Delighting in internal contradiction and formal repetition—often to absurd or exaggerated effect—Eva Hesse softened Minimalism’s hard edges with pliable industrial materials that evinced her touch. In 1967, after attending a series of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) workshops, the artist began to sculpt with rubber latex; the following year, assisted by a technician, she added fiberglass to her repertoire. The archival instability of these media—and the questions that their inevitable degradation raises about the duration of Process Art and the breaking point of material metaphors—is foregrounded in Expanded Expansion (1969), the recently conserved sculpture around which Hesse’s solo show at the Guggenheim Museum revolves.
Standing more than 10 feet tall and, when fully extended, 30 feet wide, the accordion-like sculptural scrim comprises 13 rubberized panels made by brushing liquid latex onto pieces of cheesecloth that are suspended between upright poles handcrafted from reinforced fiberglass. Though it alludes to domestic or theatrical drapes, the work highlights materiality with its intrinsic colors and textures. Infusing monumentality with indeterminacy, Expanded Expansion is adaptable not only in width but in orientation: at the Guggenheim, it was propped gingerly against the wall, but it can also lie on the floor or span a corner.
Hesse, who died from a brain tumor in 1970, was already ailing when she sculpted the work in February and March of 1969. In the decades since, the latex has embrittled, the uneven sequence of pale membranes stiffening into ocher hides. The museum’s conservation team bandaged the panels with polyester and tenderized them with heat, reshaping them to mime their original relationship with gravity. Hesse repeatedly asserted that she knew latex and fiberglass would break down; it is less clear whether she would have wanted her work to be conserved. Perhaps the equivocality introduced by material transformation is the means by which Hesse’s experiments continue to unfold, her process expanding beyond the studio, even beyond her lifetime, into the present, where it pushes up against museological impulses toward stability, control, and completion.