Two exhibitions, one uptown at the Jewish Museum, organized by Elisabeth Sussman and Fred Wasserman, and the other downtown at the Drawing Center, organized by Sussman and Catherine de Zegher, honor the memory of the German-born artist Eva Hesse, whose brief career as a New York artist spanned the 1960s. Weighted down by memories of flight from Nazi Germany, by her mother’s suicide, by the social displacement of her father, who once had practiced law in Hamburg, this pretty and intelligent young woman overcame both her middle-class origins and psychological hang-ups. (A room at the Jewish museum is devoted to personal memorabilia, including family photos and her father’s diaries.)
In a macho environment dominated by the likes of Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Robert Smithson and Mel Bochner, all of them her friends, Hesse worked her way through a host of influences. The Drawing Center exhibition is about that aspect of her achievement. The Jewish Museum, on the other hand, displays the sculpture that made her famous, not only because of its unconventional materials, procedures and presentation, but most assuredly because of the enigmatic content of its imagery. Despite Hesse’s claim that "excellence has no sex," it is difficult not to read the sculptural work as sexually informed, though the sexual innuendos are sometimes remote.
The Drawing Center show is about a promising artist searching for an expression that she might call her own and demonstrating an insatiable curiosity about other artists’ accomplishments via drawing. Even her personal signature changes over the years. One can find the painterly line of Willem de Kooning in one drawing, the squiggles of Jackson Pollock in another, the mecano-biomorphism of Marcel Duchamp’s Dada work in yet another. Sometimes children’s collage elements make an appearance, as also does cartoon imagery, Matta’s floating space, Albers’ color scale, Minimalist flatness and repetition. "She could draw like a sonofabitch," her onetime husband, Tom Doyle, is quoted as saying, confirming Hesse’s point that excellence has no sex.
But, despite their high quality, Hesse would not have been Hesse on the basis of her drawings alone. Something more personal and innovative was needed, which she discovered through playing with materials and working in real space. The Drawing Center show also evokes that aspect of her oeuvre. One small, three-dimensional piece set on a pedestal, No Title (1967), now in the collection of the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, N.C., consists of a pile of painted cardboard tubes through which run vinyl cords that coil on the floor. Another small piece on view at the Drawing Center is a smallish "boulder" shape in dark papier-mâché, which also displays Hesse’s talent at finding new uses for the simplest materials at hand.
At the Jewish Museum, the focus is on the mature work. At first modest in size and hugging the wall, it becomes immense, and takes up large portions of wall and floor, and finally hangs suspended in space with wire supports. Hesse’s last and unfinished work, The Rope Piece (1970), is a large, three-dimensional doodle of ropes and lines hanging down from the ceiling in a state of unraveling.
In the course of the 1960s, new forms and new materials enter Hesse’s vocabulary. In Several (1965), a bunch of black sausage shapes dangling from strings, the papier-mâché is covered with rubber. Ennead (1966) is a plywood rectangle from which a stream of dyed string cascades down. Sequel (1967) is a floor piece with balls of latex painted in red-orange pigment. Sans II (1968) is a very large horizontal piece with a repetitive box motif made from fiberglass and polyester resin, as is Connection (1969), whose long slender fiberglass shapes ending in a point hang down from wire.
Merely describing these objects turns them into sexual metaphors, and the presentation of Hesse’s sculpture at the Jewish Museum does nothing to rule out this particular interpretation. The first piece offered to viewers is Ringaround Arose of 1965, which features two circular, breast-like forms. It is installed next to Several, a group of sausage forms dangling at the end of strings, also dating from 1965.
Accretion (1968) -- stiff rods leaning against the wall -- stands near Repetition Nineteen (1968) (the most frequently reproduced work by Hesse), which is made up of several open bags rising uneasily from the floor. Given that the entire show belies Hesse’s declaration that excellence has no sex, the depicted sexuality remains uncanny. Drooping, leaning, pointing downwards or unable to stand fully erect, Hesse’s pieces with a male iconography do not flatter the male ego.
By reading Hesse’s sculpture as a mockery of machismo, I am probably projecting my female sensibility onto hers. "I wonder," Hesse asked a friend, "if we are unique, I mean the minority we exemplify. The female struggle, not in generaltities but our specific struggle. To me insurmountable to achieve an ultimate expression, requires the complete dedication seemingly only man can attain. A singleness of purpose no obstructions allowed seems a man’s prerogative. His domain. A woman is sidetracked by all her feminine roles from menstrual periods to cleaning house to remaining pretty and ‘young’ and having babies. . . . She is at a disadvantage from the beginning. . . . She also lacks conviction that she has the ‘right’ to achievement. She also lacks the belief that her achievements are worthy" (cited in Lucy R. Lippard’s 1976 biography of Hesse).
The feminist turns and twists of Hesse’s art are inseparable from the context of Hesse’s time, the ‘60s, when the super-masculine Minimalists occupied the avant-garde territory, when husbands were still masters of the household, but also a time when women were beginning to read Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan.
Hesse, it should be said, does more than give a humorous visual expression to male machismo. Her work, it seems to me, also alludes to the dream of sexual equality. In Contingent (1969), soft (feminine) cheesecloth fabric is stiffened, but the fabric’s delicate original state remains present as memory. In his catalogue essay on Hesse’s sculpture, Yve-Alain Bois calls such procedure "a conceptual hermaphrodite -- the product of what linguists who study the neutralization of oppositions call a ‘complex operation’ (that is not the simple neither this nor that but the more troubling this and that )." Bois observes this effect in Accession V (1968), a Judd-like macho cube whose interior is lined with hair-like little tubes and thus reawakens the memory of Meret Oppenheim’s furry teacup.
Throughout her ten years of activity as an artist, Hesse embraced a certain ambiguity, and in effect broke through the dialectic of opposites, of either this or that. In her early drawings, on view at the Drawing Center, she made awkward, gauche gesturing feel "right." In the work on view at the Jewish Museum, she confounds the border of drawing and sculpture, of color and non-color, of abstraction and representation, of male and female sexuality, and arouses a humorous giggle with her erotically charged imagery, usually an impossible mix. In Hesse’s case, excellence has both sex and no sex.
Hesse’s major artistic discovery, it seems to me, was in tune with her own biography -- the way that her bad luck and her good luck became enmeshed. Eva Hesse would be 70 years old this year, had she survived the illness that killed her in 1970. On the other hand, had her family remained in Nazi Germany, where she was born in 1936, rather than escaping to New York, things would have been far worse for her. She would most probably have died in the Holocaust, joining the innumerable children who, like her, had great talent but whose destiny was cut short.
So Hesse’s bad luck -- to be born when and where she was born -- was also her good luck -- to grow up in New York, and become an artist so highly regarded by her peers, and with a reputation that keeps growing to the point of adulation.
"Eva Hesse: Sculpture," May 12-Sept. 17, 2006, at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128
"Eva Hesse Drawing," May 6-July 15, 2006, at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, New York, N.Y. 10013
MICHELE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).