Eva Hesse: Tate Modern, London, November 13, 2002 - March 9, 2003
Eva Hesse was born in Hamburg in 1936. In 1939, the family escaped Nazi persecution and came to New York. In 1970, she died of a brain tumor. By 1965, in the second half of a career that was to span just a decade, Hesse had stopped painting and had begun to make sculptures and installations. Using such experimental materials as latex, fibreglass, polyester resin, rubberised cheesecloth, rope and cord, vinyl tubing and papier-mache. Due to the way in which she worked with these materials, they have become dangerously unstable over time, and so much of Hesse's work is now disintegrating, literally disappearing. The brevity of her life and the condensation of so many ideas into a single decade, give her work an atmosphere of urgency and immediacy. And so within Hesse's life and her work, there inherently lies the very tension at the heart of existence.
In Hesse's 1965 line drawings in coloured ink of machine parts / body parts, organs and tubes wind their way across the paper with a delicacy and play that will continue to characterise her work. As will the images of disempowered body parts. But as opposed to being macabre, these pieces seem more concerned with movement; with the freshness of discovery.
Her next leap was to harness these shapes and colours and create three dimensional paintings from them. They have the play of Rauschenberg, but the colours of Kandinsky. Metal bolts, plastic balls and styrofoam leap off the pristinely coloured surfaces. And there is the important introduction of wrapped and layered materials that will remain present from here on. Painted cotton cord, cord-wrapped metal, cloth-covered electrical wire.
The work beats with the exuberance of discovery, the energy of movement and the freshness of colour (Hesse had studied colour with Josef Albers at Yale). Her mastery of colour is evident in every detail of these beautifully crafted objects, each painted in exquisite gradations; and yet by the following year, Hesse will reject almost all but the most muted of colours. In her final interview in 1970, Hesse had this to say about a work that she felt had become decorative; "That word or the way I use it or feel about it is the only art sin."
Her use of rope which will recur throughout her work, is striking. In Ringaround Arosie, 1965, it is built-up and curled into breast-like shapes, complete with aerolas and nipples. Louise Bourgeois comes to mind, most especially in Hesse's post '65 work, in her early sculptures, with their fetishistic, erotic shapes. Both artists seem to have had a fascination with abstracting body parts in order to make sculptural mockeries of our frailties. The two women had exhibited together in 1966 and both of them were to work with latex.
Hesse never used latex as a readymade - or indeed anything else - for she was extremely hands-on in her process and was interested in its malleable properties, and the way in which it behaved with other materials. "The materials I use are really casting materials. I don't want to use them as casting materials. I want to use them directly, eliminating making molds…" And this she did to great effect. Her suspended rubberised cheesecloths, (now too fragile to travel or even be exhibited on a permanent basis), are like sheets of skin. Her suspended latex rope pieces are like 3D Jackson Pollocks; atomic, chaotic and impossible to recreate.
After 1965, Hesse left behind painting and expanded into these new materials in three dimensions with the same exuberance and energy. The Kandinsky like colours were gone, but the joy of discovery was still very much present. As if to almost formally reject painting, Hang Up, 1966, is of a large rectangular frame, meticulously bound in painted cloth, and from diagonally opposite ends of the empty frame a steel tube lurches out into the room. It is as if the sculpture is jumping away from the remnants of painting, out into the room, leaving the grey and empty frame alone.
Long phallic sculptures bound in painted cord (Ingeminate, 1965), clear plastic bags in drooping sacks of net (Untitled Or Not Yet, 1966) and rope "paintings" (Ennead, 1966). These new pieces dangle, hang, flop and swing. And there is a contradiction at the heart of them all that makes them so very modern. The ostensible density of the phallic sculptures is belied by their hollow interiors, for they cover papier-mached balloons. The net bags are weighted down by metal balls hidden in their interiors. And the rope paintings that begin as ordered rows of dyed string threaded through a plywood backing, end in hopeless chaos as they slop messily to the floor.
"…I was always aware that I could combine order and chaos, string and mass, huge and small." Contradiction, layering, repetition and the attempt to order of chaos, would become the hallmarks of Hesse's work over the next four years. The layering of the materials would give the work its sculptural formalism. But the materials that Hesse chose, and the way in which she manipulated them, would give her work its ongoing freshness and relevance.
In the Metronomic Irregularity series, Hesse threads hundreds of cotton-covered wires across boards of painted sculp-metal. The work is meticulous in its construction. Things beneath the surface come to mind; veins, the inter-connectedness of human beings and experience. The second in this series of three (no longer in existence) is especially moving. There are three panels with wide gaps between them that are breached by these tenuous, chaotic fibres. The wires here are less taut and grid-like than the one on display at the Tate (the last in the series). In this piece the wires look more like waves or tendrils, like a sinuous muscle that is trying to flex.
Hesse's deceptively smooth fibreglass pieces are among her last ever made. Using fibreglass and polyester resin she created both hanging and standing sculptures that look like translucent bone. In Connection, these pieces are suspended from the ceiling and repeated over and over again. But Hesse's repetitions were again also contradictions, as each was a uniquely crafted piece, no two alike. Inside the fibreglass, the cloth-covered metal wire is like human tissue; fragile and ephemeral.
In Untitled, from 1970 (which is only untitled because of the artist's death, for Hesse was most particular about titling her work), the standing fibreglass sculptures suggest a circle of elders. These were also too fragile for the rigorous three city international exhibition tour, and so remained in the Pompidou. So much was left unfinished at the time of the artist's death that even the installation of this sculpture is uncertain. Haphazardly grouped they seem more environmental, like trees, or some form of atavistic plant life. But as they are now installed in Paris, they appear to represent something as close to figurative as Hesse's later work ever became. A circle of frail, old men; wrinkled, stooped and bent under the weight of time.
It seems it was not the artist's intention to deliberately work with material that would eventually disappear. But not only was the material unstable, it was also highly toxic, and so there are even suggestions that Hesse unwittingly poisoned herself. She only had a few years to experiment with all these new ideas, to explore the limits of these materials, and to understand how they would behave in the future. Just before her death she said, "I am not sure what my stand on lasting really is. Part of me feels that it's superfluous and if I need to use rubber that is more important." But Hesse had not set out to make a statement about the transience of human life, for she was interested in finding solutions to the problem of disintegration in her work.
The problem has ceased to be hers and continues to be one for conservators and curators. How will Hesse's work be seen in the coming years? Will it eventually be reproduced in spite of its highly idiosyncratic, individual nature? It seems there are no clear ideas about how to stop the onslaught of decay, only that any solution will entail further loss and compromise. This strange conundrum, both human and material, is now inextricable from the experience of Hesse's work.
There is a bravery of artistic vision in the face of staggering personal odds that is central to the life and work of Eva Hesse. A desire to create defining art, to fearlessly experiment, and to pursue this with single-minded devotion. "I have learned that anything is possible… vision or concept will come through total risk, freedom, discipline. I will do it."