The Brief, Transformative Career of Eva Hesse

Tess Thackara
Sep 3, 2019 4:59PM

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.

The artist Eva Hesse was having a “lousy” day of painting, as she noted in a journal entry from November 4, 1964. “I destroy—rebuild and so it goes,” she jotted down. “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.”

Hesse’s reflection on whether to privilege forethought or spontaneity, structure or disorder, captures a persistent thread through the artist’s short but powerfully transformative career. In her published diaries, she often considered “disciplines in art vs freedom.” She painted biomorphs and wonky grids within the defined parameters of the picture plane; created reliefs that erupt in tight, erotic coils of rope; and made a series of hanging cheesecloth drapes, covered in latex, that follow a certain logic but are also irregular, coarse, and wet-looking. (One of the latter works, Contingent, 1969, appeared on the cover of Artforum in 1970, the year Hesse died from a brain tumor at the age of 34.)

Eva Hesse, Accession II, 1968, 1969. © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Detroit Institute of Arts.


In the end, what she achieved in her mature work exists somewhere in between those poles. Hesse responded to the cold, autonomous forms of Minimalism—then at the height of its influence—with work that was bold and material, but also mysterious, fragile, sensuous; dependent on wall, floor, and ceiling. “All of life,” she once wrote, “is centered around…the concrete + the abstract.”

Born to Jewish parents in Nazi Germany in 1936, Hesse had an early life shaped by traumatic events that were all too real and, one imagines, also impossible to comprehend or reconcile. While her extended family was rounded up and transported to concentration camps, Eva, her sister Helen, and her parents were ferried to safety—first to Amsterdam, then on a boat to America. (Along the way, when Eva was just an infant, she and her sister were separated from their parents for several months.) The family arrived in New York in 1939 and settled in Washington Heights, home to a German-Jewish immigrant community.

Hesse would later study at Pratt and Cooper Union, with a stint at Seventeen magazine in between, before finding her way to Yale University, where she earned a BFA degree and studied under Bauhaus artist Josef Albers. There, she wrestled with the “limitless” possibilities of painting, and with the deep wounds left by her parents’ separation and the suicide of her mother (who was likely bipolar) years earlier, when the artist was just 10 years old. For Hesse, as perhaps for many artists, the existential experience of facing the blank canvas was not far removed from the fears, anxieties, and pleasures of being alive.

Eva Hesse, No title , 1964. © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy or Hauser & Wirth.

Her early compositions include figure drawings, abstract collages, and photograms, among other styles and media. But it was during her most acute period of grief—in 1966, after her father died and she separated from her husband, the artist Tom Doyle—that the sculptural work Hesse is best known for came into definition. “The terror and isolation provoked by the death of the artist’s father and the withdrawal of her husband from her—instead of forcing an incipient madness—provoked the crystal lucidity of original creation,” wrote Robert Pincus-Witten. The art historian penned the foundational text on Postminimalism, the tendency in sculpture that Hesse and artists like Richard Serra, Robert Morris, Senga Nengudi, and Lynda Benglis are associated with.

Hesse’s work appeared in two important group exhibitions in New York in 1966 and drew ardent praise from her artist peers—she had close friendships with Sol LeWitt and Mel Bochner, among others—even if New York Times critic Hilton Kramer failed to give her as much real estate in one review as the men in the show.

At Graham Gallery’s “Abstract Inflationism and Stuffed Expressionism,” she showed Hang Up (1966), a textured frame (made by wrapping bedsheets around a wooden border) with a limp cord projecting obscenely from its middle. “I was just floored,” the artist Robert Mangold has said of the piece, calling it one of the great sculptures of the time. “It was so audacious.” The art historian Lucy Lippard—a friend and key advocate for Hesse who would include her work in her influential exhibition “Eccentric Abstraction” at Fischbach Gallery alongside Louise Bourgeois, Bruce Nauman, and others later that year—wrote of Hang Up: “There is a yearning quality of suppression and release as well as pathos and humor to this strange relief that should reach a broad audience.”

Eva Hesse, No title, 1968. © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

Eva Hesse, No title , 1969. © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

Hesse herself considered it one of her most important works: “It was the first time my idea of absurdity or extreme feeling came through.” It was, she wrote, “the most ridiculous structure that I ever made and that is why it is really good. It has a kind of depth…or soul or absurdity of life or meaning or feeling or intellect that I want to get.”

The balance of feeling and intellect that Hesse sought would arguably come to its most succinct manifestation in the “Accession” series (1967–68): industrial-looking metal boxes that she left open at the top to reveal densely fibrous interiors filled with vinyl or rubber tubing. The boxes’ exteriors are cool and geometric, but their contents are chaotic, unruly, and vaguely threatening. “I’ve never seen anything so sexual and fantastic in my whole life,” her friend, the artist Rosie Goldman, commented about one of the “Accession” pieces. Maurice Berger saw in the works “a stylistic collision between one of Donald Judd’s minimalist aluminum boxes and Meret Oppenheim’s Surrealistfur-covered teacup of 1936.”

Eva Hesse painting in lower Manhattan, 1963. Photo by Barbara Brown/© The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

One of Hesse’s final works, Right After (1969)—finished after she returned home from an operation and before another tumor would end her life—seems less concerned with the binaries that sometimes preoccupied the artist in her diaries. (“Does sentiment interfere with intellectual thought? What is arbitrary what essential?” she wrote 10 years earlier, in a 1959 entry.) Perhaps she had fully submitted to the ineffability of life and accepted what lay out of her control, including her mortality.

Eva Hesse, No title, 1964. © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

A great web of latex-dipped fiberglass cord suspended in space, Right After was, for Pincus-Witten, Hesse’s step towards a kind of Abstract Expressionist sublime. An airborne cursive scribble, delicate and lyrical, reaches towards the immaterial. It might still have a kind of paradox at its heart—a structure made from liquid plastic that has set into fixed matter—but it appears particularly alive, spirited, whole.

“To understand the strong, funny, confident, brilliant, life-loving Eva that I experienced that last year, you would have to see the diaries as only part of her being,” her friend, the author Gioia Timpanelli, writes in a catalogue to accompany an upcoming exhibition of Hesse’s drawings at Hauser & Wirth. “She faced dying with courage and equanimity. She was totally alive creating her sculptures.”

Tess Thackara