Putting Together the Pieces of a Sculptor’s Life and Work

Rebecca Spence

For the first 10 years of artist Eva Hesse’s life, her father, Wilhelm, recorded in a series of painstakingly detailed diaries the everyday events that constituted her childhood. Interweaving photographs, text and newspaper clippings, his artfully collaged books — known in German as tägebucher — were intended to serve as a legacy for his children. Moving between German, English and Hebrew, the books describe Eva’s first steps and words, as well as the gamut of holidays that structured the Orthodox Jewish family’s religious life in the German city of Hamburg and ultimately in New York. Also documented in the diaries are the more macabre subjects of the day: the impending rise of national socialism, and the family’s efforts to obtain visas to the United States following the devastation of Kristallnacht.

The tägebucher, which later inspired Eva Hesse to keep her own elaborate journals and scrapbooks, will be part of an exhibition of the artist’s sculptural works, opening May 12 at New York’s Jewish Museum. Eva Hesse: Sculpture, co-organized by Fred Wasserman, The Jewish Museum’s Henry J. Leir curator, and the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Elisabeth Sussman, curator and Sondra Gilman curator of photography, is the first major New York exhibition of the groundbreaking sculptor’s work since 1972. Focusing on the years 1968 to 1970, the show reunites the bulk of large-scale works that Hesse produced for her widely acclaimed solo exhibit, Chain Polymers, which pushed minimalism into newly expressive territory and introduced innovative ways of using industrial materials. Viewed in context with a wealth of illuminating biographical documents, the compelling exhibition of 26 sculptures and 9 drawings affords a rare opportunity to re-examine both the artist’s brief life and her profoundly influential aesthetic.

While Hesse’s evocative sculptures in latex, fiberglass, rope, rubber and string are widely known and appreciated by critics and scholars, the work itself — scattered as it is among private collections and museums — is not often assembled in one venue, owing in part to the difficulty of transporting the fragile materials as they age. “There’s a generation who have not seen her work,” Wasserman said, noting that it is “among the most important of the 1960s, and arguably the whole postwar period.” Wasserman also noted that while much has been made of Hesse’s gripping biography — most significantly, her tragic death from a brain tumor at the age of 34 — scant attention has been paid to her Orthodox Jewish upbringing.

Hesse was born in 1936 to a prominent Orthodox Jewish family in Hamburg. At the age of 2, accompanied by her sister, she was put on a Kindertransport to Holland. The girls remained there as refugees until they were reunited with their parents in London. Ultimately, the entire family obtained visas to the United States and settled in a large German Jewish enclave in New York City’s Washington Heights area. When Hess was 10 years old, her mother — who suffered from manic depression — committed suicide. At the age of 16, Hesse declared to her father: “I want to be an artist.” Just two years later, a profile of the young artist appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward. Hesse went on to study painting at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and later earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Yale University.

By the late 1960s Hesse was experimenting with nontraditional materials at the Bowery Street studio that she shared with her husband, fellow sculptor Tom Doyle. A rising star in the art world, Hesse counted among her friends some of the most prominent artists and critics of the day, including Sol LeWitt and Lucy Lippard. Her works were at once minimalist, and yet uniquely of her own oeuvre. “It’s very unusual sculpture that doesn’t fall into any category,” said Sussman, who also co-curated a related exhibition of Hesse’s drawings, on view at the New York City venue The Drawing Center.

Hesse’s earlier works — a handful of which are featured in the Jewish Museum exhibition — reference the body in subtle, indirect ways. In “Several” (1965), constructed from acrylic, papier-mâché, latex and rubber, a grouping of phallic, tubular forms dangles effortlessly. “Sans II” (1968), a semitranslucent fiberglass grid composed of five separate sections, is another highlight of the exhibition. The massive work incorporates repetition — a classic minimalist trope — yet rejects the form’s rigid perfectionism in both its fragility and irregularity. In another ambitious work, “Area” (1968), crumpled sheets of latex are sewn together into one elongated swath of material; the piece’s formal composition suggests minimalism, yet its roughness denotes something far messier.

While Hesse’s life story and impressive body of work are not inseparable, to draw a literal connection between the two would be reductive. Still, the more disconsolate aspects of Hesse’s biography can be discerned in the melancholic tone struck by many of her best-known works: In one of her final pieces, a gnarled mess of rope and string hangs wistfully from the ceiling. The poignant sculpture, “Untitled” (Rope Piece)(1970), was constructed with the help of assistants just four months before a brain tumor claimed Hesse’s life, the poignant sculpture is emblematic of her legacy as a sculptor. In its simplicity of form and in its worn, tethered feel, the work conveys a vast trove of emotion. And therein lies the artist’s greatness: Hesse is unmatched in her ability to express so much with so little and, it must be noted, in so little time.

Rebecca Spence is a journalist living in New York.

For the first time in the museum’s history, galleries will be open to the public on Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. In observance of the Sabbath, admission will be free.

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Putting Together the Pieces of a Sculptor’s Life and Work

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