Eva Hesse “A Quantity for Myself”
British artist Anya Gallaccio has just got off the plane from San Francisco. I ask her a few mundane, unshrink-like questions about her trip, but all she can talk about is Eva Hesse : the beauty of the show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the power of Hesse’s latex and fibreglass sculptures, the astonishing fluency in whatever materials she chose to work with, the evocative tension between geometric and organic forms, the pure sense of presence and absence… In fact, in 15 minutes she says just about everything I’d read about Eva Hesse over the past six months, and more. The Hesse show will transfer to Tate Modern in September, and Anya can hardly wait to see it again.
For an artist whose work makes such an impact on other artists, Hesse’s name is still relatively unsung in this country. Although she is well-known to anyone who has been through art college, her work is much less familiar to the broader public in Britain. This is all the more remarkable given the dramatic events and tragic end of her life. Her death at the age of 34 from a brain tumour saw a perpetuation of all the old cliches of the tragic female artist. In the States, she was labelled the “James Dean of Art”, despite the efforts of art critics and friends to temper the media’s mythmaking.
Born in Hamburg in 1936 into a Jewish family, Eva would be sent with her sister on a Kindertransport in 1938 to Holland to flee the Nazis. After their parents joined them some months later, they moved first to London, and then on to settle in New York in 1939. Soon after her parents separation when she was nine, her father married another Eva. A few months later her mother, who had a history of depressive illness, committed suicide by throwing herself from a window.
Hesse studied art at Cooper Union, before moving on to Yale in 1957, where her teachers included Josef Albers. A group show in 1961 was followed by her first solo show at the Allan Stone Gallery in 1963, featuring a series of busy, vital collages. In 1964, she was invited with her husband, the sculptor Tom Doyle, to Kettwig-am-Ruhr in Germany where they occupied the disused floors of a factory building and where Eva would create her first works in relief. Her return to New York saw the start of an amazingly productive period of work, only to be cut short by her death in 1970.
These last five years in New York gave Hesse the chance to experiment with materials like latex and fibreglass, many of which were fairly new to the art scene at the time. Her feel for them and her command of composition were breathtaking. Today, several of these works have either disintegrated or are so fragile that any extended display would damage them irreparably. Museums are understandably cautious about lending out works, and the few retrospectives of Hesse’s work since 1970 have involved both curatorial ingenuity and diplomacy.
A landmark show at the Whitechapel in 1979 gave the public in this country the chance to see a wide range of Hesse’s works. In his foreword to the catalogue, almost ten years after her death, Nicholas Serota was still careful to try to shift the emphasis away from the traumas of Hesse’s life to an appreciation of the “authority and continued freshness” of her work.
Perhaps the time that has elapsed between the Whitechapel show and the Tate retrospective is a mixed blessing. Distanced from the hyperbole of myth, we now have the chance to see her work more as Eva Hesse’s work and less as the simple documentation of the myth of the tragic artist. We can have a sense of the efforts and sequences of her work, rather than simple testimony of the fact that society tends to acknowledge a woman’s success only on condition that some tragedy has befallen her.
But Hesse’s work does tell a story. Not only in the art historical sense. As we look at the progression of works from her early period of 1960-1 through to the Kettwig pieces and then the stunning works in latex and fibreglass, we can think of the other artists who clearly had an effect on her : Arshile Gorky, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, Agnes Martin, Lucas Samaras etc. We could look at each work in isolation and think of its influences and inspirations. But what is so striking about the work is the way that Hesse inhabits it. As Lucy Lippard wrote, Hesse “took exactly what she needed from the art around her, transformed it, and gave it back to the art world”. If the vocabulary is often that of her contemporaries, the language is unmistakably her own. But what sort of a language is it?
Challenging boundaries was crucial to Hesse. ‘Where does painting end and drawing begin?’, she asked. ‘..A lot of my sculpture could be called a painting”. The 1969 ‘Contingent’, a series of eight hanging pieces of ripple cloth coated in latex and fibreglass ‘could be called a painting or a sculpture. It is really hung painting in another material than painting”. This disturbance of opposites is mirrored in Hesse’s challenging of conventional dimensionality. If, in her early drawings, a line is a line, in the Kettwig reliefs, lines start to emerge right out of the painted surface. As she said of this work, “I literally translated the line”.
Lines are so important for Hesse. They frame, divide and join. The early drawings often include linear, framing boundaries, ‘windows’, as Hesse once called them. Then lines start to form boxes, containing hybrids of artificial and bodily forms. In the strange and sustained series of machine drawings she executed in the mid-60s, the concern seems to shift from framing or boxing-in to joining. As they return repeatedly to the crossing and linking of tubular, respiratory forms, these images ask the question : what is the nature of connection?
The ‘Metronomic Irregularity’ series continues this questioning about linking, and the later work in latex and rope asks both teasingly and with great seriousness if a line has to rejoin itself or not. If a line joins itself to make a box or a frame, it can keep things inside and outside itself. It can separate. But if a line ends nakedly or if its ending is obscure, the separation of space is undone. It’s more dangerous.
With her work using cord and rope, the line has ceased to be two-dimensional. ‘Untitled’ confronts us with a hanging mass of rope that could be the myriad lines of a painting or drawing but with the canvas or background surface removed. As has often been pointed out – and contested – it evokes a Jackson Pollock that has come to life and shed its material support. The 1966 ‘Ennead’ is like a transitional stage of this process : it is as if we are seeing a surface in the act of unravelling, as its many strings dissolve and then collect on the wall perpendicular to it.
Almost everyone who has written about Hesse’s art evokes the tension between contraries : the geometric and the organic, the serial and the unique, chaos and order. And yet her work consistently challenges the very idea of contraries. Her early ink drawings involve wash after wash, transposing the layering process from painting to drawing. The later sculptural works often hang like paintings, and the multiple layers of material evoke both the methods and the touch of the painter. In the celebrated ‘Hang Up’, a steel rod coated in bandage-like cloth extends from a carefully painted and entirely empty frame. What we expect to be a painting suddenly becomes a sculpture, and collapses both the demarcation between the space of the viewer and that of the art work and also that between painting and sculpture.
One might be tempted to link these motifs to Hesse’s life. The concern with connection to the contemporary breakup of her marriage, for example, or the haunting motif of the window frame with the fact that Hesse’s mother had thrown herself from a window. A work like the untitled ink drawing shown below from 1960-1 seems to show both a window frame and a falling figure. The crucial relief work from 1965, for example, ‘Ringaround Arosie’, not only evokes her pregnant friend Rosie Goldman but also the rhyme in which ‘we all fall down’.
But in a sense, as with every artist, it is less what happened that matters, than what they did with what happened. It is what Hesse did with the window that counts, not what the window might refer to. As she often said about her work : don’t ask what it means or what it refers to. Don’t ask what the work is. Rather, see what the work does.
And what the work does is to touch us in a special way. As we register the presence of serial and repeated patterns or elements, we think of order, of structure, of the inorganic. Of what is imposed on us. But the very real feeling of the materials, hanging, sagging, billowing, angled, irregular, organic, works against this priority of form. When we look at Hesse’s 3D work, we are looking at ourselves. Not because the materials Hesse worked with are really that similar to our bodies, but because Hesse shows us that the body itself is a tension between imposed, regulating structures and a substance that is never entirely subsumed by them. The tension that makes our bodies is exactly the tension that makes Hesse’s sculptures. In this sense, the artworks are us.
And this is perhaps why so many viewers of Hesse’s work speak of a strange sense of recognition. We have a feeling of empathy which seems different from that which would result simply from an acknowledgement of the specificity of the artists’s pain.
This is perhaps what Hesse was getting at when she said that she aimed to create ‘nothings’. One can create a ‘nothing’ by making an empty space, as with ‘Hang Up’, or through the empty window frames of the 1969 Woodstock series of drawings. But one can also create a nothing by making things that aren’t things, in the sense of nameable, fixed representing objects. Hesse’s objects always do more than represent. They are never just symbols. If art is always made to mean things and to represent, the only way out is to make what Hesse called ‘non-art’.
And if representing is part of the linguistic, structural dimension of all our lives, her ‘nothings’ reveal how we are also different from this dimension. By the simple, brilliant way in which Hesse’s works don’t represent us, they are us. That’s one of the ways in which they touch us. As she said, what mattered to her was to find “a quantity for myself”. Not a symbol of herself, but a quantity. The works aren’t there to symbolise anything, but, on the contrary, to show the inadequacy of symbols. That’s why they are so often like cast-off, thrown-away things, things that have been shed like residues : just quantities.
We are not seeing things shifted into another environment in order to perceive them in a new way, a la Duchamp, but rather things in the process of being transformed. Hesse’s objects are never identical with the structures they bring with them as their frameworks. Minimalist order is upset by the irregular arrangement of Repetition 19 : the formal, procession-like order of Contingent is challenged by the uneveness and awakward richness of its parts. These works evoke the body, but not because of any similarity of surface or form : rather, due precisely to the tension between the formal and the uneven.
Can’t we find this same tension in her earliest works in oil? The series of so-called self-portraits from 1960 presents us with a human figure, but also with a strange, hidden double. Either concealed like a ghost in the paintwork or pressing intrusively against the figure, a sort of nameless, invasive substance that sprouts from the figurative cue of hat or hair ornament. These odd protrusions cohabit the picture space uneasily with the figures, and much of her subsequent work in the mid 60s is concerned with partitioning space, as if to separate these dimensions, framing this alien presence, placing it in a structure, or emptying it out.
Perhaps we can see in Hesse’s work a gradual separation of these two forces. In a student notebook, Hesse referred to what she called a “logical sequence” in art. Applying this to her own work, we could say that the nameless, ghostly presences of her early work become the 3D sculptures, our own being beyond the field of representation. The question that runs through these series of works is how one space can intrude into another. The final stunning work is just that : strange nameless protrusions, which don’t look like us but nonetheless interpellate us more than any representational sculpture.
Once the Tate show opens we will all have the chance to experience the beauty – a word Hesse loathed – and the absudity – a word Hesse loved – of her art. Anya Gallaccio will bet her unique bronze cast potatoes that after seeing it, everyone in British art schools will be “doing Hesse” for years to come. Hesse once said that many of her sculptures could be called paintings, but also that they could be called “nothing – a thing or an object or any new word you want to give it”. Hesse’s work invites us to invent new words, and also, if Anya Gallaccio is right, it invites us to invent new objects.
An artist’s reaction to the work of another artist can take two different forms . On the one hand, a real satisfaction that it was the other artist and not them who made the work – because the work is so crap – and on the other, a little surge of anger at the other artist for having made the work rather than them. If we can risk another generalisation, we could say that Eva Hesse’s work falls into this latter category. As one artist told me, Hesse had made such a strong impression on him that his first solo show was made up exclusively of Hesse copies which he hoped no one would notice. The fact that they didn’t perhaps indicates the way that her work has tended to remain familiar to its enthusiasts while remaining outside the popular images of ‘modern art’