Seeing the Eva Hesse retrospective at the Museum Wiesbaden in Germany immediately after scurrying through the huge, spectacular Documenta 11 in Kassel made me startlingly aware of the disparity in creative work being presented in museums today. Documenta's concentration on cultural issues within a transnational situation replaced Western esthetic mediums with highly political films and videos while the Wiesbaden exhibition and catalogue essay focused on Modernist autonomy and Hesse's responses to Minimalism, via a group of drawings, painting, reliefs and sculpture produced between 1963 and 1970 during a short career of high intensity.
Although much has been made of the fact that Hesse didn't receive her due as an artist, by now a considerable literature has built up around her life and work. The most recent are the catalogues for the current exhibition, organized by Elizabeth Sussman, that debuted at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and subsequently appeared in Germany. (The Whitney Museum in New York was also to host the show, but chickened out at the last minute, in an unexplained and unfortunate move that leaves a young generation in the dark about Hesse's work.) The catalogues feature many essays, both long and short, by art historians. Leading, early texts by Lucy Lippard and Anne Wagner are often acknowledged and occasionally refuted. In all cases, although an attempt is made to minimize sources, credit is cited.
Sussman follows Hesse's career chronologically, but she opens with one of the artist's last works, a "rope" piece, made in 1970 right before her death. She sums up Hesse's art with the artist's 1969 statement, "I wanted to get to 'non art,' non connotive, non geometric, non nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort, from a total other reference point. Is it possible?" This points to Hesse's desire for originality, change, her ambition to reach the top, and her search for a more erudite vocabulary. She sought untraditional materials, an idea which was prevalent among other conceptual artists in that period, while her focus on the handmade was one way she separated from the Minimalists, who were close friends and eager supporters.
Renate Petzinger curated the Wiesbaden show. Her own catalogue essay contends that Hesse's early work, done between 1959 and 1965, is more significant than has been assumed -- and I agree. She also points out that the work shows fewer inexplicable developments than scholars have tended to assume. In fact, Petzinger argues "a comprehensive examination of these works reveals a surprising consistent progression involving a step by step approach to the object." She emphasizes the Box motif of 1964 in Hesse's paintings where "the images are in third dimension -- like a structural construction transposed to a flat surface" that lay the groundwork for a shift to the object. Ideas are substantiated through references to contemporary trends, influences of established artists, both Germans (Joseph Beuys and Franz Erhard Walther) and Americans that she could have seen (Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp) and closer ties to artists like Mel Bochner, Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre.
Although Petzinger claims that artwork goes beyond personal experiences, a great deal of the essays, including Sussman's, rely on Hesse's life experience, plus archives, interviews and her journals for substantiation.
In the catalogue, Hesse's individual works are discussed in detail in well-illustrated entries, often accompanied by Hesse's own comments about her mixed responses to her own works. Petzinger also includes an informative discussion of earlier critical writings. She starts with the earliest work from 1959, influenced by Abstract Expressionism. Included is one example of a group of poignant self-portraits that already reveal Hesse's awareness of abstraction in the facial features and brushwork.
The drawings that followed in 1962-63 are astonishing for having been produced so early in the artist's career. Hesse experimented with many mediums -- collage, gouache, graphite, watercolor and ink wash -- using scattered mark-making both organic and geometric and colored shapes in an expressionist mode. The catalogue references Arshile Gorky as a thematic source but I have seen ink drawings by Pollock that Hesse's shapes and contrasting scrambled marks resemble.
By 1963-64 the drawings changed to tiny, rectangular shapes with linear, more ordered structures indicating horizontal and vertical movement. These led to the boxes in larger watercolors (mentioned above) that are painted to give the impression of a third dimension. By '65, having returned from Germany, Hesse had made a new group of reduced contour drawings that evoked machine elements and medical devices that were erotic and became more volumetric.
In the same year, Hesse began making reliefs, using tempera, enamel, gouache and other unexpected, more tactile materials, usually applied on top of rectangular, painted particle board and hung on the wall. These suggestive but ambiguous objects are laced with cord-covered narrow wires in tight coils. In Ringaround Arosie the coils pivot around nipples. Other associations come to mind as well. 2 in 1 is erotic, moving and funny. It was the best of Hesse's early period.
By 1965-66, gravity became her focus, evidenced in hanging forms that suggested balloons, sausages, penises, testicles attached to cord -- all pulling down toward the floor. Only a few of these were actually shown. Then came Hang Up, a daring piece consisting of an empty frame and a wire loop that circled around and down to touch the floor. It expresses Hesse's ambivalence about painting and her process of taking from others, particularly her awareness of the search for new materials by Conceptual artists, and their discovery of working on the floor, an approach gleaned from Pollock.
Sculptures followed; many were missing from the exhibition. Among those shown was one example of the box piece Accession, a ladder of polyester and fiberglass, and other works that stretch across or lean on the wall. Tori (1969), a group of large folded glistening empty containers slit open down the middle, irregular in size and shape, rest on the floor or leaned on the wall; they suggest female genitalia. Pieces like Schema were missing that revealed her use of a grid and serial repetition from Sol LeWitt.
All of the sculptural work showed Hesse's involvement with and responses to the object makers. Among hanging pieces, Connection (1969) revealed her attraction to translucency. Hung on hooks from the ceiling were a cluster of 20 thin bone-like skeins of fiberglass and polyester resin that reflected the light. Unfortunately, the Wiesbaden installation in an already decorated Byzantine dome-like area was not the best site, but the piece was still special, awkward and beautiful. It anticipated her last works, the Rope pieces.
All of her late reliefs and drawings come much closer to Minimalism. On the wall are elongated reliefs in polyester and fiberglass that are divided into recurring rectangles. A large assortment of untitled circle drawings clearly reflect Minimalist ideas in the use of repeated shapes with serial progressions. But Hesse's continued use of her handmade, irregular shapes and personal references distanced her from Minimalism. The play of sizes, muted colors, and contours of circular forms were varied, tiny ones strung like beads or threads stuck out of their centers offered associations but were always abstract, and geometric, grided and locked in place.
Surprising was the detailed coverage given to the alarming deterioration of Hesse's work, particularly that made during the last three years of her life. The latex, rubber and fiberglass Hesse used has undergone physical and chemical changes, becoming brittle and damaged. Many questions about ways of displaying the work arose in preparing the show, and an extensive roundtable on conservation was included in the San Francisco catalogue. Damage from shipping works also became a major question.
Was Hesse aware that her work might not last? Did she accept this possibility? Impermanence was a characteristic of the times, it signaled a desire to demystify the artist. An inordinate amount of time was devoted to second-guessing Hesse's attitudes as to how the work should be shown in its damaged state. The fragile Rope pieces became significant at this point because of their individual process of installation that depended on the space and who installed them. They were to hang from the ceiling with certain flexibility but Hesse didn't predict or document any final arrangement.
All of these problems did have a major effect on the two exhibitions. San Francisco exhibited only two of the Rope pieces. But this led to a sadder state of affairs in Wiesbaden. Despite the fact that the show was dedicated to the early works from 1959-65, it came as a shock not to find any Rope pieces in the exhibition there -- which I was led to believe were originally intended to be included, but were deemed too fragile to travel. It will be interesting to see if these omissions will be resolved when the exhibition travels to the Tate Modern in the fall.
One work in Wiesbaden that clearly signaled this new direction was Ennead (1966), one of the early hanging pieces. It consists of dyed string attached to paint and papier maché on plywood hanging down with strands loosely attached to the adjacent wall and others reaching the floor curling randomly where they fall. It articulates Hesse's multimedia approach of combining painterly methods with sculptural uses of space and site. These are very prophetic pieces that suggested her information of and attachment to Pollock, a direction that Richard Serra and Robert Morris had adapted earlier. Other works in 1966 horizontally structured strung webs of cotton-covered wire across and over wooden squares along the wall joined painting and sculpture in a different way.
Returning to a concept I articulated earlier about Hesse's work, I would like to argue that Pollock was as much of an influence at a certain point as the Minimalists were. Her work has a "feeling" but is impenetrable. Like Pollock's life, Hesse's was conflated with her art to too great a degree -- their art is difficult to comprehend but doesn't deny the possibility of meaning. It has been noted that Hesse was very interested in art history, did a great deal of reading and looking at shows, and would have had the opportunity in both New York and Germany to see examples of Pollock's work.
With all of the detail devoted to examining Hesse's individual works -- no mention was made of what Hesse may have seen in Pollock's abstractions -- the layering of ropes, the many different widths, the linear combined with the tactile. The looping, spreading, knotting and coagulating of ropes in Hesse's hanging pieces were all echoes of forms that can be found in Pollock's paintings, clearly in ones of 1948-50 that had more open spaces. Pollock's 8 x 15 ft. No. 32 in the Nordrheim-Westfalen Collection in Dusseldorf is a good example. Coincidentally, Hesse had a one-person show in the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf later.
To refer to Pollock's influence as just "drips" is stingy and inaccurate. I suggest what Hesse did was to look at Pollock the way she looked at all art around her and then draw from it, personalizing it, adapting it to sculpture -- and the medium's ability to occupy space, from ceiling to walls to floor in a particular site. Added was the play of gravity dependent upon weight and the hanging process. Other artists at the time were influenced as well -- Oldenburg and Serra, for example. The fact that by this time she felt secure in her work allowed her to compete with someone of the quality of Pollock.
Hesse made many remarks about her awareness of Pollock and, in a late interview, Cindy Nemser asked, "Among the Abstract Expressionists, whose work do you really like?" Hesse replied, "I loved most de Kooning and Kline, you know, for what I could take from them, if you ask me now, I would probably say Pollock before anyone. . ." The evidence of Pollock shows in much earlier work, too many times to enumerate here. Look at Metronomic Irregularity where cotton-covered wire swirls over and under. Ennead (1966) (which I discussed earlier) where string hangs straight down from plywood and then rests on the floor.
I think it's important to sort out what the distinctions were between Hesse's intentions and assumptions and art historians' interpretations. A consensus among the historians in both catalogues accepted that throughout her career Hesse pushed the envelope to not only be nontraditional but early on to be unrecognizable, unidentifiable, equivocal in her concerted effort to be original. However, this didn't stop them from discussing the influences on Hesse of the events that were happening around her. This is fully covered by Sussman and James Meyer. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying she wasn't influenced by what was around her. Nor am I saying she was derivative of Pollock; she turned it into something decidedly from herself that involved contradiction as usual. The fact that she moved to abstraction but used it for different reasons and ideas, rejecting the figurative, the more obviously organic and the structural, towards greater subtlety, to let things flow, is similar to Pollock's feelings of letting go when he arrived at what he felt was harmony. She called it chaos.
Pollock would have disagreed with Hesse's claims for chaos. He became enraged when his work was called chaotic. Although he desired freedom and was motivated by the unconscious, he wanted to be recognized as disciplined. Despite their differences in points of view, they both wanted order -- her discovery was that chaos had its own order. Chaos theory was in its infancy in the '60s. According to Mel Bochner, the artists didn't really know anything about it until the late '70s when Mandelbrot discovered fractals. This means that Hesse was aware of chaos and order at least five years before the mathematicians and physicists arrived at it.
To conclude, I felt Petzinger's exploration of Hesse's early process of development from painting to sculpture was quite convincing. However, paradoxically, there was a feeling in the air that there is still room for further investigation. While in Wiesbaden, I heard symposiums were being organized by a group of art historians to take place in the fall to further research Eva Hesse's art.
JEANNE SIEGEL is chair of fine arts at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.