All About Eva
Hesse was not included in the Jewish Museum's important 1966 exhibition of contemporary sculpture, "Primary Structures," which assembled a body of austere and reductivist works by the artists who were to define the aesthetic code of what Robert Smithson, one of the participants, called "a new kind of monumentality." It was typically monochromatic, uningratiating, serial, boxy and bland. At the same time, it was felt to be underwritten by the intimidating arcana of mathematical ideas: set theory, symbolic logic, combinatorial algebra, systems analysis or, in Smithson's view, the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It seemed artistically invincible--just what the art world had coming to it, after the romantic excesses of Abstract Expressionism. What became known as Minimalism was one of the outgrowths of "Primary Structures," and though not herself a Minimalist, Hesse discovered her mature vocabulary by pre-empting some of Minimalism's formal devices--like repetition, for example. She was always on the lookout for titles she might use for sculptures.
"Chain Polymers" had just the right scientific ring to validate the work in her 1968 solo show as within the pale of primary structures. A chain polymer consists of a number of monomeric molecules chemically bonded together to form chain-like molecules. That suggests the kind of work she had assembled: iterated units loosely bonded. But only Hesse would have visualized this as a sequence of long, rigatoni-like fiberglass tubes leaned against a wall!
Viewers immediately recognized the importance of "Chain Polymers." It looked suitably Minimalist, and the title could not have been improved upon, given the spirit of the times. The works gave the impression of seriality, and the pieces seemed abstract enough. But Hesse's show was eccentric in a way that Minimalist doctrine could not countenance. It carried an air of mirth and jokiness, and an unmistakable whiff of eroticism. "Endless repetition can be considered erotic," she wrote in one of her diaries.
Yes, one wants to say, as long as it is not mechanical, which is eros's antithesis. Art in the age of mechanical repetition is like birdsong in the age of mechanical nightingales. One might say that nonmechanical repetition is one of Hesse's many contributions to the language of sculpture, and my overall sense is that this is in part what accounts for the aura of eroticism that animates her works. There is a teasing unpredictability about the strokes, if one may call them that, in Accretion, a work composed of fifty fiberglass tubes leaning toward or away from one another in groups that may aspire to numerical orderliness but hardly live up to it. One work, Aught, consists of four large rectangular latex pockets hung by grommets and stuffed with whatever Hesse had on hand. The title Area promises geometricity, but this work looks like an irregularly corrugated chaise longue.
"Hesse," according to the Grove Dictionary of Art, "was one of the first and most influential artists to question the austere, immobile exactitude of serial Minimalism." So she was, but the works are more than art criticism in action. She brought what Yeats called "sensual music" into an art world that had been overtaken by what it thought were "monuments of unageing intellect." Hers is an art, to return to Carl Andre's dream of sculpture's future, "of fierce delicacy and passionate fragility." Fascinatingly, he compares Hesse's sculptures to Cézanne's late watercolors, with their pale, diaphanous planes. It is not the first comparison that would occur to anyone who enters the show, but the more one thinks about it, the more apt it becomes. "Chain Polymers" was a great exhibition in 1968 but it is even greater today, now that we have the forty-odd years of art history that have passed since then to appreciate the measure of her originality.