All About Eva

All About Eva

In the late ’60’s, Eva Hesse’s ambitious sculptures challenged the art world. Collected in a new exhibition, her art is even greater today.


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.

Hesse’s collectors must be an intrepid group. It had to have taken immense confidence to have bought work so little calculated to endure. Of course, the latex parts of a work could in principle be replaced. It must not be immensely difficult to replace the discolored and disintegrating latex sheeting of a work like Expanded Expansion and make it look as good as new. Sooner or later decisions like that will have to be faced. “At this point,” Hesse wrote, “I feel a little guilty when people want to buy it. I think they know but I want to write them a letter and say it’s not going to last. I am not sure what my stand on lasting really is. Part of me feels that it’s superfluous, and if I need to use rubber that is more important. Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last.”

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.

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.

Ad Policy