Hannah Wilke, ‘S.O.S. Starification Object Series’, 1974, Phillips

Artist Proof 1 of 2

From the Catalogue:
Hannah Wilke was born Arlene Hannah Butter on March 7, 1940 in New York City to Eastern European immigrant parents; “as an American girl born with the name Butter,” Wilke explained, “I was often confused when I heard what it was like to be used, to be spread, to feel soft, to melt in your mouth,” and while the artist abandoned the name Butter, throughout her career a fascination with transmutation, malleability of form, consumption, desire, and the self persisted.

In her renowned “performalist self-portraits,” S.O.S. Starification Object Series, Wilke applied pieces of chewing gum molded and folded into vaginal-like forms onto her semi-nude body. S.O.S. began in 1974-1975 as an initial group of 28 images, including the present lot, before expanding to approximately 50 images at the series’ conclusion in 1982. Across S.O.S., Wilke poses against a white background in varying states of undress, occasionally taking on accessories like sunglasses, turbans, ties, and hair curlers, all with the playful earnestness of a high-fashion model. In each, her face, torso, and back are marked with small aberrations, either sporadically placed or, as in the present lot, decoratively aligned, simultaneously resembling jewels, blemishes, sores, scars, stigmatic wound, and vestigial vulvas. The visually disruptive forms have also been regarded as a reference to the numeric tattoos given to Holocaust victims, causing the ‘Star’ in Starification to take on weighted significance.

Wilke began producing these anthropomorphic forms as early as 1959 while studying art at Temple University, and continued to pursue their possibilities throughout her career in varying sizes and mediums such as sculpture, performance, and photography. Wilke initially produced the miniature sculptures that adorn her body in S.O.S. from kneaded grey erasers—a ubiquitous material found in artists' studios—before ultimately choosing chewing gum. The erasers grey anonymity did not correspond with Wilke's personal, corporal themes in the way soft, colorful (often pink) chewing gum could. When translated to the black-and-white photograph, the original color is lost, however the gum maintains a tonality not unlike that of Wilke's nude flesh, aligning with her body rather than appearing like a foreign addition.

Beyond its material qualities, gum also contains a strong political valiance. “I chose gum because it’s the perfect metaphor for the American woman," Wilke wrote, "chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and pop in a new piece.” Indeed, in S.O.S. Wilke is as much the dejected underside of a school desk, littered with discarded gum, as she is an exemplary beauty.

Following her production of the original 28 S.O.S. photographs, Wilke conceived a number of corresponding performances. The Feminist Art Journal chronicled one such performance in February 1975 at an opening at the Gerald Piltzer Gallery, Paris, where Wilke, armed with 3,000 pieces of chewing gum, “amid non-stop television cameras and flashing bulbs, she offered Super Cherry, Apple Green and chocolate flavored gum to the elegantly attired guests; the chewed pieces were either returned to Wilke who rapidly molded them into 120 'sexual sculptures' push-pinned to the wall or fastened to the artist's half nude body.” As a performance of orgiastic gum chewing, the collaborative production of Wilke’s sculptures illuminates the sensuality of their duel formation—first softened by the mouth and then manipulated with the hands. In our health-conscious time Wilke’s performances now hold an element of danger and disgust, and we are perhaps also reminded of that childhood advice: beware of strangers with candy.
Courtesy of Phillips

Signature: Signed, titled, dated and numbered 'AP1/2' in pencil on the reverse of the flush-mount.

Prestel, Hannah Wilke, p. 48

Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

About Hannah Wilke

Hannah Wilke is recognized as a pioneer of feminist art, though in her time her confrontational use of her own body and satire of glamour modeling sometimes put her at odds with the feminist community. The artist was among the first to explore “essentialist art”, tying the female experience to the image of the vagina, which she rendered in folded clay, hanging latex, kneaded erasers, chewed bubble gum, or rolled-up laundry lint and stuck to photographs, postcards, and her body by the dozens. Such works recast phallocentric stereotypes in terms of female eroticism and transformed penis envy into what Wilke called “Venus Envy”. As living sculpture, she created the “Performalist Self-Portraits”, acting out performances for photographers to capture. Her interest in the body took a somber turn as she documented her own battle with cancer.

American, 1940-1993, New York, New York