‘There isn’t a thing in my life that hasn’t been extreme – personal health, family, economic situations.’
Eva Hesse had the perfect personal CV for an artist. Her family were forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1939, and she and her sister were separated from their parents for five months. Eva was only two when she was put on a train to Holland to escape Nazi persecution. Her father was a criminal lawyer and the family was well to do. When they eventually settled in Washington Heights, New York, they had to take in a boarder to pay the bills, and her father worked as an insurance broker.
Eva’s mother became more and more depressed by their reduced circumstances and unwanted exile. She killed herself by jumping out of a window.
Eva was ten years old when this happened. She was severely traumatised, went into therapy, and stayed in psychoanalysis for the rest of her life. Life for Eva was intense but not long lasting; in 1970 she died of a brain tumour, aged 34.
‘I am artist’, she wrote to her father ‘I want to do more than just exist, to live happily and contented with a home and children, to do the same chores every day.’
This sounds reasonable, even normal to us now, but it’s worth remembering how far women have come since the 1960’s, when Hesse, like Sylvia Plath, was fighting to be taken seriously as an artist. Hesse and Plath were hugely ambitious and unquestionably talented, but to prove themselves as artists, they also had to disprove assumptions about their gender. That was tough enough, but near impossible to achieve, while retaining a clear sense of womanhood.
In 1965 Hesse wrote, ‘Do I have a right to womanliness? Can I achieve an artistic endeavour and can they coincide?’
Like Plath, Hesse was beautiful, insecure, disturbed, and deeply in love with a male artist who seemed to eclipse her.
Hesse had been living on her own, supporting herself by odd job work, and painting feverishly, when she met and married the sculptor Tom Doyle. Doyle was talked about and doing well. Inevitably, Eva became the artist’s wife and not the artist.
‘In his achievements I see my failures. Resentments enter most precisely if I need to be cooking, washing, or doing dishes, while he sits King of the Roost, reading.’
Yet, Eva’s breakthrough came because of Doyle’s contacts. A German industrialist offered to support the couple for a year in Germany, and the two of them were able to set up individual studio spaces in one of his disused factories.
Eva wandered about the desolate abandoned warehousing, and got excited by the some of the commercial materials left lying around. ‘The string was what really got her going’ says Tom Doyle. Whether or not you find string sexy, Eva did. She began dipping it into plaster, tying it onto metal grids, and gluing cloth- covered wire in coiled circles, to make gigantic breasts.
Eva Hesse had left New York in1964, as a painter; she returned a year later as a sculptor.
Back in New York, Hesse’s ‘absurd’ sculptures, as she called them, began to attract attention, and her work appeared alongside Louise Bourgeois and Bruce Nauman, in the highly influential group show ‘Eccentric Abstraction’
At the moment she started to make it as an artist, her father died and her marriage collapsed. In 1966, she was an artist, but she was no longer a wife or a daughter. It seemed as if her fears had been founded in fact; for a woman, a creative life and a home life could not be reconciled.
She threw herself into her work – literally. She was often to be seen in her studio up to her elbows in tubs of latex and fibreglass. Hesse was a pioneer of industrial materials put to the uses of art. We have become over-familiar with rubberised this and latex that, so much so that art gurus feel impelled to introduce new prizes just for painting. In the 1960’s, Hesse’s funky use of non-art material for her work was new. She pushed forward Duchamp’s provocations with his ‘readymades’, and took vacuum cleaner hoses or string bags and transformed them by dipping, coating, or papier-mâché. She wanted to confront the viewer with unfamiliarity, and part of that process was the industrial processes of her work.
The art lover who wants beauty will not find it in Hesse’s work. Beauty made her nervous. She called it, ‘the only art sin. The beauty question, which is the Big Question for Modern Art in all its incarnations – Minimalist, Surrealist, Pop, Abstract, Expressionist, you name it – has particular meaning for the woman artist. The terror of being dismissed as merely decorative, of being pretty, pleasing, easy on the eye, is a gender terror. Hesse did not want to be a glorified flower-arranger, so for her, the special problems of being female, meshed with the over-riding aesthetic of transgressive art; don’t be nice.
One of Hesse’s last sculptures, Right After, was a 216 foot long skein of resin-coated fibreglass. ‘It left the ugly zone and went to the beauty zone. I didn’t mean it to do that.’
Hesse’s fear of beauty is a generational fear – nobody wanted their work to be described as beautiful; a gender fear; beauty is female, female is weak, etc, and it is a personal fear. Hesse was beautiful. Men admired her beauty. She wanted them to admire her work. At art school she had been voted most beautiful in her class; that was not the accolade she craved.
Why should beauty be a sin? That is a whole book in itself. Enough to say that modern art’s proper inquiry into its nature and purpose freed it from the confines of Academy rules and fashionable demands, and aligned it with the whole of life – the mess, the waste, the ordinary, the despised. Art cannot be a commodity, and the creative instinct of the artist is to renew both the source and the force of the work.
Hesse herself realised that by 1966, Minimalism had become a new kind of status quo. What had been an alternative to conventional form was no longer abstract; the non referential geometric cube, designed to get away from the literalness of figurative work, had become as familiar as any figure. The endless effort to de-familiarise the image – so that we can really see it – had to begin again, and that was what Hesse sought to do with her ‘soft’ sculptures.
Our problem now is that transgressive art has no further to go. We need a new aesthetic. Hesse, I think, would have recognised both the debt a sculptor like Rachel Whiteread owes to Hesse’s work, and that the genuine new vision that Whiteread offers.
Those who have stood gloomily in front of pickled sharks and unmade beds, and lately bin bags filled with air, may be depressed or unmoved by Hesse’s work. It lacks the wit of Rebecca Horn, (take a look at the two together at the Tate), or the enduring power of Whiteread, though both those artists have taken from Hesse in terms of form, and use of material.
Hesse is a serious marker in the history of modern sculpture, both as an artist and as a woman who was an artist. Her work was original and new. Her influence is unquestionable. It is too early to say whether future generations will want to go on looking at her work for pleasure and inspiration, and perhaps it does not matter.
Forever was not a word Hesse felt comfortable with. Her sculptors are disintegrating, and she had a sense that they would do so. The materials she used were unstable; she did not know their limits or their liabilities, because she was testing both. Some of her work is already too fragile to exhibit, and one of her most famous pieces, Expanded Expansion, made of cheese cloth and latex has mummified since it was made. Its sinuous flexibility is gone. It is rigid, wrinkled, dying.
Hesse worked with lethal materials. She was diagnosed with a brain tumour, probably as a result of the fumes from the studio. She lived for her art and it killed her.
Hesse found something poignant and irresistible in the transience of life and art. Although she was fierce in her ambition, she seemed not to care about creating the big, male, landmark statements, designed to last forever. She wanted to succeed in her art in the moment of its making. She felt guilty when she sold pieces, because she suspected she was selling ‘nothing’.
Yet she attracted by nothing. She admitted she worked negatively, towards a ‘non-art’, which is not the same thing as no art. Her work is provocative, annoying, exasperating, baffling, all the things modern art chooses to be. It is also worth seeing. Whether it will endure, literally, imaginatively, is not the question to ask. Great art? I don’t know. Art? Definitely.
The Eva Hesse retrospective is at Tate Modern.