All About Eva
If Hesse's work is marked--indeed, transformed--by time, so is our perception of it. In part because of our awareness of her own premature death, no one can see the exhibition in the same way as it would have been seen in 1968. That show must have been a moment of triumph for Hesse, who by all accounts was an exceedingly ambitious, fiercely driven person. But one cannot erase from consciousness everything that has happened between then and now, including what nobody knew at the time: that she only had two years to live. So the discolorations, the slackness in the membrane-like latex, the palpable aging of the material, inflect the whole experience.
Yet somehow the work does not feel tragic. Instead it is full of life, of eros, even of comedy. In Schema, which looks like a tray of chocolate cupcakes laid out to cool, and in Sequel, in which what look like cracked spherical nuts have been tumbled on a crumpled latex tablecloth, there is an irrepressible feeling of mirth, so far in spirit from anything being shown by Hesse's contemporaries. Nothing in the entire history of sculpture would have prepared anyone for the array of nineteen irregularly shaped fiberglass and polyester resin buckets without bottoms, each about nineteen inches high, that constitute Repetition Nineteen III. Each piece in the show vibrates with originality and mischief. Except with reference to the bake-shop orderliness of Schema, most of the sculptures embody the philosophy of "anti-form," meaning they conform to no pre-established order. The components of many of the works are intended to be strewn, scattered or left to chance.
As the title of the 1969 Whitney show suggests, the concept of "anti-form" was much in the air. It communicated a certain resistance to the ideal of mechanical uniformity, emblematized in the concept of the grid or the regular series, as well as to anything connected with geometry, which, since Cubism, had played so prominent a role in the look of Modernism. "Anti-form" captured the idea of resistance to and overcoming of limits that was inherent in 1960s attitudes to boundary lines of any sort. Hesse had participated in an exhibition titled "Eccentric Abstraction" in 1966, where she showed a work that I greatly admire, Metronomic Irregularity II, the title of which is conspicuously absurdist, since it would defeat the point to have an irregular metronome. She used cloth-covered wire, which she wove back and forth into a loose sort of web work. This led critics, on the basis of superficial resemblance, to accuse her of attempting to translate Jackson Pollock into sculpture. In fact, Hesse's attitude toward the ideas of Abstract Expressionism was ambiguous, as might be surmised from the title of another show in which she took part in 1966--"Abstract Inflationism and Stuffed Expressionism"--at the Graham Gallery in New York. Metronomic Irregularity, of which she made several versions, was in no sense "secondhand" (the charge of her critics) and certainly not an effort to apply to sculpture the effect of action or drip painting. That kind of critical gaffe was probably inevitable, given how some critics depend on their eyes alone when they enter a gallery. Hesse's detractors revealed not only how little they understood the impulses behind her work but how little they knew of the ideas reshaping sculpture in the '60s. The last thing an ambitious sculptor like Hesse would have wanted to do was emulate painting, which was widely considered to have had its day.
Hesse came into her own as a sculptor in the midst of a slump. It was 1965 and she was living with her husband, the sculptor Tom Doyle, in an abandoned factory in the Ruhr, which Doyle had been given as a studio in exchange for art by a German manufacturer and collector. Hesse was deeply unhappy being back in Germany, where she was born in 1936 into a family of observant Jews. Though the family managed to escape to England and ultimately New York, she grew up in an atmosphere defined by the Holocaust. Her mother succumbed to depression, abandoned family life and ultimately committed suicide. The father married a woman with no particular interest in children. Hesse's own marriage was pretty rocky. The search for her artistic path was further complicated by the questions women were then beginning to ask about their identity, though feminism as a movement had not yet emerged.
Hesse's breakthrough came after Doyle suggested that she use the materials that were lying around the factory. She began to work with cloth-covered cord, which she found in great abundance on the floor. It was an unusual material for sculpture. But, as Doyle put it, "It was the string that got her going." Hesse began to produce a body of work that was entirely her own--a group of relief sculptures in which carefully wound electrical wire was glued around shapes attached to masonite panels and other sorts of surfaces.
The earliest work in the current show was in fact Hesse's first relief sculpture, an impudent pair of breastlike hemispheres of different sizes, one atop the other, each ringed with a red circle and punctuated with a startlingly naturalistic pink nipple. It is called Ringaround Arosie. One can easily imagine what a psychotherapist would make of this antic confection, in which industrial leavings are transformed into something that looks like an erotic trophy. But what strikes me is the way adversity is trumped by absurdity. Hesse made fourteen of these marvelously ludic reliefs and, as if to make sure that critics did not make heavy hermeneutic weather of the work, she gave them preposterous titles: Eighter From Decatur, Oomamaboomba, C-Clamp Blues, Up the Down Road, Top Spot, Tomorrow's Apples (5 in White) and the like. There is something utterly uplifting in the way this emotionally needful and fragile young woman coped with emotional chaos by reinventing sculpture through aesthetic insubordination, playing with worthless material amid the industrial ruins of a defeated nation that, only two decades earlier, would have murdered her without a second thought. By the time she returned to America, her marriage was over, but she had found herself as an artist.