TOAST Magazine

The Life & Work of Artist Eva Hesse

ARTS & CULTURE

Corinne Julius explores the remarkable life, and pioneering works, of artist Eva Hesse.

Webs of fibre glass hang in loops from the ceiling, panels of thin brownish latex are suspended, like dried out skin, and balls of papier mâché dangle in cord baskets – like pendulous breasts; this is all the work of the German-born, American artist Eva Hesse. 

Young, talented and influential, Hesse, has to some extent faded from view in the UK. Though she was a major artist in the early Sixties, who changed the face of American Art. 

“Art and work and art and life are very connected and my whole life has been absurd,” said Hesse. “There isn't a thing in my life that has happened that hasn't been extreme – personal health, family, economic situations...absurdity is the key word.” Her life was indeed dramatic and intense, involving a forced exile, a marriage break down and a brain tumour that caused her early death. All factors that found expression in her work.

Born in January 1936 in Hamburg, the second daughter of an orthodox Jewish family, at the age of 2, she and her sister were despatched, to the Netherlands to escape the Nazis. After six months in an orphanage, they were reunited with their parents, who moved briefly to England, before emigrating to New York. The remainder of her family were all killed in the camps. 

Hesse’s mother was bipolar. In 1944 her parents separated; her father remarried in 1945 and the following year her mother killed herself. Eva was brought up with her father and stepmother, also called Eva Hesse, which many believe caused identity issues for the young Eva. She graduated from the New York School of Industrial Art at 16, interned at Seventeen Magazine when she was  18, briefly attended the Pratt Institute of Design and studied at the Cooper Union, between 1954-7, graduating in Art from Yale in 1959.

She kept obsessive diaries, in which according to Barry Rosen, editor of the diaries and advisor to the Hesse Estate, “she tried to understand life. She was a super charismatic, creative young person,” though others have taken her self-questioning writings more literally.

At Yale, Hesse was taught by Josef Albers and Rico Lebrun, and influenced by Abstract Expressionism. Returning to New York she was at the centre of a crowd of young minimalist artists like Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Robert Mangold. She and LeWitt became best friends, exchanging ideas about life and art. He famously told the self-doubting Eva “Stop (thinking) and just DO.” 

In 1962, Eva Hesse married the up and coming sculptor Tom Doyle, accompanying him reluctantly back to Germany, when Doyle undertook a residency there. They set up a studio in an empty textile factory, where Hesse took to using the abandoned detritus that she found on-site. This included machine parts, tools, and materials from its previous use, which inspired her to create a series of mechanical drawings and paintings. Hesse investigated discarded materials to make sculpture, along with chicken wire, string, cord and plaster, often using repeat forms organised in grids.

Germany was a liberating and traumatic 15 months. Hesse used the miles of stiffened string she found to translate her drawings into sculptures. Once back in New York, in a studio on the Bowery, the string was used to create dangling innovative sculptures, with lines that were curved, flexible, humorous, sometimes tentative and at others embracing. They could be read as deeply poignant, their loose ends expressing her life. Her friend and biographer Lucy Lippard called it the “dismantling of the centre, the unravelling of the life force into unstructured chaos,” or as Hesse herself said, “My Life and Art have not been separated.”  

Hesse started to explore latex as a material for sculpture, a substance used principally in manufacturing. Her work may have been based on the physical and her use of latex emphasised this skin-like, corporeal quality.

Sculpting with latex was not without consequences, particularly as she altered the chemical composition. At the beginning latex is soft, lightly coloured and sensuous, but as it ages, it oxidises, yellows and hardens. “She had tremendous curiosity,” says Rosen. “She interviewed 2 suppliers and she messed around with the formulas a lot. That’s part of the reason there’s instability in the material.” Today, some of her work has decayed and there is much debate as to whether they should be restored, or allowed to perish gently.

Hesse’s work was widely emulated, especially in the 70s by Fiber Artists, (these days in American art, a dismissive term for women textile artists of the period). Hesse herself was not identified as such, but rather she worked and also competed with male artists identifying as Post Minimalists. 

She has subsequently been claimed as a feminist, but she died just before feminism took hold in the New York art scene. In the late 60s, she was reluctant to be identified as a woman artist, when she was ‘one of the boys,’ though she chastised herself for her lack of male confidence and low esteem. Nevertheless, she became a powerful role model for subsequent generations of women and a feminist icon for revealing ‘the unleashing of self,’ a physical and psychological identification with her art. Lucy Lippard’s biography of the artist put Hesse firmly in the feminist firmament.

Eva Hesse had just 4 brilliant years before undergoing several operations for a brain tumour that eventually killed her at the age of 34. “She worked,” says Rosen, “until she died.” Had she survived longer, her influence would have been greater and more widely recognised, but in her short life Hesse was influential and changed the nature of sculpture. Her drippy, hanging, pendulous assemblages, made visible forms that had always been there, but had rarely been celebrated.

“Her work,” says Briony Fer, Professor of History of Art at UCL and author of Eva Hesse Studiowork, “was decisively her own, yet it was also shaped by a larger drive to reconfigure what innovative art looked like in the 1950s and early 60s.” Rosen concludes, “Her work is powerful because it’s a communication. Part of what’s beautiful about it is that it’s an open reading. The best art is a communication to the person looking at it. Her work still moves people.” 

Words by Corinne Julius. 

Thanks to Barry Rosen and Hauser &With for sharing their knowledge and time.

Photography Credits:

Image 1: Eva Hesse. Area, 1968. Latex, wire-mesh, metal. 609.6 x 91.4 cm / 240 x 36 inches, installation variable. Wexner Center for The Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, purchased in part with designated funds from Helen Hesse Charash through the Development Fund at the University, 1976. © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: John A. Ferrari.

Image 2: Eva Hesse. Ennead, 1966. Acrylic, papier-mâché, plastic, plywood, string. Installation variable, panel 91.4 x 55.9 x 3.8 cm / 36 x 22 x 1 1/2 inches. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Abby Robinson, New York.

Image 3: Eva Hesse preparing her Bowery studio for photographer Gretchen Lambert, 1966 Photo: Gretchen Lambert

Image 4: Works from 1965-66 in Eva Hesse's studio Photo: Gretchen Lambert

Image 5: Eva Hesse with 'Expanded Epansion' at the 1969 exhibition 'Anti-Illusion: Process/Materials' at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photographer unknown.

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