, if you want a full picture.] By now, it seems almost a civilizational constant. And it would be if there were no counters to Hannah Wilke’s work and all it stands for. Luckily, there are. But that is another story for another day. At hand, right now, is the exhibition of Wilke’s early drawings coming to Ronald Feldman Fine Arts on September 11.

On show will be some 50 drawings from the ‘50s through the ‘70s. The press release tells us that these will “confirm Wilke’s talent as a draftsperson and colorist and foretell themes and practices that she would continue to explore until her death from lymphoma at the age of 52 in 1993.”

It is a terrible thing to die at 52. We can sympathize with the woman without confusing personal compassion with admiration for the work. Hannah Wilke’s self-portraits—hair in rollers, her face dotted with chewing gum clitorises—are a disaster. Whatever promise Wilke might have had, it was squandered very early on the altar of amour propre and the posturing of the feminist art movement.

It did not take long for this, a graceful borrowing from Durer:

Hannah Wilke, Untitled

to turn into this, an untitled drawing, circa 1960:

Hannah Wilke, Untitled (c. 1960)

and this:

Hannah Wilke, Untitled (c. 1960)

In the name of empowerment, Wilke adopted styles that used to come under the heading of dirty drawing. From the walls of a boy’s bathroom to Sotheby’s—yes, Virginia, we have come a long way. Womanart rallied women whose resentments welcomed an assault on taste. Ideology gilded mediocrity—and ritual grousing—as celebrations of “women’s way of knowing.”  Labial display was the movement’s signature achievement. It was also the silliest of the self-worshipping conceits trumpeted by Wilke’s’ generation of kampfzeit rhetoricians. My grandfather’s favorite generalization about woman went like this: “Turn them upside down and they all look alike.” Wilke seemed to think the same thing.

I become my art, my art becomes me. . . . My heart is hard to handle, my art is too. Feel the folds; one-fold, two-fold, expressive, precise gestural symbols . . . .

Wired with the megalomania of the movement, Wilke’s writing is embarrassing to read. Only in the art world could her ecstatic  incoherence be embraced as . . . . what to call it? . . . Joycean, or something. Here, she rhapsodizes over the redemptive powers of genital imagery:

Visual Prejudice has caused world wars, mutilation, hostility, and alienation generated by fear of “the other.”… The pride, power, and pleasure of one’s own sexual being threaten cultural achievement, unless it can be made into a commodity that has economic and social utility. . . . To diffuse self-prejudice, women must take control of and have pride in the sensuality of their own bodies  and create a sensuality in their own terms, without referring to the concepts degenerated by culture . . . to touch, to smile, to feel, to flirt, to state, to insist on the feelings of the flesh, its inspiration, its advice, its warning, its mystery, its necessity for the survival and regeneration of the universe.

The survival and regeneration of the universe. Got that?

© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey