In a 1996 interview the sculptor Carl Andre remarked, “Perhaps I am the bones of the body of sculpture, and perhaps Richard Serra is the muscle, but Eva Hesse is the brain and nervous system extending far into the future.” Hesse died of a brain tumor in 1970, at the age of 34. I did not know her, but her personality so infuses her art that I have thought of her with a kind of love from the moment I encountered her work. There is a famous photograph of her standing in a polka-dotted dress before a large late work, Expanded Expansion, at the opening of the Whitney’s controversial 1969 exhibit “Anti-Illusion:Process/Materials.” She had arrived at the opening in a wheelchair, just after the first of three operations. Expanded Expansion is made of rubberized cheesecloth attached to reinforced fiberglass poles, and it forms a theatrical kind of curtain behind her. It consists of thirteen diaphanous bays, ten feet tall–slightly more than twice the artist’s height. At its fullest expansion, the work is thirty feet wide. This tiny, brave woman looks as if she is about to be enfolded in her work.
Like much of Hesse’s late work, Expanded Expansion was not made for the ages. Hesse was aware that latex is an unstable material, disposed to oxidize and turn brittle, and to discolor with the passage of time. According to her catalogue raisonné, she lectured those who sought to discourage her from using it:
She was very aware that it was temporary. She was not defensive about it; she was offensive about it. She would say that it was an attribute. Everything was for the process–a moment in time, not meant to last.
The fiberglass poles, reinforced by resin, on the other hand, could last indefinitely, and she was touched by the counterpoint between her two favorite materials during that final phase of her brief creative life. There is, moreover, in the contrast in the photograph between the fragile monumentality of the sculpture and the defiant resoluteness of its diminutive author, a further dialogue between what the catalogue describes as “absurdity and exaggeration.” I am haunted by the photograph and used it as an illustration in my book The Abuse of Beauty. It illuminates the wit and the intelligence that Andre ascribes to Hesse’s work through his anatomical metaphor. I would add to these intellectual attributes the poetic eroticism of Expanded Expansion, as well as of the contrast between elasticity and rigidity formed by the work’s two materials.
All these traits are exemplified in the works that were shown in Hesse’s only one-person show of her sculpture, “Chain Polymers” at the Fischbach Gallery on West 57th Street, in November 1968. It is in part reconstituted by the profoundly moving exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York City until September 17. Given the uncertainty of latex as a material, it is a heroic exhibition. But as curator Elisabeth Sussman writes in her introduction:
Are the few surviving fragile works best left in storage to protect them from the effects of air and light? What are we to say about exposing the work to the natural process of aging? Is it prudent to show only the more secure work of 1968, the fiberglass pieces? Is it worth the risk to have the artworks travel so that they can be seen together? Allowing all aspects of this great year’s work to be seen together while letting the sculptures mature naturally would, one could speculate, most likely reflect the way Hesse herself was thinking about her work. She seems, in fact, to have been incorporating an anticipation of aging and, especially, the unknown into the creation of her art.