Retrospective

‘She Was Piecing Together a New Kind of Expressionism’: Kim Levin on Eva Hesse, in 1973

Eva Hesse, Aught, 1968 (wall); and Augment, 1968 (floor), at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel's "Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016." AUGHT: COLLECTION OF UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY; AUGMENT: PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIAN FORREST/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND HAUSER WIRTH & SCHIMMEL

Eva Hesse, Aught, 1968 (wall); and Augment, 1968 (floor), at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel’s “Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016.”

AUGHT: COLLECTION OF UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY/AUGMENT: PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIAN FORREST/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND HAUSER WIRTH & SCHIMMEL

This Sunday, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel inaugurates its new Los Angeles space with “Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016.” The show runs the gamut, from Ruth Asawa to Sonia Gomes, creating what seems to be a historical survey that, strangely, until this point, had not yet been staged. Among the artists in that show is Eva Hesse, two of whose sculptures from 1968 will be reunited for the first time since their creation. Hesse, who died at 34 in 1970, is also the subject of a new documentary. Titled Eva Hesse, the film will be released in New York on April 27. And then, on May 10, Yale University Press will publish a 904-page book of Hesse’s diaries, titled Diaries. With Hesse having yet another moment in the art world, we turn back to the February 1973 issue of ARTnews, for which Kim Levin wrote a review of the Guggenheim’s memorial exhibition for Hesse’s work. Levin’s review follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger

“Eva Hesse: notes on new beginnings”
By Kim Levin

The Guggenheim Museum is an ideal environment for Eva Hesse’s sliding monochromes of gray, her circular windings of string, her lucid glistening warped trays and receptacles, straggling ropes, dripping icicles and gossamer webs. Her work triumphs over the architecture’s antagonism to painting and sculpture—perhaps because of its hybrid character but more likely because the modular, serial absurdity of the exhibition space is matched in her work, as is the pale, monochromatic light. Or because the sloping, spiraling ramp and the unraveling course of her art both refuse to submit to the strictures of right-angle logic.

Eva Hesse studied with Albers at Yale in the late ’50s and also absorbed the Abstract-Expressionist esthetic predominant at the time. She lived for a while in Germany, and on her return to New York in 1965 became intimately involved with the developments of the late ’60s. Though her career was cut short by death in 1970 at the age of 34, she managed in five years to produce some work important not only in itself but for its influence: for showing that the way out of Minimalism could lead not only to further reductions—to Conceptual and process art and theory—but also into unexplored private areas of feeling.

Hesse. COURTESY ZEITGEIST FILMS

Eva Hesse.

COURTESY ZEITGEIST FILMS

Her work has a delicately organic quality, hinting abstractly at tenuous marine life—nets, barnacles, jellyfish, eels, Saragossa seaweed; wistful and comic, it also evokes the excremental and the edible. And there is even something gruesome about it: it often suggests flesh and guts, surgical remnants, bombs with fuses, primeval traps. The wormy extrusions, waxy tubes and trays, rubbery molds and wafers, are like anthropological displays of excavated artifacts, wet and sticky, fossilized, purpose unknown.

It is not just that the traumas of Eva Hesse’s life and the tragedy of her death have layered her work with morbidity, as have certain critical writings which exploit this pathos; her work itself has the power to inspire unease, wonder, even disgust. For she was piecing together a new kind of expressionism, abstract and Minimal in form.

She was attracted to extremes: “It was always more interesting than making something average, normal, right size.” Her work related oddly to the wall, the floor, the ceiling. It is hung too high or too low, dangling, propped or jutting out. It is also expandable, enlargeable. She thought of her pieces as exceeding their own limits, as being unreasonable and, in the existential sense, absurd.

If the failure of logic is intrinsic to their plan, structural failure is inherent in their material: papier-maché, rubber tubing, woodshavings, rubberized cheesecloth, latex and fiberglass. These curious substances are layered, wrapped, covered by each other—cord is bound by string, wire is wrapped in cloth, woodshavings coated with paint, rope iced by fiberglass. All kinds of imperfections remain within their transparencies.

The forms of Minimal art are rational, literal, reductive and formal; Eva Hesse’s work starts out tightly bound and coiled, and unravels to become the antithesis of Minimalism. The allusive, the informal and the unformed win out, insisting on everything Minimalism denied.

Much of post-Minimal sculpture is about the collapse of the upright rectangle under the force of gravity—an intellectual battle between form and formlessness. But Eva Hesse was not really exploring formal questions; rather, she was using them to express something else. In her work the rectangle is involved in a visceral struggle with inchoate forces from within. Her geometry, never strict, is always subject to fatigue. It is warped, squeezed, stretched and twisted under the stress of the substance being formed. It is threatened and finally overcome by natural forces, primordial chaos—anti-mathematical, unmeasured, irrational—by the tangling, skeining webs that hang alone. Standing halfway between her unstable Minimal geometry and her later dissolution of it, a piece like Laocoon is a cubic ladder (like a renegade crusted fragment of one of LeWitt’s structures), rendered helpless by looping, heavy rope—thick enough to moor a ship—snaking around it, threatening to annihilate this structure in its embrace.

This memorial exhibition spans the years from 1965 to 1970, beginning at the height of Minimalism’s ascendance, and the beginning of Eva Hesse’s dialogue with the dominant style. The seriality, modularity and grid structure ion her work clearly derive from Minimal principles; but less obvious precedents were a more important background.

It should be emphasized that the group shows in which her work was first seen, “Abstract Inflationism and Stuffed Expressionism” (1966, Graham Gallery) and “Eccentric Abstraction” (1967, Fischbach Gallery), were not so much reactions to Minimalism as a simultaneous counter-current—a parallel, subsidiary development. This perversely expressionistic, impure line of development—initiated by Kaprow, among others—shared certain characteristics with Minimal art without ever totally disinheriting itself from its Surrealist and Abstract-Expressionistic ancestry. Some of the stylistic characteristics of what is now being called post-Minimal are a continuation of that expressionist element from the early ’60s that was suppressed in both Pop and Minimal art. When Eva Hesse’s work absorbed Minimal principles, it was to adapt them to this other vision. And when Abstract-Expressionist qualities are found in her late work, it should be remembered that she, and many of the other artists in whose work these resemblances have surfaced, were students during the late 1950s, trained under the dictates of Abstract-Expressionism. Albers was not her only teacher.

Installation view of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel's "Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016." BRIAN FORREST/COURTESY HAUSER WIRTH & SCHIMMEL

Installation view of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel’s “Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016.”

BRIAN FORREST/COURTESY HAUSER WIRTH & SCHIMMEL

There are obvious influences from Jasper Johns in her early work. In addition, her biomorphism can be traced to Oldenburg and her psychological intensity to Saramas; her skeining line back to Pollock. All of this has been commented on elsewhere. But there were also Duchamp’s web, Kusama’s accretions, Paul Thek’s meat.

It is not so much originality of form that animates her work as it is her psychological manipulation of the type of abstract forms that were previously strictly objective and formalist. Her originality lies in the way she imbued simple Minimalist shapes with emotional power. Comparing her 1967 Accession boxes—perforated cubes, laced with flexible plastic tubing cropped short on the inside—to the cubes of Minimalism demonstrates her sensory expressiveness. But a comparison with Samaras’ expressionistic Box No. 3, 1963 (which she saw in 1966—her strong reaction to it has been quoted) reveals much about the nature of her own kind of expressionism. While the Samaras box bristles and prickles with an external covering of pins, Hesse’s concentrates its tactile sensations on the shaggy inside surface. Samaras’ surface is dry, brittle, sharp; Hesse’s is pliable, flexible, wavery. His is reflective, sparkling, casting external light back in sharp points. Hers, translucent, absorbs the light, diffusing it in a soft internal glow.

Robert Morris’ grey objects of 1963-64, some with hanging ropes, would seem to have provided clues to her too, as would his nine plexiglass units of 1967. But in contrast to their cubic regularity, Hesse’s 19 plexiglass cylinders of 1968 of her Tori of 1969 are vulnerable and random—more like Oldenburg’s giant french-fries and giant fag-ends. Oldenburg’s shapes, however, are full, stuffed, closed, while hers are empty, hollow, open. Her work looks pliable, but it is not often actually soft or limp.

The work of both Oldenburg and Samaras has qualities sometimes considered feminine; however, comparison brings out the more fundamentally female nature of Hesse’s work. All three artists have in common a use of substances—tactile surface coverings—that suggests skin. The abstract associations of these surfaces with the human body might be thought of as a non-representational equivalent of body art. Hesse’s work also has affinities with primitive art, which often is embellished with tactile coverings, or fragile organic strands of raffia, hair, string hanging from a solid form.

While Hesse’s work often seems to absorb nourishment directly from specific pieces by other artists, as if by osmosis, to sustain its own emotional demands, the result is totally personal. The coherent development of her work and the consistency of its grown are striking.

When the eccentric forms of her earlier work met Minimalism, in 1965, a basic repeatable unit, with three parts, evolved: it consisted of the grid, the circle within the grid and the center point of the circle. More than a motif, it is pervasive and fundamental to the work. If this form is extended into a hemispherical mound or cylinder, the grid a series of tray-like partitions and the point a dangling thread, string or rope. Any of the three elements may be omitted altogether, or may project itself to become a complete work in the absence of the others. Her pieces are all variations on these elements; their development is, simply, an expansion and extension of their possibilities and alternatives, carried to extremes.

The poster for Eva Hesse. COURTESY ZEITGEIST FILMS

The poster for Eva Hesse.

COURTESY ZEITGEIST FILMS

The narrow Ishtar, 1965, can serve as a prototype, with its progression of accumulating spongy rubber tubes hanging from the centers of two rows of hemispherical mounds, descending in increasing thickness and darkness to be cut off all together. By the next year, in Ennead, the mounds have increased in number and diminished in size; the rectangle has spread to classic proportions, and the orderly progression of the hanging strands gradually runs wild, ending as an uncut tangled skein dangling to the floor and then looping across a corner to fasten onto another wall.

By 1967, a single row of large mounds drops evenly-spaced lengths of cord to the floor—or, in Constant, the mounds have vanished and many short lengths of tubing emerge from the thick square slab, evenly cut and knotted at both ends. The Accession boxes can be seen as a closed three-dimensional elaboration of the shaggy Constant. The 19 hollow cylindrical containers derive from the circle, while the greenish ice-tray cubicles of the Sans pieces explore the grid; the rolled squares of Tori strangely combine the two, making a sagging heap of bulbous split-open discards.

Or retaining its flatness, the rectangular grid unit—as a curling, draping thin orange skin—can be nailed flat to the wall. It can be stacked; it can be joined end to end to snake out across the floor or, held up by ribs, can curtain across a wall. By 1969 and Contingent, it hangs in a row of taut, irregular sheets like glutinous drying skins.

After that, the viscous sinews of fiberglass dangling in space or stretching from the ceiling and accumulating on the floor can be seen as versions of the central string, detached from its support, attenuated in space. Right After, the delicate complex web of looping transparent threads caught by fishhooks, looks back to the tangle of Ennead; a later, dark and heavy rope version is even more irregular and snarled, a menacing giant net that reaches to the floor. And in her seven L-shaped poles, the dangling element, gauzy yet rigid, stands erect by itself.

Compellingly allusive yet insistently abstract, Eva Hesse’s work searched for a new way to express wordless emotions. It created, from the futility of logical structuring, a fragile beauty and wry humor out of inchoate uncertainty and dumb anguish. Bypassing meaning, it found a visceral response to meaningless.

A version of the story originally appeared in the February 1973 issue on page 71 under the title “Eva Hesse: notes on new beginnings.”

“Eva Hesse: notes on new beginnings” copyright 1973, Kim Levin.

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