Edited by Barry Rosen with Tamara Bloomberg, New York and New Haven, Hauser & Wirth and Yale University Press, 2016; 904 pages, two black-and-white illustrations, $45 paperback.
The career of artist Eva Hesse, who died of brain cancer almost a half century ago at only thirty-four, is having yet another well-deserved revival. Recent events include five concurrent Manhattan exhibitions last year, the refurbishing of her Bowery studio as the LOMEX Gallery, and the publication of the handsome, revealing, yet inadvertently misleading Diaries. Another welcome addition to the celebration of the sculptor’s life and work is Marcie Begleiter’s inspired documentary film Eva Hesse (2016).
Hesse had an extremely unsettled life. Born to a Jewish family in Nazi Germany in 1936, she and her older sister, Helen, were bundled onto one of the last Kindertransport trains out of their murderous homeland to Holland. Once the family was reunited, her father and mother managed to take their daughters to New York City in 1939. But Eva’s father later left his wife; in 1946, when Eva was ten, Ruth Hesse committed suicide. Eva was married for four years (1962–66) to the then well-established sculptor Tom Doyle, a relationship punctuated by her husband’s infidelities and boozing as well as her acute bouts of depression. Hesse’s nights were filled with troubled, often violent dreams, her days with work and intensive psychoanalysis. Both the nightmares and the psychiatric sessions are detailed at exhaustive length. The diary entries, which begin in 1955 and end in 1970, are presented in their entirety (except for doodles, sketches, class notes, and long “to do” lists) by Barry Rosen, administrator of the Hesse estate. Notably, almost one-third of Hesse’s jottings dwell on the traumatic divorce year of 1966, creating the questionable impression that the artist was always the shaky, immature person of those pages.
A soul in torment, the young Hesse was a remarkably productive artist, creating stunning, sui generis sculptures capable of startling art aficionados then and now. Hesse launched a one-woman attack on the binding strictures of Minimalist dogma. She gleefully discarded geometry and instead proposed a sort of structured anarchy that played out in her three-dimensional artifacts. For instance, she wrote of a proposed sculpture: “cords every where. will do one that does not come from a form, that is endless totally encroaching + irrational. With its own rationale, even if it looks chaotic.” 1 In the apparent disorder, then, there was an attempt to contain, even temporarily tame, the fraught psychic and artistic forces that Hesse experienced both internally and in her work.
Hesse understood that self-criticism is key to artistic development:
Something is also quite wrong in my work,—it’s a fear to really work it—like with certain abandonment and disconcern. I am almost making it too much, molding it rather I should also let it speak back to me, letting it move and grow. I am enforcing a notion on it—not letting it evolve from itself.”
She was decidedly earnest about her work yet able to see the ludicrousness of high seriousness itself: “SERIES SERIAL; SERIAL ART, / IS ANOTHER WAY OF REPEATING ABSURDITY.” And there’s the charming account of Hesse with her friend Rosie Goldman (the namesake of Ringaround Arosie, 1965, an abstract wall piece that evokes two nippled breasts of different sizes) cracking up as they stand before Hang Up (1966), Hesse’s big, witty, deadpan sculptural takeoff on the picture frame, with an oversize cable looping out into the viewer’s space.
Like other ’60s downtown artists, Hesse scavenged along Canal Street, picking over the trays of salvaged industrial materials, recycling the detritus to construct her irreverent, playful, mixed-medium work. She assiduously avoided making pretty art. She pressed inorganic materials into the service of what seem to approximate organic forms. Hesse was also a pioneer in employing gooey, toxic polyethylene, which many suspect was a causal factor for her brain tumor. She had no fear of the substance, constantly painting with it in its liquid state and daily, without a mask, breathing in its potentially lethal fumes.
IN 1967 my wife, Patti, and I met Hesse through Ruth Vollmer (1903–1982), a German sculptor who was a friend and patron of Hesse, perhaps even a surrogate mother. By then Eva seemed, at least on the surface, more confident and settled than the person who unburdened herself in her notebooks. The young woman we spent time with was intelligent, charming, and powerfully attractive. She knew it, as her diaries repeatedly reveal:
I enjoy and need the comfort and affection I can easily receive from men.
I have a personality which draws men, it has been described as spiritual, beauty, enthusiasm, aliveness, childishness mannerisms all plus a seriousness to achieve something always ahead of me & I feel now like a coquettish femme fatale.
I am in love with Tom.
I make others fall in love with me.
After she attended a gallery opening at which Doyle appeared with a new female friend, Eva wrote: “I never looked as well as tonight. I had to—.”
Diaries contains a distressing amount of Hesse whistling in the existential dark as she faces down her demons: “There is absolutely nothing I feel stable or adequate about.” And: “I want to help myself get well. to learn, to meet and have bearable relationships with others.” That “bearable” is almost unbearable.
She becomes clinically depressed and sometimes suicidal, yet she fights through the emotional tangles that inform her dangling, tentacled, convention-defying artworks. Sometimes she seethes with envy: “I try to hurt people if I think they’re better off than myself.” Sometimes she displays a nasty competitiveness with her husband, though rarely with her friends. (Begleiter’s film confirms that Hesse had a remarkable talent for friendship. Every one of the commentators, male and female, recognizes and applauds the sculptor’s empathetic gifts. Seventy years after the fact, one childhood classmate still remembers what, to her, was the liberating clarity of Hesse’s presence.[pq]Hesse was trying to come to grips with her family history, love life, and health crisis, all while laboring to create exceptional artworks.[/pq]Sol LeWitt was a professional and emotional mainstay for years.) Yet Hesse’s ego remained frail enough to embrace a version of the classic Borscht Belt joke—she could not love any man who would choose to love her: “I have been involved so many many times,—been loved—and as soon as that occurs I have demolished everything, beg. [begun?] doubting myself & the other person.” Her sadness is oppressive to wade through until, suddenly, acute self-knowledge flashes across the bleak emotional landscape. She asks: “Can people feel rejected even if they have done the rejecting.” While unable to work because of her cancer, she writes: “But now I cry not meagerly but with a kind of anger.”
She’s funny and self-aware, as when she observes at age nineteen: “My potentials are high even if my height is not.” Later, she remarks: “Shit, I am 30 + I have a right to sex if I want.” About one would-be wooer she reflects: “I made my position clear. Funny I said I am involved, he assumed a Yale man—N.H. [identity unknown]. I don’t even know which one of my involvements I meant!”
The volume provides an excursion into Hesse’s idiosyncratic universe, with its space-age materials of fiberglass, latex, and polyethylene. We live for a while in her mind and her eye, which makes the book’s lack of illustrations—except for one portrait photo and one notebook page facsimile—hugely frustrating. (I suggest going to various sites on the internet or to Lucy Lippard’s definitive 1976 volume, Eva Hesse.) As I read on, I hoped that Hesse’s pain would recede or be ameliorated and that at some point I’d run into the beautiful, assured woman I met in ’67. I looked for the mature artist, not the wounded child. But she rarely appears in these pages.
I’m not a fan of the diary as a literary form. I find the scattershot organization, the cascade of random thoughts, the obscure allusions, the mysterious initials, and the untraceable references maddening. The lack of structure frustrates me. Yet, in spite of my kvetching, was it worth communing with a gifted, seriously depressed person for roughly nine hundred pages? Answer: a qualified yes. The reader is presented with an individual trying to come to grips with her family history, love life, and health crisis, all while laboring to create exceptional artwork. Who would not applaud that effort? Though Hesse’s struggle involved being a woman in a male-dominated profession, she insisted on being judged not by her gender but purely as an artist.
Even when the brain tumor returned, Hesse kept up the uncompromising dialogue with herself: “Xmas in the hospital, 5th–6th time, lost count, what does it all mean. . . . I was so ill! Had signs but would not recognize them. One can deny anything.” Reading the final passages, I saw again the resolute, charismatic, richly talented person I had once known:
Remember being told what happened. Helen telling me how sick I was. Like that. Straight. I knew. I was not afraid. Not then. And now I am amazed. Why not. Why when one really has the right to be afraid is one not, one can afford to be brave or strong.
In 1970, the year she died, Hesse was preparing for ten shows. Today her work and influence seem, like her alluring persona, as present and vibrant as ever.
ROBERT J. SEIDMAN is a novelist, screenwriter, and literary scholar who lives in New York.
1. All diary entries are quoted as printed, reproducing Hesse’s sometimes unconventional wording and punctuation. Spelling errors were corrected by the book’s editors.