The Body in Question

John Haber
in New York City

Eva Hesse

When an artist dies young, one wants always to remember her that way, as if she never could grow old. Everything she did comes weighted down with mortality and promise. However, she also remains oddly accessible. I feel I could still go up to her at an opening without apologizing too much. I could congratulate her, thank her for the inspiration, and ask how she ever pulled it off. What exactly goes into those thick, creepy constructions, other than fear and pleasure?

At the Jewish Museum, Eva Hesse still feels that way. Much of the exhibition sticks to a single episode, barely two years before her death. It tries to recreate a November 1968 exhibition at Fischbach Gallery that she titled "Chain Polymers." A few early and late works supply another kind of snapshot, a "before and after." Memorabilia line the last wall, as if the artist were saying goodbye on one's way out. A show downtown, at the Drawing Center, adds drawings and a few additional sculptures, filling in the gaps in her short career. Eve Hesse's Repetition Nineteen III (Museum of Modern Art/photo estate of the artist, 1968)

In some histories, modern art itself was coming to an end around 1970, or at least it was about to abandon geometry and start roughing it. Hesse's sculpture definitely plays rough, and her death from a brain tumor at age thirty-four makes its rough edges that much more ominous and meaningful. The paired shows help sort out her relationship to Minimalism—and of both to the present.

A brief life; a brief retrospective

I really could imagine that I had walked into a gallery in another time and place to discover Hesse for myself. The Jewish Museum gives her only its modest ground-floor space, where a partition only a few feet from the entrance seems to bar the way. There and to either side, one encounters some small, early works. One already sees her favored forms—the simple circles, the bulging tubular objects, the limp cords that have a habit of protruding from the centers. One can see, paradoxically, the obsessive care with which she shaped such casual designs out of common hardware and packing materials. And then one steps fully around the barrier, as if entering a time warp, into one large, meandering room.

One walks carefully past the nineteen variations on squat, rounded packing material. The work still makes me think of elephant feet. Ordinary rectangular cartons provided the mold for pale, irregular open boxes, in four thick rows just above and below eye level. United for the first time in years, they stretch across nearly the entire room. Do their pale, vitreous yellow edges bar penetration by the light, or is that only the wall behind them? Do they bar as well a human touch, or do they just make one afraid to try?

In still another set of repetitions, the outlines of cardboard tubes again acquire her craggy, translucent surfaces. They lean more or less at random, as if they grew tired of standing erect. As usual, Hesse refused to specify a definitive arrangement. In one final work, a tangle of rope descends from the ceiling to just within reach. It allows the charged gallery space to penetrate further into the materials. The interplay continues between algorithm and chaos, manufacture and the illusion of growth, gravity and weightlessness, but mathematical order has disappeared.

If the sculpture appears almost full blown in 1968, the drawings provide a surprisingly similar account of her mature work. She starts by working through Abstract Expressionism, with what amounts to doodling. I would call it utterly undistinguished if it did not anticipate Terry Winters and younger artists today. Thankfully, she discovers geometry, with circles in lovely gradations of gray. As if her encounter with Minimalism had then done its job, the circles loosen up and often acquire three dimensions, as with bits of string dangling from the center of each one. Finally, she keeps the underlying geometry but trusts entirely to chance in order to fill it, as with crosses on graph paper that look quite regular—until one steps back.

If Hesse were under forty today, a museum would call this her midcareer retrospective. As with John Currin at the Whitney not long ago, it would boast of fame and fortune to come—or it would promote sales now, presumably before the artist's bubble bursts. The Whitney had its chance to snag Hesse, too, when a full-scale retrospective skipped New York on its way from San Francisco to London. Blame it on a previous director's budgetary and curatorial incompetence, and Wiesbaden had to pick up the slack. The central German city could not even claim Hesse for its own. The two-year-old Jewish girl escaped Hamburg in 1938, first for Denmark and then for America.

Elisabeth Sussman curated her 2002 retrospective along with Fred Wasserman. She does not attempt to recreate it now, and her modesty brings the art that much more to life. It makes sense that she collaborates with Catherine de Zegher, the Drawing Center's last director. The Center forced de Zegher out after controversy over its place at Ground Zero, when she dared to assert a museum's independence. Hesse again thrives on the margins.

Matters of life and death

Robert Smithson died three years after Hesse. One can still catch him on film, in that moment of pure joy out on his Spiral Jetty. Life magazine caught Jackson Pollock as an American master, before he took up drinking again and drove into a tree. Hesse has a different kind of aura, like a rebuke to all that. In photographs, she has a shy smile, as if trying hard to play grown-up. She still seems the opposite of a macho, art-world celebrity.

Hesse has long served a critical role in feminist revisionings of the recent past. She did so in 1976, when Lucy Lippard with her on her became every artist's required reading. Perhaps she did so in her lifetime. Friends must have wondered at a young friend of Sol LeWitt learning to take such strange chances. They must have wondered even more as her husband, Tom Doyle, explored large metal sculpture in the style of Mark di Suvero. No limp threads or limp nipples for him.

Hesse works with fragile materials, as if in response to Donald Judd's closed boxes, Tony Smith's black masses, and Richard Serra's heavy metal—although Richard Serra began later and burst the cube. At times her grays block the light, as if in response to Dan Flavin, and at times her love of translucency makes her textures seem lighter still. She works intuitively, with a distaste for mathematics beyond counting, as if in response to Sol LeWitt's rules and LeWitt's collection. She insists on the sculptural object, as if in response to Carl Andre and Fred Sandback, whose work encompasses the surrounding space and a viewer's every move. Her organic shapes, shades of black, dangerous edges, and murky interiors link her to such artists as Lee Bontecou, Lygia Clark, Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois, and Meret Oppenheim. Hesse's moldy latex puts the fur on her Minimalist teacup.

All these elements give her work the semblance of a human body, even without the explicit bumps, bruises, and naturalism of Kiki Smith, the lips of Alina Szapocznikow,the "paper as skin" of Zarina Hashmi, or the phallic obsessions of Yayoi Kusama. They define the body, too, as an other to the viewer's own—unpredictably hard or soft, threatening, and ever so slightly out of reach. Feminist theory was catching up. They invite and refuse metaphor, just as Hesse refused at times to accept or to deny associations of her circles with breasts and penises. So do such titles as Ingeminate, Accretion, Repetition, Accession, or Chain Polymers. One can take them literally, as formal descriptions of an art object's inception, or as matters of life and death.

For others, too, those matters loom over Hesse's work. One wants to see it as the story of a life—and her life as a series of flights from and encounters with death. She fled the Holocaust, at the cost of separation from her parents, who joined her after more than a year. She later lost her mother again, to suicide. She returned to Germany for a while with her husband, and it must have seemed both eerily unfamiliar and frighteningly personal. Her marriage fell apart, and so did her body.

One has a hard time not reading her death from cancer, like that of Gordon Matta-Clark, back into her work, too. I feel embarrassed myself as a writer, recounting the obligatory short biography when I should be looking and thinking, but I could not leave it out. Such materials as surgical tubing play on the ambiguity of ready-made and made for a physical emergency. The ropes suspended from the ceiling could enact Pollock in three dimensions, a woman's sewing gone awry on a gigantic scale, or a hanging.

Hardware and software

Both strands of criticism—feminist and biographical—make a substantial contribution, and both make Hesse a kind of anti-Minimalist, with perhaps the guys coming in after her death to borrow her ideas. For one critic hostile to both her and late modern art, she could not escape Minimalism enough. An inane review in The New York Sun sees her talent in the soft edges, promising a return to old-fashioned values like beauty and personal expression. Then come the morbid associations, the writer sadly regrets, as Minimalism comes to snuff it all out.

One can see Hesse as the anti-Minimalist, as a woman happily appropriating Minimalism for her own ends, or as its victim. One can see her as more confessional than her peers or more self-effacing, darker or more playful. I like to think of her as leaving the ambiguity to speak for itself. Louise Nevelson, another refugee of Europe who came into her own in the 1960s, would feel less comfortable with that silence.

She turned to LeWitt for friendship, encouragement, and novel methods. He, too, drew large-scale art from soft materials, like pencil and chalk. Conversely, she prefers the hardware department to art supplies, like a man who lingers in Home Depot while his wife looks at housewares. Sculptmetal, used in a work at the Drawing Center, sounds ever so artistic, and Jasper Johns had used its brushy surface in 1961—for a target and for Johns's gray frosted eyeglasses of The Critic Sees. However, it amounts to plumbing supplies, and its discovery parallels inexpensive enamel for Pollock or house paint for Frank Stella.

I did not mention other drawings downtown, preliminary notes toward her sculpture. For all the tactile, visceral qualities of her sculpture, these sketches make clear its ties to LeWitt's rule-based designs. They make no effort to stand alone as presentations. They do not even try to picture the work that will emerge. They include at most a casual outline alongside the basic idea, in very bad handwriting. As if to insist still further on her conceptual side, the Drawing Center sticks these all up and down a central wall, defying anyone to read them—except, perhaps, an artistic giant or a child.

Even her ambivalence belongs very much to Minimalism. Not just Hesse, but every artist of the time toyed with the poles of object and space, heavy and light, the concept and sensual overload, prescription and chance. An older artist, like LeWitt, might push it toward an ideal of reason—and beyond. Smithson, two years her junior, took entropy as a principle of art and nature. Hesse does it her own way: she tends to pale or dark tones, disguises the hardness or pliability of materials, and carries the space of the room deep within an object rather than the other way around. All this allows her to call a work Untitled and to let its associations grow anyhow.

More than Bontecou or Bourgeois, she plays by the rules of New York in the 1960s, in or out of photographs by Duane Michals, and she embraces everything about the rules except their results. That alone makes her relevant to today's manic hybrid of conceptual art, installation, impulse, and sexual imagery. These shows cannot make up for the retrospective that New Yorkers will never see. They scant her use of soft material and her most perplexing shapes. At least, however, you can discover a young artist as if no one knew her yet but you and her closest friends.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Drawings by Eva Hesse ran at the Drawing Center through July 15, 2006, and sculpture at the Jewish Museum through September 17.

 

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