Eva Hesse - Biography and Legacy
New York, New York
Biography of Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse was born into a German-Jewish family during the social and political turmoil brought about by the rise of the Nazi regime in Hamburg. Family life under the Nazis was difficult for the Hesses; Eva's father, Wilhelm, was barred from his law practice, and mother, Ruth, frequently suffered bouts of depression. Intent on keeping their children safe after the November pogrom of 1938 ("Kristallnacht"), Eva and her sister Helen were sent to a Dutch children's home (or internment camp - by some accounts). The family was later reunited in England, from where they made their way to the United States.
Arriving in New York, the Hesses initially found support in the German-Jewish community of Washington Heights. Ruth's depression worsened, however, leading to her separation from the family in 1944. Ruth subsequently committed suicide shortly after Wilhelm remarried; Eva was then 10 years old.
A sensitive child with a strong attachment to her parents, Eva was deeply affected by the tragic loss of her mother. Nonetheless, she performed well in her classes and was a popular student at New York's School of Industrial Art (today the High School of Art and Design). Although she was characterized as "insecure" by family and friends (Helen has also publicly claimed that her sister suffered "separation anxiety"), Eva firmly believed in her own artistic potential. While interning at Seventeen as an 18-year-old, Eva was chosen as the subject of a feature article in which she described her artistic calling in no uncertain terms, stating, "For me, being an artist means to see, to observe, to investigate. It means trying to understand and portray people, their emotions, their strengths and faults. I paint what I see and feel to express life in all its reality and movement."
While at Seventeen, Hesse took classes at the Art Students League. After brief studies at Pratt Institute, she gained a certificate in design from Cooper Union, and then went on to attend the School of Architecture at Yale University, where she was a student of Josef Albers. After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1959, Hesse took a job selling jewelry to supplement part-time employment as a textile designer. Following the example of her childhood idol, Willem de Kooning, Hesse strove to paint in an Abstract Expressionist style. Academically executed landscapes gradually gave way to figure sketches and self-portraits of intense color and heavy strokes of the palette knife. Her experimentations in painting and drawing produced some of the first of what was to be many compartmented images, a schematic compositional format that may have derived from her extensive design training. The widely influential Sixteen Americans show by curator Dorothy Miller at MoMA in 1959, which included the work of Louise Nevelson, Jasper Johns, and Ellsworth Kelly, may have further encouraged this aspect of Hesse's work, although she was already independently maturing as an artist by the end of the decade. A thick impasto method, coupled with the depiction of glowing, object-like shapes floating above a dark ground in Untitled (1960), demonstrate Hesse's growing interest in referring to three-dimensional space at that juncture.
In 1961, Hesse exhibited drawings and watercolors for her first shows at John Heller Gallery, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Wadsworth Atheneum. In April of the same year, she met the sculptor Tom Doyle, whom she married six months later. As was common of female artists of the day, Hesse's artistic output lessened in the years immediately following her marriage, but her professional development nonetheless continued to progress. Some of the most important drawings and paintings from this period feature her signature box works, but their systemization shows the beginnings of a subsequent preoccupation with the grid. The use of repeated units suggests the work of friend and informal mentor, Sol LeWitt, whose studio was within walking distance of Hesse and Doyle's apartment in downtown Manhattan.
Hesse and Doyle left New York to work in Düsseldorf in 1965, after Doyle received an offer from the Kunstverein, one of the oldest and most prestigious art associations devoted to contemporary art. Hesse immersed herself in the German art scene, which was dominated by abstract sculpture. Turning that winter to found materials in a converted studio-factory, she began to explore working with plaster and string, while continuing to produce variations of the grid in her paintings and drawings. A playful eroticism emerges in Hesse's work at this time, one possibly inspired by the examples of French artists Marcel Duchamp and Jean Tinguely. Hesse's experimentation led to Ringaround Arosie (1965), which she described as the representation of a breast and a penis. A selection of Hesse's reliefs and paintings were exhibited at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf during the last month of 1965, the conclusion of the couple's year-long German sojourn.
Hesse and Doyle divorced after returning to New York in 1966. Maintaining her studio on the Bowery, Hesse resumed her friendship with LeWitt, and grew close to Robert Smithson and Mel Bochner. These relationships resulted in a mutually productive exchange of ideas that would bear a strong influence on Hesse's subsequent work. It was also in 1966 that Hesse made a decisive transition from painting to sculpting, specifically with Hang Up (1966), a blank canvas consisting of a cloth-wrapped frame and a steel rod extending from its surface. Related to Minimalism, the exceedingly extended metal rod gives Hang Up a certain "absurd" distinction, as Hesse herself has remarked. Her inclusion in the watershed exhibition Eccentric Abstraction, of 1966, organized by Lucy Lippard for Fischbach Gallery, argued for a common ground between the leading artistic movements of the 1960s. In hindsight, Hesse's inclusion suggests how her work was exercising an ambivalent impression on critics and the public at that moment. In any event, Lippard's influential show led to Hesse's official representation by Fischbach starting in 1967.
Since the late 1960s, much has been made by critics of a so-called contradictory or "dual" nature in Hesse's work. Hang Up, for example, partakes of the spatial realms of both painting and sculpture. The pieces from Hesse's Metronomic Irregularity series, one of which was shown in Eccentric Abstraction, combine elements of Abstract Expressionism with formal qualities of Minimalism. In Metronomic Irregularity II (1966), one of her most renowned works, a Jackson Pollock-like composition of tangled wires floats above a Donald Judd-esque arrangement of boxes formed by pieces of slate and a blank wall. The visual impact of the sculpture exceeds its parts, however, taking on a life of its own. This equivocal phenomenon is in keeping with Hesse's desire, in her words, "to get to non-art, non-connotive, non-geometric, non-nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort, from a total other reference point."
Late Period and Death
Once Hesse fully concentrated on sculpture, her work evolved rapidly. The Accession series of the late 1960s features her first forays into working with metal. Accession II (1967-68), a steel box lined with nearly countless multiple protrusions of plastic tubing features hard and soft textures to create an object that is both menacing and inviting. Meanwhile, Hesse started her first pieces in latex, a material that attracted Hesse due to its flexibility and its lending an organic quality to objects. The latex spheres of Schema (1968) soften the rigidity of the 12 x 12 matrix, thus subverting its harsher Minimalist overtones. In 1968, Hesse was introduced to fiberglass, which was the material of choice for the period's Repetition Nineteen series. Unlike Schema, which is a serial work in the strictest sense, the Repetition pieces seem to take place in random arrangement. Instead of relying on the tactility of latex, the Repetition series utilizes a more literal tube-like shape to convey an ambiguous organic nature.
In late 1968, Fischbach Gallery showed both Hesse's latex and fiberglass works in an exhibition titled Chain Polymers, named after Hesse's own scribbled description of this latest series. It was to be her first and only solo exhibition of sculpture. Well-received by the critics, the watershed exhibition was followed up by Hesse's inclusion in a group show organized by Robert Morris for Leo Castelli, the prestigious Annual Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the widely influential exhibition When Attitudes Become Form (1969), organized by Harald Szeemann for the Kunsthalle Bern. Important articles appeared in Life and Artforum magazines, and MoMA acquired two works from the Repetition series, all attesting to Hesse's evolving acclaim. Such professional successes were soon coupled by personal tragedy, however, as Hesse would undergo surgery for a brain tumor three times from 1969 to 1970. Hesse died in May 1970, at the age of 34, arguably at the very height of her career.
The Legacy of Eva Hesse
Though Hesse's career spanned little more than a decade, her work has remained popular and highly influential. On the one hand, the enduring fascination with Hesse derives from her remarkable "life of extremes." But Hesse's work, itself, was very much part of an equivocal and unique era in history, when artists were seeking new modes of expression in the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism. Her answer to that problem continues to defy easy categorization. Hesse's oblique references to the human body succeeded in breathing new life into a former Surrealist current in Europe and the United States in the pre-World War II period; thus Hesse's work demonstrated to a new, postwar generation how to distill feelings and conceptual references down to a set of essential forms and contours. These forms' abstract, yet subtly organic qualities suggest that Hesse's work has left a distinct legacy for her contemporaries and subsequent followers. Indeed, the languid lines of her signature shapes, at once playful and full of gravitas, are apparent in a wide range of work by late-20th century American painters and sculptors, among them Brice Marden, Anish Kapoor, Louise Bourgeois, Martin Puryear, and Bill Jensen.