A key figure of early Post-minimalism in the United States and one of the most influential artists of the postwar era, Eva Hesse created paintings, sculptures, and drawings that are striking in their poetic beauty and individuality. Building on the influences of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualism, and Minimalism with her own distinctiveness, Hesse challenged disciplinary boundaries of both form and function in the field of modern art.
Her work has come to be affiliated primarily with process art, a term originating in the 1960s, that implies an emphasis on the physical properties of materials and the manner of applying them. However, more important than the external content of her work, is the inner turbulence it expresses concerning the life challenges she endured from escaping Nazi Germany to suffering an early death from a brain tumor.
Hesse was born into a family of observant Jews in Hamburg, Germany. When Hesse was two years old, her parents, hoping to flee from Nazi Germany, sent Eva and her older sister to the Netherlands on a train. She and her sister were separated from their parents for a few months before they were reunited. After living in England for a short while, the family emigrated to New York City in 1939, where they settled in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood.
In Germany, her father was a criminal lawyer and the family was well to do. When they settled in New York, they had to take in a boarder to pay the bills, and her father worked as an insurance broker. Eva's mother became more and more depressed by their reduced circumstances and unwanted exile. She killed herself by jumping out of a window. Eva was ten years old when this happened. Severely traumatized, she went into therapy, and stayed in psychoanalysis for the rest of her life.
Hesse's creative talent had been evident since childhood. At 16, she graduated from the New York School of Industrial Arts. In the fall of 1952, she began studies at the Pratt Institute of Design, but she dropped out in December 1953. She then studied figure drawing at the Art Student's League while she worked as a layout artist for Seventeen magazine. In 1957, she graduated from Cooper Union in New York, and then studied at Yale University School of Art and Architecture with the assistance of a Norfolk Fellowship, receiving her B.F.A. in 1959.
In 1961, Hesse was included in group exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and the John Heller Gallery in New York City. That same year, she met and married fellow sculptor Tom Doyle. In August 1962, the couple participated in an Allan Kaprow Happening at the Art Students League in Woodstock, New York. There, Hesse made her first three dimensional piece: A costume made of chicken wire and soft jersey. In 1963, Eva Hesse had a one-person show of works on paper at the Allen Stone Gallery on New York's Upper East Side.
From 1964-1965, the couple lived and worked under the patronage of textile manufacturer and art collector, F. Arnhard Scheidt, in an abandoned textile mill in the Ruhr region of Germany. It was there that Hesse began sculpting with materials left behind in the abandoned factory: First, relief sculptures made of cloth-covered cord, electrical wire, and masonite, then papier-mâché, tubing, dyed nets, and dangling string.
Hesse became associated with the mid-1960s "anti-form" trend in sculpture, participating in New York exhibits such as "Eccentric Abstraction" and "Abstract Inflationism and Stuffed Expressionism" (both in 1966). In September 1968, Eva Hesse began teaching at the School of Visual Arts. Her only one-person show of sculpture in her lifetime was "Chain Polymers" at the Fischbach Gallery on W. 57th Street in New York, in November 1968. Her large piece, Expanded Expansion, was shown at the Whitney Museum in the 1969 exhibit, Anti-Illusion: Process/Materials.
Many posthumous exhibitions of Hesse's work have been held in both the United States and Europe, including ones at the Guggenheim Museum (1972), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2002), and the Jewish Museum of New York (2006).
Except for fiberglass, most of her favored materials age badly, so much of her work presents conservators with an enormous challenge. Arthur Danto, writing of the Jewish Museum's 2006 retrospective, refers to the discolorations, the slackness in the membrane-like latex, the palpable aging of the material… Yet somehow the work does not feel tragic. Instead it is full of life, of eros, even of comedy… Each piece in the show vibrates with originality and mischief.
In 1996, Robert Taplin in, Art in America, wrote, "Having never endorsed a 'what you see is what you get' literalism, while still creating work that remained rigorously abstract, Hesse by example appears to have encouraged succeeding generations to reintroduce allusion and content without wandering directly into the dreaded arena of representation. Although Hesse's method for achieving her special brand of referential abstraction rested on the fragmentation of the body image, there was nevertheless a drive toward wholeness beneath all the pain and dismemberment of her art, a resilient optimism that the wound could be healed. This possibility of reconstitution, as well as a long-suppressed impetus toward representation, is perhaps Hesse's most important legacy—one that seems only recently to have begun to exert its full influence."
Leslie Dick, author and teacher, says of Hesse,
I think Eva Hesse’s sculpture resonates with these experiences, the experience of being a woman artist, of being persecuted, of being abandoned by her mother, the experience of illness, but I believe she was very careful to make sure that her work did not refer to these experiences directly. Her meanings are always tangential, oblique, and associative, as if meaning itself is as tenuous, as provisional, and as handmade as her sculptures. It would be wrong to make out that semi-spheres with dangling, pointless lines coming out of them do not invoke an absent or lost mother. But to insist that’s all they’re about would be equally obstructive. Eva Hesse’s work opens up possibilities, it doesn’t shut things down. Wrapping invokes bandaging, an act of reparation, but it’s also like a shroud, it’s what you do with a corpse. To choose one reading over another would be wrong headed.
An untitled work by Hesse sold for $220,500 in 2000, setting an auction record for the artist for works on paper. Her previous such record was $118,000 set at Sotheby's in London in 1996. In a Christie's auction in 2007, Hesse's "Untitled," circa 1958, a unique gelatin silver print photogram sold for $186,000.
All links retrieved August 10, 2017.
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