Eva Hesse on How to Be an Artist
On New Year’s Eve in 1954, about a week before her 19th birthday, artist Eva Hesse started a new diary with an emphatic resolution on its first page. “I open my new book…to bring forth a new chapter of wisdom, hopes, joys fears,” she wrote. “I shall be honest with myself; and therewith SUCCEED.”
In retrospect, the entry reads as something of a thesis for Hesse’s profoundly influential practice. The fierce determination and self-awareness she expressed in these lines, then a first-year student at Cooper Union, powered the entirety of her work. “I feel so strongly that the only art is the art of the artist personally,” Hesse told art historian Cindy Nemser during what is possibly her only recorded interview, just months before her tragic death of a brain tumor in 1970, at the age of 34. “My interest is in finding solely my own way,” Hesse added.
Over the course of Hesse’s brief career, she channelled deep-seated desires and anxieties into sculptures that upended minimalist grids with flaccid, bodily forms; frenzied tangles of thick rope; and latex surfaces resembling skin and other pliable, sticky substances. These works transformed modern sculpture and seeded the feminist art movement to come. Below, we explore Hesse’s diaries and her interview with Nemser to bring you words of wisdom from this piercingly candid, persistently irreverent artist.
Lesson #1: If you’re stuck, try new materials and methods
After studying at Cooper Union and at Yale, under Josef Albers, Hesse headed to New York. She settled on the Bowery and befriended minimalist artists like Sol LeWitt and Robert Ryman. At the time, she was making paintings and drawings where voluptuous, biomorphic shapes and lines resembling bristling hair exploded from vague grids. But in 1964, during a year-long residency in Germany, she hit a wall and was no longer able to translate the complexity of her drawings into paintings. “The translation or transference to a large scale and in painting was always tedious,” she recalled to Nemser. “It was not natural and I thought to translate it in some other way. So I started working in relief and with line.”
Hesse was working from an abandoned textile factory filled with discarded rope, cord, and electrical tubing. She saw potential in these ductile materials and began to turn rubbery, fraying strands into circular accretions that grew from painted boards and resembled breasts, as in Ringaround Arosie (1965). Experiments like these unblocked Hesse and opened her to a range of new substances and scales.
“When I came back to America, I varied the materials further and I didn’t keep to rectangles,” she remembered. “And then they grew and grew. They came from the floor, the ceiling, the walls.” From then on, Hesse challenged herself to try new methods. “In fact, my idea now is to discount everything I’ve learned or been taught about those things and to find something else,” she asserted, just before her passing.
Lesson #2: Embrace the absurd
Eva Hesse at work in her studio in Kettwig an der Ruhr, Germany, ca. 1964–65. © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.
In the 1960s, Hesse’s work increasingly harnessed what she described as “the total absurdity of life.” The phrase encompassed her own fraught trajectory: escaping Nazi Germany as a child, losing her mother to suicide at a young age, and battling cancer at 33. She expressed this in her work through dichotomies—concrete versus abstract, discipline versus freedom, and order versus chaos. “When I was younger or a less mature artist, I was always aware that I could combine order and chaos, string and mass, huge and small,” she remembered, in her interview with Nemser. “I would try to find the most absurd…or extreme opposites, and I was always aware of their contradiction formally. It was always more interesting than making something right size, right proportion.”
In 1966, Hesse made a sculptural piece titled Hang Up. It was “the first time where my idea of absurdity or extreme feeling came through,” she told Nemser. The large-scale work is comprised of an empty, angular frame, from which a serpentine tube protrudes clumsily into space, as if trying to lasso a viewer into its void. “It’s the most ridiculous structure I have ever made and that is why it is really good,” Hesse recalled. “It is coming out of something and yet nothing.” Later, Hesse explored these themes through obsessive repetition. In her “Accession” series (1967–69), she tied hundreds of disorderly vinyl strands that resemble armies of hungry anemones or a giant, ungroomed bush to the interior sides of cubes. When Nemser asked Hesse why she employed repetition, the artist responded: “Because it exaggerates. If something is meaningful, maybe it’s more meaningful said ten times.…If something is absurd, it’s much more greatly exaggerated…if it’s repeated.”
Lesson #3: Explore your materials with spontaneity
Hesse strove for a level of spontaneity in her work. “I wonder how much I must impose my preconceived ideas and to what degree I must be alert and willing to go along with what happens at the moment on canvas,” she considered, in a 1964 diary entry. While many of her peers obscured the artistic process by removing gesture and fabricating smooth, minimalist sculptures, Hesse reintroduced messiness, chance, and material volatility. While she made drawings that informed her sculptures, she often let her unorthodox, malleable materials (rope, cheesecloth, latex) lead her in new, unanticipated directions as she worked.
“It is also not wanting to have such a definite plan. It is a sketch—just a quickie to develop it in the process, rather than working out a whole small model and following it,” she told Nemser. “I am not even interested in casting. The materials I use are really casting materials. I don’t want to use them as casting materials. I want to use them directly, eliminating making molds but making them directly at the moment out of some material.”
Candor drove Hesse’s process. She wanted to reveal, even celebrate, the true nature of her materials.
“I have very strong feelings about being honest,” she explained. “And in the process, I’d like to be—it sounds corny—true to whatever I use and use it in the least pretentious and most direct way.” In many of her late works, like Contingent (1969) and No Title (1969–70), she coated knotty expanses of rope and long skeins of cheesecloth with liquid latex. Their forms droop and congeal with the weight of the hardened yellow goo.
Perhaps most importantly, Hesse didn’t impose rules or guidelines on herself: “If the material is liquid, I just don’t leave it or pour it. I can control it but I don’t really want to change it,” she said. “There isn’t a rule. I don’t want to keep any rules.…In that sense processing the materials becomes important because I do so little with them.”
Lesson #4: Practice fearlessness
Hesse struggled with anxiety and self-doubt—issues she shared with her good friend Sol LeWitt. In a 1965 letter, LeWitt encouraged her to cast apprehensions aside. “Learn to say ‘Fuck You’ to the world once in a while. You have every right to,” he wrote. “Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder, wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting…besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just DO.”
Hesse seemed to take LeWitt’s advice, and by 1970, as her work finally received more attention (including an Artforum cover the same year), she ascribed the strength of her work to fearlessness. “That’s why I think I might be so good. I have no fear. I could take risks,” she told Nemser.
In her studio, courage fused with a dogged work ethic. “I have the most openness about my art,” Hesse continued. “It’s total freedom and willingness to work. I’m willing really to walk on the edge, and if I haven’t achieved it, that’s where I want to go.” In response, Nemser asked Hesse: “Like falling off the edge?” The artist replied: “That’s a nice way of saying it. Yes, I would like to do that.”