The Drawing Centers retrospective of sculptor Eva Hesses works on paper provides a glimpse into her creative process.
Material girl: Hesse retrospective revisits her life and art
By Rachel Youens
When sculptor Eva Hesse died of a brain tumor in 1970 at the age of 34, she was already recognized as an authoritative voice in the discourse of Minimalism. Discovered early, she had her first one-woman show of drawings at Allan Stone Gallery in 1963 a feat for a female artist at the time. As the curator-critic Lucy Lippard once noted, there were virtually no women artists visible in the 1960s, and yet Hesse continued to exhibit at the Fishbach Gallery and the Jewish Museum alongside her male peers, Robert Smithson, Keith Sonnier, Richard Serra, and Bob Ryman (among other now prominent artists.)
In her short but prolific ten years of work, drawing was a tool for Hesse to search, flounder, and experiment, as she first shifted from painting to sculpture and later became a vibrant voice of the Minimalist movement, and the retrospective of Eva Hesse Drawing at The Drawing Center emphasizes the exploratory and formative character of these drawings, which were seminal to her sculpture. (The Drawing Center also includes small scale but pivotal works that culminated from the drawings, as well as experimental test pieces of materials and techniques.) The show coincides with the retrospective Eva Hesse: Sculpture at The Jewish Museum, which focuses on Hesses large-scale latex and fiberglass sculptures and includes a collection of biographical materials from the Eva Hesse Archives at Oberlin College.
The exhibit begins with Hesses string-like linear studies from 1960, completed upon graduating from Yale University, where Hesse had studied with, and was a favorite student of Josef Albers, the German expatriate from the Bauhaus school who taught his theory of color there. The exhibit progressively outlines pivotal moments in Hesses life that support the changes in her style from series to series. In 1961 and 62, soon after marrying sculptor Tom Doyle, she produced abstract, collaged drawings with ink and crayon of floating organic shapes pasted together in rhythmical sequences. Also transitional yet informative is the inclusion of gouache and watercolor drawings comprised of crudely and differently scaled compartments filled with pictographic vignettes reminiscent of Abstract Expressionist Adolph Gottlieb. Logically yet surprisingly, her next series, made during the couples dual 15-month residency in Germany from 1964 to 1965, gives us a sense of Hesses arrival to a personal vision. In linear drawings made with colored inks, watercolor, and gouache, Hesses biomorphic, machine-like imagery gains an expansive sense of scale, as does an example of their sculptural result, Tomorrows Five Apples, 1965, a vertical relief, in which five cords wrapped in colored wire bridge a monochromatically enameled board. This work in which Hesses compellingly irrational construction of colorlessness and color, pictorially links what she called, in Lippards book, one impossible space with another.
Arriving back to New York City, Hesses style shifted to serial imagery. The inclusion of the somber piece Metronomic Irregularity 1966, where three gray sculpt-metal squares on wood were drilled and connected by horizontal lines of cotton-covered wire, has the effect of being musical yet mute. Hesses Circle drawings, in ink, wash, and pencil, translated such sculptures as Ringaround Arosie (not included) back into pictorial terms. And her Window Drawings of 1966 and 1967 float on the walls like haunted presences, and express her desire to create something that is nothing.
As Hesse once said, I was not simple. Much of what is known about her comes from Hesses prolific diaries, which have been a basis for the Hesse mythology. Born in H.amburg, Germany on January 11, 1936 to a family of observant and well educated Jews, Eva and her sister were sent to live in a Catholic Childrens home in Holland in 1938 during a childrens pogrom carried out by the Nazis. Their parents soon came to take them first to England, and afterwards to New York City, where they lived in Washington Heights. German was her first language, and her diaries were often written in third person in English. They were greatly were inspired by her father Wilhelm Hesses [ital] Tagebuchers [end ital] notebooks filled with day to day narratives, documents, photos and memorabilia that he compiled with both of his daughters in mind. Her father, who discontinued his profession as a criminal lawyer in Germany to become an insurance broker in America, remarried during Evas adolescence and died in 1966. Her mother, a manic-depressive, committed suicide soon after being divorced from Evas father. Hesse noted in interviews that while her studio practice was infused with the absurdity and extremes of her familial history, she worked with high degree of formality, and many additional notations on her working drawings at the Drawing Center reveal Hesses thinking through concise statements of material choices and processes.
Hesse and Tom Doyles marriage is legendary and has been documented and commented on by Doyle himself, by the couples friends, and in Hesses journals. Within a year of their first meeting, the newly married couple moved into a big loft on Fifth Avenue between 15th and 16th streets. Although Hesse was more inspired by the imagery of Gorky and de Kooning at the time, Tom Doyles processes, technical knowledge and assistance were invaluable to her during their stay in Germany. She actively assimilated processes of other artists, too, like Claus Oldenburgs soft sculpture, Sol Lewitts serialism, Yayoi Kusamas obsessional multiplicities and Lucas Samaras humorous eroticism, all of which were being fomented in factories taken over as artists lofts. In one interview with Doyle, he described the loft environment, where workers regularly brought the Doyles stuff they liked, inspiring both artists early machine-like imagery. Also left in empty loft spaces, said Doyle, were miles of string
The string was what really got [Eva] going. In the next several years, Hesse created a whole vocabulary using string or string-like material, wrapping it around balloons, gluing it rigidity down to boards with circular perfection, or creating works with rubber hose that could go limp with chaotic absurdity.
By 1969, Hesse was unable to produce enough work to keep up with the publics demand. Although her illness is often ascribed to her use of fiberglass resins, in statements, Hesse called her cancer an autobiographical coincidence, since it occurred two years after her stepmother had recovered from cancer. Still, up until her death, she continued to work from her bedside with trusted assistants Doug Johns and Marthe Schieve to produce fabricated works.
In a 1992 interview, conceptual artist Mel Bochner called Hesse a forerunner of feminism, noting that the first big womens march took place in August 1970, four months after Hesses death. Indeed, we know from her diaries that she wanted her art to reflect her life, an attitude that provoked her to make aesthetic choices distinct from Minimalist values. By converting minimalisms rigid logic to concepts of the self and its boundaries, she created art in her own image, and for that, she was a woman ahead of her time.