Elizabeth Sussman, ed., Eva Hesse, 320 pp., 140 color plates, 70 b/w illus., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Yale University Press, $65 hardcover.
Exhibition catalogues generally function as supplements to the shows they document and analyze. But in the case of the retrospective exhibition of work by the late New York artist Eva Hesse, the book will have to serve East Coast audiences as a stand-in. The show was originally slated to go on view last fall at the Whitney Museum of American Art, but its appearance at the museum was canceled, presumably due to budget reverberations from the events of 9/11. Once again, as with the 1992 Hesse survey organized by the Yale University Art Gallery, there would be no home exhibition for this New Yorker, a woman who died too young, at 34, and too early, in 1970 before the feminist art movement, to receive much recognition in her lifetime.
It was probably New York's last chance, too, as some of Hesse's works -- notable for their material experimentation -- have been deteriorating, and owners are unlikely to subject them to transport again. So if you didn't see the exhibition installed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or the Museum Wiesbaden in Germany (the two co-organizing institutions), your last chance is the Tate Modern in London, where the show remains on view till Mar. 9, 2003. Otherwise, if your vita seems too brevis to hop over to London, view the book. The elaborate illustration program in Eva Hesse does more than most catalogues to contribute to the ars longa of Hesse's work -- and to New Yorkers' sense of loss at not being able to know it directly.
Hesse's rough surfaces demand close scrutiny, with their variegated, tawny-yet-translucent hues and rough textures, while her expansive sculptural installations prompt environmental-scale immersion. These are aspects that need to be experienced in the flesh -- the sculptures' and the viewer's. The large-format of the Eva Hesse catalogue compensates as best as a publication can -- and better than previous books on the artist -- by providing both extremely close enlargements of small surface areas and long views of broad installations. As is customary, all the works in the exhibition are illustrated, and in addition, some of those are also shown as installed in their debut exhibitions in the 1960s -- a boon for historians -- and the group is augmented by photographs of related works by others. A special feature is the large number of candid photographs of Hesse herself, many of which have never before been published.
The coffee-table scale and lavishness are unusual for a university press book, and the intellectual range of its six major essays and numerous shorter ones also suggests an aim for crossover appeal. The curator of the exhibition and editor of the book, Elizabeth Sussman, introduces Hesse with a good basic history of the evolution of her art, usefully drawing links between Hesse's work and that of her contemporaries and predecessors. Renate Petzinger, the exhibition's curator at the Museum Wiesbaden, analyzes Hesse's early and lesser known gestural paintings and drawings and the artist's transition to sculptural explorations during a visit to Germany. Hesse's husband, the artist Tom Doyle, was invited by a German patron to live and work in an abandoned textile factory in Ketwig an der Ruhr, near Essen in West Germany. Their 15-month experience there, not to mention the abundant supply of ropes and cloth-covered wire, propelled Hesse into a new direction -- towards her now-famous constructions of everyday materials that emphasize their pliability. Enlivening Petzinger's chronological account are quotations from her personal interviews with German art-world figures, who provide telling recollections of Hesse, such as that she displayed "feeling through the eye."
Other essays describe the interplay of ideas, approaches, materials and forms across ostensibly distinct media in Hesse's work and, on the other hand, her particular ways of handling latex rubber, which in different stages can appear as a skin of milky beauty or a repulsively brittle, yellowed brown shell. A friend of Hesse's, professional storyteller Gioia Timpanelli, provides a tender personal account of their life together as artists and roommates in a small Woodstock cottage. This panorama of perspectives includes a roundtable discussion with conservators on the artistic and ethical quandaries presented by the unstable fragilities of Hesse's material experimentations.
In contrast to the informative tone of these discussions, James Meyer asserts a conceptual understanding of the power of her art as deriving from "polarities unsettled" -- between the waning heat of Abstract Expressionism and the impersonal coolness of Pop and Minimalism. A scholar of Minimalism, Meyer sees nuances in Hesse's work, suggesting that it draws upon both sides of the false dichotomy between seemingly nonreferential abstract art and an art of skin-like surfaces or organic shapes that call up body parts.
Ironically, though the book features ample photographs emphasizing Hesse's persona, almost all of the essays refuse to make thematic connections between the formal vulnerability of her work and her substantial personal losses -- her temporary separation from her parents at the age of two in their flight from Nazi Germany, the death of family members there, her parents' divorce, her mother's suicide, her own divorce, her brain tumor at 33.
And if biography is set aside as a source, so is the world outside the studio. Meyer emphasizes acts of negation in Hesse's work, yet does not relate that to her peers' rejection of tradition or to the pervasive social refusals that characterized the late-1960s anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam War period. Instead, he attributes to Hesse's work "an opacity, a refusal to be known," which sounds like a perverse cross between William Empson's interpretation of ambiguity and a continuation of Susan Sontag's detachment in Against Interpretation.
Hesse's evocative constructions of common matter are both materially striking and emotionally affecting. But they are not pretty, or easy, as are the comfortably familiar blue chips new to the Whitney's collection that the museum put on display in place of the Hesse exhibition this fall. Nor is Hesse's material radicality topical in the current mode of multi-culty sociological art. In addition to the Whitney's failure to honor Hesse, it also denied New Yorkers knowledge of its own art history, not only of Hesse's work itself but of the Postminimalist approach so prominently presented in the Whitney's own 1969 exhibition, "Anti-Illusion: Process/Materials," a show that featured Hesse's work.
Beyond that, in taking this short view, the museum failed to recognize the ways that Hesse's loosely ordered, space-contingent installations implicitly manifest not only the social and political disorders of the late 1960s -- dissension about the United States' engagement in a distant war, skepticism of big business, a falling economy -- but again, our own. The only consolation is that, against these disappointments, we can turn to this big book on Hesse, which does substitute as best as a publication can for the exhibition that isn't there.
SUZAAN BOETTGER is a New York art historian and critic. Her new book, Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties, has been published by the University of California Press.