Published  14/03/2013

When Attitudes become Form

When Attitudes become Form

Eva Hesse
Tate Modern, London, 13 November 2002 until 9 March 2003.

Dr Janet McKenzie

Eva Hesse at Tate Modern is a wonderful, enigmatic exhibition that inspires a wide range of interpretations and associations. It also resists interpretation and easy categorisation. Eva Hesse was a pivotal figure in the development of post-war international art and since her early death has become something of a feminist role model. However, Hesse's dramatic life - her evacuation at the age of three from Nazi Germany, her mother's death from suicide when she was ten, her struggle to gain recognition as a young artist in New York, especially in the male-dominated field of sculpture, and her struggle with cancer - have possibly stood in the way of a full appraisal of her work. Hesse died in 1970 of a brain tumour at the age of 34. She has since become a revered and iconic figure in 20th-century art.

The Tate Modern, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Wiesbaden Museum, Germany have collaborated on this great exhibition. The lavishly illustrated catalogue provides an in-depth examination of Eva Hesse's complete oeuvre. It concentrates on her working methods and choice of unorthodox materials as well as on the large aesthetic and philosophical issues raised by her work.

Eva Hesse was born in Hamburg in 1936. She was evacuated to Holland with her sister to escape Nazi persecution and reunited with her family in 1939. They then moved to New York. She studied at Yale School of Art and Architecture in 1959. Her early work included abstracted figures — self-portraits — in thick impasto and an earth palette. Although she later became a sculptor, in her early twenties she drew with a vigorous style and produced many works on paper. In her works on paper between 1962-64 Hesse developed a gestural style, incorporating gouache and collage. They are energetic works, full of possibilities.

In 1961, Hesse married sculptor Tom Doyle. He was invited by a patron to work in Germany in exchange for a number of works. The couple spent a yearlong residency there. It was a pivotal phase in Hesse's creative development. She spent the first six months in Europe visiting galleries and museums. Her works produced there during their second six months have both a mathematical and erotic quality. She was particularly interested in Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915-23) in which sexual desire is portrayed as the driving, mechanical force upon the body. By the time she returned to New York late in 1965, she was well on the way to developing her own unique vision. She had absorbed and developed aspects of Minimalism, Surrealism and Conceptualism. The exhibition conveys the fact that although Hesse worked quickly, in a remarkably short time before her death, and managed to make a profound contribution to 20th-century sculpture in that time, her work is also poetic and personal. At times, it is also witty and searing.

The transatlantic collaboration that has produced Eva Hesse at Tate Modern is the most extensive exhibition of the artist's work ever assembled. It includes early drawings and paintings; dynamic and extraordinary relief sculptures - a transition from two to three dimensional work - and her late, large-scale sculptures. It is a unique chance to see Hesse in Britain, for while Hesse broke new ground in her art, the materials she chose were not fit to last. Many works in museums around the world are too fragile to be moved. Important works such as Expanded Expansion at the Guggenheim Museum in New York - a 10 feet by 30 feet billowing drape of rubberised cheesecloth, supported by fibreglass poles, has had to be taken down. Left standing it would almost certainly collapse. Other latex works have to be kept in storage crates so that airborne fibres do not settle on surfaces that have become soft and sticky. Hesse's work is literally disintegrating.

Hesse's early drawings were shown in a group show in April 1961, entitled: Drawings: Three Young Americans, at the John Heller Gallery in New York. Her work was well received; Donald Judd described her to be 'the most contemporary and proficient'.1 Later, her works were described as prophetic of the latex and fibreglass sculptures she subsequently made. The organic shapes created then on paper were used in many different forms throughout her short career.

Hesse's first solo exhibition: Eva Hesse: Recent Drawings, opened in March 1963 at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York. Gestural marks and collage replace the earlier, evocative ink drawings. Their dynamism was appreciated by ARTnews:

'She smashes down on little cutout shapes, half-erased ideas, repetitive linear strikings, and sets up new relationships. She invents dimension and position with changes of kinds of stroke, levels of intensity, starting and breaking momentum, and by redefining a sense of place from forces which are visible coefficients of energy'.2

The drawings of this period have a great energy, and a private reality. She often reoriented her images by 180 degrees, rearranged parts of the work by tearing it, replacing it with collage. The process here is of paramount importance, an attitude she held in the highest regard, even when she realised that materials such as latex would have a very limited life.

The next group of works on paper (1964-65) were made following her return from Germany. Hesse had visited museums in Basle, Bern, Dusseldorf, Florence, Mallorca, Paris, Rome and Zurich. She absorbed the 'biomorphic surrealism of Pablo Picasso and Arshile Gorky as well as the modified Cubism of Jacques Lipchitz and Eduardo Chillida'.3 Describing her year in Germany she wrote to Sol LeWitt:

'I have done drawings. Seems like 100s although much less in numbers. There have been a few stages. First kind of like what was in past, free crazy forms - well done and so on. They have a wild space, not constant, fluctuating and variety of forms etc. Paintings were enlarged versions, attempts at similar space etc.

2nd stage. Contained forms somewhat harder often in boxes and forms become machine like, real like, as if to tell a story that they are contained. Paintings follow similarly.

3rd stage. Drawings - clean, clear - but crazy like machines, forms larger and bolder, articulately described. So it is weird. They become real nonsense'.4

Hesse's Contained Forms: Gridded works on Paper and Canvas, form an important chapter in the present exhibition. They are divided by black lines to form a grid into which, 'disparate, often humorous cartoon-like forms are placed'.5 These are ambiguous and dramatic works.

Thematically and formally, these works read as arrays of possibilities, where sample styles and subjects are collected and examined as if specimens. Mechanical vs. organic forms, hot vs. cool colours, tidy vs. overburdened brushstrokes are cordoned off and pinned down for analysis. This series became Hesse's farewell to oil painting on canvas, an important step for an artist who had worked seriously as a painter for over five years. The dialectics first developed in these gridded paintings and drawings were subsequently played out in the three-dimensional topography of Hesse's painted reliefs.6

When Hesse returned to New York from Germany she began making 'quirky fetishistic sculpture'. Referred to in the exhibition by Lucy Lippard's term, 'Eccentric Abstraction', this phase of Hesse's rapidly developing oeuvre is puzzling and strange. Building on the sexual imagery and formal qualities of the relief sculptures that Hesse produced in Germany, these works are difficult to categorise. Fetish assemblages, a fascination with psychology and sexuality belong to an alternative Surrealism. Hesse was involved with an artistic circle that included Mike Todd, Paul Thek and Joe Raffaele. They encouraged the fetishistic aspect of Hesse's work.

A most decisive break in Eva Hesse's work came in 1966 with the largest and most elaborate sculpture to date: Metronomic Irregularity II. It was included in Lucy Lippard's exhibition, Eccentric Abstraction at the Fishbach Gallery, New York.

Based on a smaller two-panel study Metronomic Irregularity II consisted of three four-foot wooden squares hung at equal intervals in a row on the gallery wall. Each panel was drilled with a grid of 100s of holes, which Hesse connected with a dense web of cotton-covered copper wires. This formal structure relates strongly to earlier reliefs in which Hesse explored the conflict between chaos and order by pairing regular grounds with disorganised extrusions.7

Order versus disorder is stated here with greater restraint than in previous works. The modular approach to structure within a unified object was quite new for Hesse. So too was the 'recognition that the gallery space itself could be used almost as a sculptural material was a discovery Hesse continued to mine throughout her career'.8 It was not until mid-1966 that Hesse became seriously involved with Minimalism. There are many clues for this development in the early wash drawings in 1966.

The grid was used by many American artists from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties because it represented a complete break from subjective pictorial preoccupations and illusionist space. The grid was a means of organising the picture plane. There were inherent grids in many of Hesse's work prior to 1966. From this point on, she combined circles and grids that would always separate her work from Minimalist art of the time. Where the grid was neutral, the introduction of circles created an interesting tension. Her relief structures - constructed with washers and grommets on wood panels - confronted Minimalism, even though it was assumed that she had adopted a Minimalist language. Hesse worked on serial procedures, pushing experimentation with mathematical series to extraordinary lengths. She inspired an intellectual dialogue with other artists and theorists.

Like other artists of the mid-sixties - Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt and Robert Smithson - Hesse used techniques from industry. Machine finish, as opposed to the 'idiosyncrasies of touch', was a natural progression from the serial geometries and commercially available parts or found objects.

Accession I, 1967, was an important development in Hesse's career. It consists of an open-top aluminium box, threaded from the outside with rubber tubing, to create a bristling inner surface. Later the same year, she commissioned Arco Metals to make a similar but very much larger structure. She was still involved in the making process but she was not averse to seeking help for technical problems. The Accession boxes display characteristics of geometry versus organic that characterise many of her works. There are anthropomorphic associations and erotic qualities.

In the late 1960s, Hesse began to use latex in her work. Although she was aware of its instability, she was also fascinated by its translucent and supple qualities. Although she acknowledged the influence of Duchamp and his notions of chance, it was the paradoxes of the material that most inspired her work at this stage. Latex was used by Hesse as a casting material - the liquid rubber was poured into forms that she heated or cured in the oven. Later she used it like paint, applying it to cheesecloth or wire mesh. Hesse used latex for 16 major works, and in that process for a number of small works, as well. In a number of these works, other materials were also used - wax, fibreglass, plastic tubing, plaster tiles. Glass cases were bought to display apparently strange collections of sculptures pieces.

The sculptures entitled Repetition Nineteen, displayed so well in the open gallery space at Tate Modern's galleries are one of Hesse's most important series. As implied by its name, it exists in numerous iterations. Repetition Nineteen I, 1967, consists of 19 white, bucket-like shapes, each ten inches tall, made from papier mâché. In Repetition Nineteen III, the bucket forms are twice as tall as the first series and are made of fibreglass and polyester resin. Similar bucket sculptures were also made in latex. They are softer, more organic forms than other works from this period; especially works such as Accession I. They are exhibited on the wooden floor, in a somewhat accidental configuration. They are suggestive of human experience, though an exact meaning is never absolutely clear.

Grids, boxes, tubes, bucket shapes are used by Hesse in different combinations, like words or symbols in poetry. Her late drawings in wash can also be cross-referenced in her working method and in the development of a strong personal language. Against a background of theory and art practice in the late 1960s, it is not surprising that Eva Hesse's sculpture was included in the exhibition, Anti-Form, organised by John Gibson which opened at the Gibson Gallery in October 1968.

The 'warehouse show', as it became known was at Nine at Leo Castelli. Two works by Hesse were selected: Augment and Aught. Robert Morris wrote his influential article in Artforum earlier in the same year, in which he might well have been describing Hesse's important works before they had actually been made:

The focus on matter and gravity as means results in forms that were not projected in advance. Considerations of ordering are necessarily casual and imprecise and unemphasised. Random piling, loose stacking and hanging give passing form to the material. Chance is accepted and indeterminacy is implied, as replacing will result in another configuration.9

Augment was included in the important exhibition organised by Harald Szeemann, When Attitude Becomes Form, Works, Concepts, Processes, Situations, Information, which travelled to Germany and London. The exhibition contributed greatly to Hesse's international reputation. Both Augment and Aught have been extremely fragile since the early eighties and available only to scholars. In 1970, Hesse knew the potential instability of her materials and felt a certain guilt. She felt that when selling her sculptures the buyer ought to be warned. She was also very philosophical, aware by then of her terminal cancer and of her own mortality.

The Window works on paper of 1968 were described by Lucy Lippard as 'transitional'. Stacked rectangles in hazy gouache correspond with the soft washes employed for the latex sculptures. This is an additive process, leaving a frayed edge.

In these drawings Hesse demonstrates her great pictorial intelligence and tact by reconciling motifs and facture from her earlier work with her newer conception of the art object and its generative process.10

Hanging works from 1969 and 1970 revealed Hesse's dialogue with Surrealists such as Marcel Duchamp. They express ephemerality, and energy in space; they are both beautiful and repellent. There is also a psychological suspense evoked. The hanging sculpture Contingent (in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia and too fragile to travel) is painterly in its concept and execution.

The use of non-traditional materials is of central importance in the discussion of Eva Hesse's work; a chapter in the fine catalogue is devoted to the issues of conservation that pertain to her work.

In the last years of her life Hesse became so comfortable with her ideas that her artistic expressions are fluent regardless of the medium in which she worked. The ease with which she explored ideas in different forms and applied techniques in different media suggests that, in her own mind, her creative process had dissolved the boundaries between categories typically used to describe artistic form.11

The late Window paintings have an extraordinary power and beauty. Described by her friend and fellow artist Gioia Timpanelli, with whom she worked in Woodstock, New York, in the summer of 1969, as having a movement that was deliberate and improvisational, expressing discipline and freedom. These small works are among the most powerful in the Tate Modern exhibition.

'The work was abstract, formal, cool, showing great deliberation, clear-headed and passionate at the same time. She never excluded the human emotional element, never abandoned the subtle form. If there seemed to be rules, then they were there to be broken. Everything was immediate and present. The washes were all important, the paint thickness and the thin washes were worked in order to arrive at an abstraction that made sense. Art, like nature, had a prodigious complexity recognisable by those who could see it. All this was done with an intense passion. I don't use the word 'passion' lightly. By it I mean a serious Eros, child of Beauty and the terrifying ineffable creation, which uses the synthesis of opposites, which creates something new.'12

Eva Hesse at Tate Modern enables one to see the art of the past 40 years in a fresh light. Unlike the Barnett Newman show which is still on, and which is primarily about Newman alone, the Eva Hesse exhibition is truly enlightening. It is like returning to an original experience of abstraction and to the experience of absolute authenticity and integrity in the creative act. It makes sense of a lot of art that has been made in a similar vein in recent years and enables one to discern between the brilliant and the very dull in contemporary art.

All quotes are taken from the catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition Eva Hesse, co-organised by Elisabeth Sussman for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Dr Renate Petzinger for Museum Wiesbaden,

1. Quoted by Julia Bryan-Wilson, 'Early Drawings: Ink Washes and Gouaches', p.129.
2. Valerie Peterson, review of 'Eva Hesse: Recent Drawings', ARTNews 62 (May 1963), quoted by Robin Clark, 'Reorienting, Rearranging, Replacing: Works on Paper, 1962-63', p.129.
3. Robin Cook, 'Contained Forms: Gridded Works on Paper and Canvas', p.149.
4. Quoted, ibid, p.149.
5. Ibid, p.150.
6. Ibid, p.150.
7. Scott Rothkopf, 'Metronomic Irregularity', p.185.
8. Ibid, p.188.
9. Robert Morris, 'Anti-Form', Artforum 6 (April 1968) 33-35, quoted by Robin Cook, 'Anti-Forms: Augment, Aught and Seam', p.253.
10. Scott Rothkopf, 'Late Drawings', p.258.
11. Michelle Barger and Jill Sterett, 'Play and Interplay: Eva Hesse's Artistic Method', p.318.
12. Gioia Timpanelli, 'Woodstock Paintings', p.102.

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