It’s also vital to consider the context surrounding the production of Wilke’s work. The pieces were made against the backdrop of Roe v. Wade (decided in 1973), a Supreme Court struggle that centered around controlling women’s right to an abortion. To say that Wilke’s beauty meant that she was unable to use her body as a political statement therefore seems reductive. This environment also had a financial and societal toll on women—even beautiful ones—who used their bodies in ways deemed unacceptable. Wilke voiced worries of losing her teaching job at the School of Visual Arts in New York because of her nude performances, demonstrating the conservatism inherent even in artistic circles.
This analysis also glosses over Wilke’s desire to use her work to draw out dynamics of race and power, especially in regard to her status as a Jewish American. As Wilke stated in her 1978 video performance Intercourse with...
, “As a Jew, during the war, I would have been branded and buried had I not been born in America. Starification-scarification.…Jew, black, Christian, Muslim ... Labelling people instead of listening to them ... judging according to primitive prejudices... Sticks and stones break our bones, but names more often hurt us.” This sentiment is reflected in her poster Marxism and Art
(1977), in which she uses her naked body—and the slogan “Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism”—to directly confront the viewer. It’s an arresting image—her chest spangled with her Starification
gum vulvas, shirt open, tie long—that explicitly acknowledges Wilke’s work as political, a call-out to her critics whose reaction to her body reveals their conservatism.
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Wilke’s practice directly investigated the relationship between her success and her looks. The series “Intra-Venus” (1991–93), her final work, documents her body throughout chemotherapy. Running parallel to her earlier nude photographs, which presented the viewer with her naked torso in black and white, all youthful confidence and coy gaze, this bold, heartbreaking series is instead shot in color. Wilke photographed her gauze, her drip, the purple veins that run through her skin. Her shampoo-advertisement quality hair has been reduced to wisps by the chemo; halfway through the sequence, she shaves it off, then photographs a lock of it. Even at the end, Wilke was concerned, still, with all aspects of the naked body: vulnerable, beautiful, strange.