Eva Hesse (1936-70)
Eva Hesse was
one of the most promising
The quirky, American painter and sculptor Eva Hesse was a pioneer of postmodernist art, whose short life ended tragically just as she began to gain recognition in the American art world. Although she began her creative life in painting, at the age of 28 she switched to sculpture, a medium in which she gained a significant reputation in the 6 years before she died, thanks to innovative works like "Hang-up" (1966, Art Institute of Chicago), Ishtar (1965, Private Collection) and "Untitled" (Rope Piece) (1970, Whitney Museum, NY). Although her work has been described as Minimalist art, her inventive use of new materials (rubber, latex, fiberglass, string), together with her sexually suggestive shapes, lent her work an emotional power that eluded other top contemporary artists, such as Donald Judd (1928-94), Robert Morris (b.1931) and Richard Serra (b.1939), and led to her being labelled a "post-minimalist". Her premature death from a brain tumour may perhaps have added extra meaning to her contemporary art, but her intense focus made her one of the most imaginative American sculptors in New York. Other works by Hesse include: "An Ear in a Pond" (1965, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art); "Ringaround Arosie" (1965, MOMA, New York); "Tomorrow's Apples" (5 in white) (1965, Tate Modern, London); "Addendum" (1967, Tate Modern, London); "Repetition Nineteen I" (1968, MOMA, New York) and "Untitled" (Wall Piece) (1970, Des Moines Art Center). Recognized as having been one of the most promising 20th century sculptors, Hesse was given major retrospectives in 1972 (New York, Chicago and elsewhere), and in 1979 (London, Otterlo and Hanover). Describing her avant-garde art shortly before she died, she said: "Absurdity is the key word. It has to do with contradictions and oppositions."
NOTE: For other important female sculptors and installationists in America during the late 1960s, see: Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Judy Chicago (b.1939) and Carole Feuerman (b.1945).
Born in Nazi Germany into a Jewish family, Eva Hesse was sent to an orphanage in Amsterdam, before being reclaimed two months later by her parents, who took her (and her sister) to New York. Although this emigration saved her from the concentation camps, her parents soon divorced and in 1946 her mother committed suicide. This early history of abandonment left behind a legacy of severe anxiety and depression that Hesse would explore continually in her art. (See also Holocaust Art.)
Hesse graduated from the Cooper Union and later, in 1959, from the Yale School of Art. In 1961 she met and married a sculptor named Tom Doyle and three years later in June 1964 they left to work in Germany for a year. When she arrived, the twenty-eight-year-old Hesse still saw herself as a painter. It was a year filled with anxiety and self-doubt: "I cannot be so many things," she confided to her notebook: "... Woman, beautiful, artist, wife, housekeeper, cook, saleslady, all these things. I cannot even be myself."
Nonetheless, the 12 months in Germany was the turning-point in Hesse's development as an artist. She shifted her focus to plastic art and at the end of their stay she had her first solo show at the prestigious Dusseldorf Kunstverein. Doyle and Hesse lived near Dusseldorf, where the influences of the city's two leading installation artists, Gunter Ucker and Joseph Beuys, seem to have had a formative effect on the character of her stylistic transformation.
Hesse created the twenty breastlike hemispheres (her association) that made up her abstract sculpture "Ishtar" (1965, Private Collection), by painstakingly winding and gluing spirals of cord around the forms, painting them, and fixing them to the evocatively handled gesso surface. The black plastic strings, loosely issuing from the centres of each mound, provide a sensual, fragile connection to this ritualistically reiterated maternal image. The erotic orbs in "Ishtar", the dangling phallic shapes in "Several" (1965, Saatchi Collection), and the other overtly sexual forms that permeate Hesse's sculpture from 1965 through most of 1976 have a fetishistic character not only in the obsessive process of their manufacture but in their repetition. Indeed both the title and composition of "Ishtar" evoke the multi-breasted ancient fetish Diana of Ephesus, who is related to the Semitic goddess of love, fertility, and war for whom Hesse named her work.
The serial structure of the breast-like forms in "Ishtar" also alludes directly to the systemic character of minimalist contemporary sculpture, which Hess successfully appropriated and personalized in works such as this. She saw right through to the generally unacknowledged, expressive content of minimalism and was moved by it, as is evident in her response to the work of Carl Andre (b.1935). "I feel very close to Carl Andre," she said. "I feel, let's say, emotionally connected to his work. It does something to my insides. His metal plates were the concentration camp for me." (See also Junk Art.)
Soon after Hesse returned to New York at the end of 1965, her husband left her, and a year later her father died. She was panic-stricken by the inevitable sense of abandonment. Yet at the same time influential exhibitions like "Eccentric Abstraction" (organized by her friend Lucy Lippard in the fall of 1966), Robert Morris's "Nine at Leo Castelli" (the so-called "Warehouse Show" of December 1968), and the Whitney Museum's "Anti-Illusion: Procedure/ Materials" (which Marcia Tucker and James Monte staged in the summer of 1969) created an escalating trajectory for Hesse's reputation as a central figure in the emergence of a new kind of abstract art (postminimalism), and potentially one of the top contemporary artists in New York. The increasingly positive public reception of her work and a group of exceptionally supportive friends - among them Mel Bochner, Lucy Lippard, Robert Smithson, and above all Sol LeWitt - fostered a growing artistic self-confidence that kept Hesse emotionally afloat.
During 1967, Hesse's work moved away from overtly erotic imagery towards a more direct type of sensuality that was immediately present in the materials themselves, rather than as symbols for something else. Her decision to begin working in fiberglass and latex rubber early in 1968 had to do with their translucence and luminescence, the hands-on physicality of building up the body of the work in layers like a skin, and the sensitivity of both materials to the touch. The chain-like sequences of simple units that serve as the compositional principle of many of these late works deliberately echo the underlying structure of the polymers themselves - Hesse sought to relate, in a fundamental way, with the invisible nature of her materials. (See also: Feminist Art.)
In the late spring of 1968, Hesse had begun working with a plastics fabricating company on Staten Island. Like so many artists in the 1960s, she found that the help of outside fabricators and studio assistants could quicken the pace of production and the development of ideas as well as letting her increase the scale of her work, thus giving her the option of moving into installation art by creating a larger 'environment' for spectators. Doug Johns, one of the owners of the plastics company, became so absorbed in working with Hesse that by September he had closed his business in order to devote himself full-time to her. Having Johns right there solving the structural problems as she went along allowed Hesse much greater spontaneity and the ability to generate and realize ideas rapidly.
In works of 1969 such as "Expanded Expansion", "Contingent", and the "Untitled (Ice Piece)", Hesse explored the idea of infinite expansion. They "take a stand on absurdity," as she put it, by courting the incomprehensibility of infinite extension in space, the improbable transformation of repulsive surfaces into beautiful effects of light and form, and the contradiction between the strength of the fiberglass and the fragility of the latex. She even chose to build impermanence into the work by employing the latex in ways that interfered with its proper curing.
"Art and work and art and life are very connected and my whole life has been absurd," Hesse told Cindy Nemser. "There isn't a thing in my life that has happened that hasn't been extreme - personal health, family, economic situations... I was always aware that I should take order versus chaos, stringy versus mass, huge versus small, and I would try to find the most absurd opposites or extreme opposites."
This attraction between polarities underlies both the eroticism and the conscious humour of Hesse's work. In the Untitled ("Wall Piece") of 1970 the four fiberglass boxes with tenuous strings dangling out clearly set an overall order. Yet the endearingly anthropomorphic eccentricity of each unit mocks the conformity of serial regularity.
In early April 1969 Hesse collapsed from a brain tumor and then underwent three operations before she finally died in May 1970 at the age of thirty-four. The fact that she had already developed a system of working with assistants in 1968, made it possible for her to continue working right to the end, and indeed she produced her greatest work in that final year. The "Untitled (Rope Piece)" of 1970, for example, undermines the notions of fixed form and scale. As with the gestural field of a Pollock, the detail in this work pulls the viewer in, yet disorients him or her with its unfamiliarity of material and form. "I wanted to totally throw myself into a vision that I would have to adjust to and learn to understand," she said. "... I want to extend my art perhaps into something that doesn't exist yet."
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