by Sue Hubbard
What is the purpose and function of art? The work of Eva Hesse challenges us to ask this question. Her history has been well documented. Born in Hamburg, in 1936, to a family of observant Jews, she was, at the age of two, put on a Kindertransport arriving first in Holland, then England and, finally, in America in 1939. A sense of tenuousness and the impermanence of things colours her work. The balls of screwed paper, the bits of flimsy gauze, mesh and cloth are like whispers rather than assertions, thought processes made physical, rather than finished objects. Her life was short. At the age of 34, when living in New York, she was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumour that cut short her career as a sculptor just as it was getting underway. The body of work she left was remarkable. Poetic, anxious and intense it made manifest her inner, often turbulent emotional life. A writer of diaries, autobiography was the base note of her work.
Like the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton the trauma of Hesse's early childhood strongly affected her emotional development, as did her parents' separation and divorce, and her mother's subsequent suicide in 1945. These events left her insecure and anxious, so that in 1954 she made a decision to enter therapy. Her subsequent analysis had a profound effect on her work as she began to examine herself more closely. “I think art is a total thing. A total person giving a contribution. It is an essence, a soul…. In my inner soul, art and life are inseparable.” It is, also, not implausible to consider that on some level she must also have been haunted by the ‘what might have beens’ that would surely have befallen her if she had failed to leave Hamburg in 1936 and faced the fate of many other Jews of her generation. The ghost of the holocaust, as well as her own family traumas, shadows her work.
Hesse's creative talent had been evident since childhood. At the age of 16 she graduated from the New York School of Industrial Arts, later attending the Pratt Institute of Design. But by December 1953 she had dropped out to study figure drawing at the Art Students’ League, whilst also working as a layout artist for Seventeen magazine. Then, in 1957, she graduated from Cooper Union in New York, going on to study at Yale with the assistance of a Norfolk Fellowship.
There she worked as a painter, studying colour theory under Joseph Albers. Influenced by Abstract Expressionism her work, during the five years from 1960 to 1965, was mostly small, and intensely personal. Her powerful drawings, with their circular and container like shapes, anticipated her later sculptural configurations; her interest in the metaphors of inside and outside, of what is contained and what is left open ended.
In 1962 she married the sculptor Tom Doyle, from whom she was later to separate, and moved to Ketturg-Am-Ruhr, Germany, where for a year they were guests of the textile manufacturer and collector F. Amhard Scherdt. When they arrived for their 15 month residency in the summer of 1964, Hesse was a painter who identified with Abstract Expressionism and the work of Arshile Gorky and Willein de Kooning, while Doyle described himself an “Abstract Expressionist sculptor.” This visit proved crucial to Hesse's development. Becoming frustrated with painting, she experimented with combining paint, collage and drawing. Her imagery became infused with the shapes of the machine parts she found in an abandoned factory. These machine drawings were the breakthrough for which she had been searching. According to Doyle, “she really had something, she'd found herself.” Often humorous and reminiscent of the “erotic machines” of Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, these drawings explored Dadaist notions of the absurd, which later Hesse was to incorporate into her sculpture. “If I can name the content, then … it's the total absurdity of life…. Absurdity is the key word. It is to do with contradictions and oppositions…. I was always aware that I should take order versus chaos, stringy versus mass, huge versus small and I would try to find the most absurd opposites or extreme opposites.”
Ring Around Arosie (1965), a pink breast-like protuberance of cloth and wire on a Masonite panel, was unashamedly sexual in nature, illustrating her growing interest in exploring definitions of the self in terms of the body and female experience. At the same time she was beginning to break artistic convention and push against the prevailing dominance of the heroic and masculine influences of Abstract Expressionism, exploring the use of non-traditional materials such as plastic and industrial wire, in a quest for a more personal, immediate and feminised visual language. “My idea now is to counteract everything I've ever learnt or been taught about those things–to find something inevitable that is my life, my thought, my feelings.”
Her work defies categorisation but Joseph Beuys, Claes Oldenburg, and Jean Dubuffet might all be considered to have had an input as Hesse became increasingly interested in ideas outside the conventions of sculpture, rejecting its 'male' rigidity and the emptied forms of Minimalism, to follow her growing interest in the 'female' and the internal. The critic Robert Hughes has described her as ‘the artist who did the most to humanize Minimalism without sentimentalizing it’. Too interested in debates about the essence and materiality of art to want simply to be categorized as a woman artist, she retorted to a list of questions sent to her by a journalist that 'the best way to beat discrimination in art is by art' adding that 'excellence has no sex’.
Now the Camden Arts Centre in north London has put on an exhibition that explores Hesse’s little known ‘test pieces’. Throughout her career, she produced many small, experimental works alongside her large scale sculptures. Constructed from a wide range of materials including latex, wire-mesh, wax and cheesecloth, these simple objects are not just technical explorations but the physical embodiment of Hesse’s creative thought processes. Previously considered peripheral to her main output they have been renamed, by Professor Briony Fey, the curator of the show and a Hesse expert, as ‘studioworks.’
After her death they posed something of a problem. What was all this ‘stuff’ left in her studio? Her friend Sol Le Witt tried to make sense of it, calling what he discovered a series of ‘little experiments’ or ‘studio leavings.’ Sometimes he insisted that what he found was ‘definitely not a piece’ whilst on other occasions he would pronounce: ‘Yes, this is a piece’. Yet, despite his close friendship with Hesse, maybe he was asking the wrong questions. Hesse was attracted to the modest, the discarded and the forgotten. Not only do these slight objects explore the limits of sculptural practice but they resonate with compressed emotion and lost memories. They are less statements than expressions of feeling. Like Giacometti’s tiny post war figures they leak existential anxiety and doubt, which is hardly surprising given Hesse’s childhood and background. As in Sam Beckett’s novel The Unnameable (1953), where the last line insists that against the odds and the empty absurdity of life ‘things must go on’ , we intuitively feel Hesse’s fragile grasp, overlaid by her determination to find a path through the bleak landscape of modernity and the raw, essential stuff of the human condition. These flimsy pieces are a philosophically visual encounter with nothingness.
Yet there is also something carnal, even scatological about the fragments on show in their glass cases. Over time the latex has darkened to the colour of tanned hide, other pieces look like trusses or prosthetic supports for repetitive strain injury. A latex, cheesecloth, plastic and metal stri p hangs from a hook on the gallery wall like a ribbon of flayed flesh. The possible interpretations are endless: a reference to Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas, the scourged body of Christ, or even Nazi lampshades made from Jewish skin. Meaning is never overt; the pieces entangle us in a web of questions and possible meanings about being and absence, art and non-art. Looking is an intense and uncomfortable experience. They make demands on the viewer. The pieces provoke, they needle, yet they resist interpretation. We can either see them as bits of junk or detritus, or if we look, really look and give our imaginations free reign, we can read them as potent metaphors for loss, memory and the tragedy of human existence. Like Melanie Klein’s part objects they seem to stand in for something else; though exactly what that else is is never made explicit. The fact that all the works have ‘no title’ – as opposed to that ubiquitous label of contemporary art ‘untitled’ – only adds to the feeling of uncertainty.
In one of the galleries husks of papier mâché lie like empty pods on a large central plinth. Made of brown paper they are dry and brittle; the apparent detritus of something left behind by a previous unnamed event, like shards of memory. Elsewhere two small pieces of stuffed canvas, covered with hair-like tendrils of string, lie hunkered in their glass case like some primitive copulating animal. Inside and outside, hard and soft; the pieces fold and collapse in on themselves. There are echoes of Louise Bourgeois’ small latex works from the early 1960’s, though it is uncertain whether or not Hesse saw Bourgeois’ work exhibited at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1964, but they both share the same sensual erotics of the abject, the same psychoanalytic undertow. The body is always implied. There are pieces that might be a string of coiled guts or turds, others made from latex, cotton and rubber look as though they could be used to administer an enema or for some other taboo bodily function. Bits are wrapped up in string, squashed and crumpled. Many look like objects from a 19th ethnographic museum, though it’s impossible not to think, also, of all those discarded leather suitcases and piles of shoes left at Auschwitz.
So what do these ephemeral objects, this body of ‘nearly but not quite art’, amount to? To try and make sense of them as individual objects is to misunderstand their purpose. They are like the working manuscript or notebooks of a poet. In them we can see Hesse’s concerns; her obsessions with the self, with the body, with material and the fragile metaphoric possibilities of art. Engaging with them is an intimate experience, like watching the process of an artist’s mind at work.
11th December 2009- 07 March 2010