Hannah Wilke knew what a death mask was. She knew that a death mask is an event, not an object.
She knew that the death mask is a becoming. A process. A reconfiguring and a reprogramming. A construction site without the funds to go on. Just one sexy dude on a union-mandated lunch break and one less sexy dude still banging away and the scaffolding going too far up into the thin blue like so many fish bones in the wind. Limbo.
The death mask is something that is dignified and very funny and also makes the person looking at you want to puke. The death mask is practically made from bravery, but it is also made from dust. Wilke’s Intra-Venus,1990-1993, is many death masks strung together. No other photos terrify me the way Wilke’s terrify me. When I think about the moment my face, too, will someday become a death mask, it is Wilke’s skin that lays itself upon mine, and when I look to my mom, chemically bald now for the second time after a sunny three years in remission, I also see Wilke’s head, her cheeks, her closed eyes.
Because Wilke’s final images are now my obsession, I think about how we talked about them and how we still do, about their intellectual and artistic legacy. I wonder if my own obsession with these photographs is alarming and alienating. I hope, though, that part of the function of criticism itself can be to interpret works others don’t necessarily identify with, and that it can form a useful portal to someone’s else’s way of thinking. After all, isn’t criticism a performance, too?
This is no more an essay than a murky pool into which I invite you. It might be a little repugnant, but it’ll be awfully intimate, too, being so naked here in these chaotic waters, just you and me and the departed (naked) Wilke popping up now and again to do her best impersonation of Virgil.
Mom and I do not look alike. We have the same hands and feet, but that is not what people mean when they say you do or do not look like someone. When you see two sisters in a train-station lineup and they have perfectly matching hip/ass/upper thigh regions, that’s when some screechy friend says ohmygod you two look soo much alike. Or Father and Son with the same cute nostrils. Mom and son with the same drooping eyes and sloppy scuffle when they walk.
So, not unlike the scufflers, Mom and I do, in fact, in our long-limbed, flailing/flimsy-looking way, resemble one another. We just have to be in motion for you to notice. Drunk and chatty, hands as over-eager assistants to some lengthy story: just two tall bodies with two very different heads.
In sickness, however, that which is hereditary screams in self-identifying horror. Thus, Mom’s face with cancer suddenly introduces me to all the hollow-yet-swollen faces that preceded hers and mine. All the real and imagined faces of our elder kin. And you know, pawing through photos of the very ill, you realize with mute horror why people disbelieve l’Inconnue de la Seine was really drowned and dead. Because sickness, big sickness, anchors you to death. It weighs you down and drags your jaws and eyes down with you. In your proximity, you grow stained. You grow yellow. Then blue, like a ripening grape.
The calm death masks of Lincoln and Pascal and Napoleon portray an obvious untruth. A deceitful vision of rest. These masks say: See how these Great Men have drifted off with their proud noses into The Eternal! Look at what bliss now awaits their hard work! We the living sniff the sour artificial scent beneath which the cadaver acidifies. We know better.
Intra-Venus was Wilke’s final work, first exhibited posthumously in 1994 at the Ronald Feldman Gallery, and comprising images taken in collaboration with her husband Donald Goddard. The series primarily contains photos of Wilke herself, nearly always appearing as diptychs or sometimes as three or four images arranged in a row or in a grid. There is also a video component to the work, shot by Wilke, Goddard, and others. Comprising over 30 hours of total footage played out across 16 monitors simultaneously, and depicting friends, family, medical procedures, and many birds, The Intra-Venus Tapes was shot during the same period (1990-93) but not exhibited until 2007. The photos, though, are huge: imposing Chromogenic supergloss prints. Intra-Venus Series No. 4, July 26 and February 19, 1992 includes two panels, each measuring 71 ½ x 47 ½ inches. These are photos the size of refrigerators.
Intra-Venus was created in the three years leading up to Wilke’s death from lymphoma in 1993, and like much of Wilke’s work, the images focus our gaze on her face and body. Only, the weird and thoughtful erotic humor that characterized much of her life’s work cannot help but be marked by her disease. In turn, our memory of her earlier work imprints on Intra-Venus; the decisive little vulva sculptures that peppered Wilke’s skin in one of her best-known series, Starification Object Series (S. O. S.), 1974, are replaced by surgical pads on a mostly unadorned body.
The huge Intra-Venus Series No. 4, July 26 and February 19, 1992 is one of the better-known diptychs in Intra-Venus. The one image where Wilke is wrapped in a blue blanket is next to one where Wilke has reached her fingers up to cover and touch her face. Hannah, how did you keep your nails so long and hard? Those are fast-replicating cells! The diptych is somehow to Intra-Venus what Wilke’s tiny vulvas––the images so often associated with her––are to her career. It’s oddly also the Intra-Venus work that moves me the least, though critics have been drawn to it, sensing easy art-historical analogues. Jacqueline Humphrey, who panned Intra-Venus back in 1996, citing its lack of “artistic basis” (whatever that means), was exclusively drawn to this diptych: “Only one of these [photos], the one in which she shrouds herself with a hospital blanket like a madonna, possesses a touch of artful irony.”
Those two images from July 26 and February 19, 1992—the pretty images—are certainly the most accessible: the calm-yet-defiant ones. But they seem so wedded to a dialogue that, during Wilke’s lifetime, obsessed over her so-called narcissism and her “beauty.” How did Chris Kraus put it? “Like every other work of art, Hannah became a piece of roadkill for the artpress jackals. Torn literally apart. Her naked body straddling interpretations of the hippie-men who saw her as an avatar of sexual liberation and hostile feminists like Lucy Lippard who saw any female self-display as patriarchal putty.” Those jackal-critics Kraus is talking about, pens poised in their deft jaws, weren’t interested in discussing Wilke’s eroticism, or her palpable relationship with sex, but in seemingly willfully ignoring Wilke’s intellectualism with caveat after caveat about her appearance.
Even proponents of Intra Venus couldn’t stop talking about how hot she was. As in Roberta Smith on Intra-Venus: “Wilke’s beauty lies in waste” (1994). Or Jerry Saltz’s (albeit, beautiful) turn of phrase: “She was a gorgeous gorgon angel of death” (2013). In talking about Intra-Venus now, I am inclined to treat this discussion of Wilke’s good looks the way we now sometimes treat the names of mass-killers. I want to do this train of thought the disrespect of omission.
Wilke was so physically embodied in her life’s work, used her body as sculpture, as monument, as everything. But while Intra-Venus does invoke some of the broad themes of her career––a questioning of what it means to have a female body, of objectification, of female heterosexuality in a patriarchal culture––Intra-Venus is also about a terrifying leap into the unknown; one human catapulting into the inevitable. Her body is relevant in the sense that use of her body makes us feel the work in our bodies, viscerally. Intra-Venus is an overpowering assemblage related not to our understanding of beauty and decay as it pertains to one female artist, but related to how all of us will surrender to the unknown. It is so humanly relatable that it is horrifying.
Do you know the cover of Whipped Cream & Other Delights by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass? That woman in a whipped-cream dress, licking it seductively? And you wonder if it isn’t actually house insulation or what, because no way would real whipped cream last under all those lights. And the album itself is all these wonderfully goofy instrumental versions of songs you know all the words to. I know you know. Well, take a peek at Whipped Cream and then at that photo of Wilke with one breast all bandaged and this white puff of a surgical shower cap or something on her poor smooth head (Intra-Venus, June 15, 1992, January 30, 1992) and tell me if that white puff doesn’t scream at you as being the same white puff as the whipped cream of the Whipped Cream Babe. See? I knew you’d agree.
Intra-Venus offers up an ultra-personal emotional buffet to its viewers, depending on their current proximity to disease, but even if you are currently far from cancer, Intra-Venus seems to show what Wilke was saying all along about the terrifying impermanence of using the body as sculpture, of making yourself into your art. This is central to the inappropriateness of critics calling Wilke’s work narcissistic. Think of Hilton Kramer writing for The New York Times in 1975: “A harmless air of narcissism pervades this show of objects and collages that takes the female genitals and the artist’s own good looks as its principal themes.” Narcissism is an excessive love of oneself, but shouldn’t a sculptor care a little too much about their material? We never say, disparagingly, that Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti had an excessive love of bronze.
Actually, as the text accompanying the 2021 Pulitzer Arts Foundation retrospective on Wilke, “Art for Life’s Sake,” reminds us, Wilke also learned to cast in bronze. She was hoping to join “the landscape of public sculpture, a realm long dominated by male artists.” Doubtless she knew that sculptors of flesh and chewing gum fall easily into obscurity and ash.
I think Intra-Venus has seeped into me because there is a Wilke for every occasion, for every fear, for every dark and off-color joke. If there were an elegant staircase leading into death’s maw, there would be a portrait from Intra-Venus every step or two, and walking down, you would have to grip the banister to steady yourself because to look into Wilke’s face is to stumble.
There is Whipped Cream Wilke, and Wilke with those scary white pads taped to her ass and hips from bone marrow transplants (Intra-Venus June 15, 1992, January 30, 1992, and also in stills from Intra-Venus Tapes 1990-1993), and perhaps most frightening of all, the diptych where Wilke appears yawning with a wet red mouth and a bright yellow scarf wrapped around her head and shoulders (Intra-Venus Series No. 5, June 10 and May 5, 1992). But this yawning Wilke is at that brief-yet-discernable phase of laughter without fear. Unselfconscious like a child scratching at their nipples, their tummy puffed out for effect. This Wilke doesn’t have tubes or bandages like we see in other images because those are the symbols of War. The yellow scarf? This is the symbol of Surrender.
A reminder: it doesn’t matter if Surrender was envisaged long ago. When the troops rise up over the edge of the city with their tired silhouettes in the sun, you will be afraid. You’ll stand tall by your ratty house, and you’ll be proud and lovely, but you will feel the dark chill of the Armistice still to come.
I don’t think everyone will feel like sobbing and laughing and shitting every time they look at Intra-Venus, but I do think that every review, every critique, is a fragment of an autobiography, and I think we forget that this is a huge part of criticism: that each critique is meaningful insofar as it’s a glimpse into someone’s truly personal and secret experience of art. Film critic Pauline Kael wrote: “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.” What better memoir than her texts on film? I often disagree with Kael, but I love her reviews for the pungency of Kael. Why should I agree with her? She’s done us the service of a weird honesty. It can never be ours.
I believe that art is meaningful insofar as it reaches into our lives. One piece of art can sucker-punch one person and barely breathe on another. I think critics should probably make a habit of talking about the art that left them feeling sore and strange.
People always talk about firsts and lasts. First time you have sex, last time you have sex, first hit of acid, last. And some of these events take place in the middle-ish of a person’s life. Maybe my last hit of acid will be at a friend’s fortieth birthday party and when it doesn’t go so hot that’s my last hit of acid, sure. And maybe I’ll have sex one evening, only to then grow very sick afterwards. And maybe with the total lack of privacy with all these nurses and doctors hopping around everywhere and friends appearing out of nowhere to say goodbye, maybe I’ll just lose the urge, somehow. And I’ll think, later, was that the last time? If I’d known, would I have fucked differently? Do I even remember how to fuck differently? And as I get sicker, I’ll think about it. Weird, I’ll think. I’ll hold his hand, and both of us will be afraid to comment on this, more than anything. I’ll want to joke about it but now I’ll have thought about it too much to construct any phrase at all.
But just think, in the midst of all this I’ll have so many farts! After all, Samuel Beckett jokes in Molloy about knowing yourself by counting your farts. And Jean Genet tells us, through Divine, in Our Lady of the Flowers: “I’m not dead yet. I’ve heard the angels farting on the ceiling.” So, despite the morphine constipation, I’ll just fart away in my sleep to the disgruntlement of the roommate across the curtained partition (before things get really dire and I get my own private last-days room). But isn’t it some kind of comfort that I’ll never know when the last one will sneak up on me? It’ll be a surprise, this final fart. A squeezing anal whisper eeeeeeeeeesssssh that goes unnoticed by all but God.
In the lower left-hand corner of the four-paneled Intra-Venus Series No. 11, December 11, 1992, there is a photo of Wilke with a giant teddy-bear between her legs. The teddy has a big yellow bow. It is exactly the kind of teddy you helplessly purchase at a hospital gift shop when there is no gesture large enough for your suffering and love.
Maybe Hannah is farting on this un-smelling fury head. Maybe I can still have enough courage to laugh at the inevitable.
Like Mom and me, Wilke and I are also a little alike. The same armpits, the same nipples. Very different noses. More overwhelming than our nipple/armpit resemblance is that same huge sense that a body is pleasure and a body is condemned to death, same strained and un-simple relationship with the male gaze. Same big fear, same big dark hair, same all-devouring desire. Would I identify with her the same way if I couldn’t superimpose not only her death mask, but also her ass, onto my body? I sure hope so. I sure hope my sense of empathy isn’t so pathologically stilted as a human being, let alone a critic, that I can only talk about the fellow me out there in the world. Then again, I don’t know the answer.
I have never seen Intra-Venus in person. I am terrified to see it. And yet I often think of the moment I’ll someday go to a retrospective alone and have the privilege of walking through a gallery and looking up into Wilke’s much-larger-than-life printed face. That’s what Intra-Venus is to me. Fear itself, glossed.
I am poring over images of Wilke when my mom emails her CT report, announcing: “Vaginal vault is grossly unremarkable.” Good news! And reads just like a joke from Wilke beyond the grave. Inappropriate and funny and vivid. Subversive and endearing. I go back to Wilke’s precursor to Intra-Venus, on an open tab: Portrait of the Artist with Her Mother Selma Butter from the So Help Me Hannah Series (1978–81). Her mother is dying and looking off, kind of smiling. Wilke is still healthy, staring at us. It all feels too sweet and too funny and too scary for words.