SATISFYING DOCUMENTARIES about artists are rare. This year there are already two: Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey’s Burden, as in Chris Burden, acquired at Cannes by Magnolia Pictures for release in the coming months, and Marcie Begleiter’s Eva Hesse (2016), currently playing at Film Forum and distributed across the US by Zeitgeist Films. The dramatic turns in the lives—and work—of both artists invite movie treatment. But what makes the films a cut above most art documentaries is that they depict their subjects’ accomplishments not simply as evidence of maverick genius, but as contingent on a particular art-historical moment. And they give that moment its due.
Contingent, 1969, happens to be the title of one of Hesse’s late great polymer pieces, this one comprising eight translucent panels of cheesecloth coated with fiberglass and rubber. They were made to take the light; on the cover of Artforum in May 1970, they look as if they emit their own golden glow. For the documentary, cinematographer Nancy Schreiber recorded several of Hesse’s late sculptures in museums here and abroad, and the images evoke something of the revelatory experience of coming upon the actual objects, whether for the first or tenth time.
Eva Hesse’s release coincides with the publication, by Hauser & Wirth in association with Yale University Press, of Hesse’s diaries, edited by Barry Rosen. Approximately nine hundred pages long, albeit some consisting of only a half-dozen lines, they are a typed version of the handwritten journals that were found after Hesse died and which have been archived at Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum since 1977. High-resolution scans of the originals were made in 2013 and are available for study at the museum. The journals were for Begleiter an important primary source, but I can’t imagine who thought it was a good idea to publish almost all of them. (Hesse’s sister held back one volume.)
The published journals, which begin in 1955 when Hesse was a painting major at Cooper Union, note her ideas about her chosen mediums (first painting, later sculpture) and about art and aesthetics. She kept a rough inventory of books read at school and after, and made frequent entries about her family relationships, crushes, friendships, and her marriage to the sculptor Tom Doyle. As a dedicated analysand—she entered psychoanalysis in her late teens and continued for most of her life—she recorded her dreams in detail. Hesse was a Holocaust survivor. Born in Hamburg in 1936 to Jewish parents, she escaped Germany when she was barely three years old, accompanied by her five-year-old sister, on one of the last Kindertransports. The sisters were placed in a Catholic orphanage in Holland until their parents also escaped and joined them. They came to the US in 1940. Everyone else in their extended family was killed. When Hesse’s mother learned at the end of the war that her parents had died in the camps, she took her own life. Eva was nine. “We were always too scared, you and I, ” she later wrote in her diary, addressing her father just after his death in 1966. He had feared that she would never make a living as an artist, and she always regretted that he died without knowing of her success. But the source of their lifelong shared anxiety had nothing to do with art.
Much of the diary is couched in the language of psychotherapy. Although Hesse was not a particularly skilled writer, the diaries suggest how profoundly her life and work were shaped by the value she placed on the unconscious. It accounts in part for the surrealist elements in her drawing and painting, and later for the dialectic in her sculpture between rational, minimalist concepts and the sensuous, ephemeral, unpredictable materials from which they took shape. Midway through 1967 the diary entries become sparse, then there is a hiatus of more than two years, until late in 1969 into the first months of 1970, when she writes about her ultimately fatal illness. She’s surprised that she is not afraid of death, and while this does not impress her as courageous, it certainly seems so to the reader. The diaries are valuable—and moving—for these pages as well as for the scattering of notes about her process, especially during her transition from painting to sculpture and after. Wearisome, however, are the hundreds of pages devoted to her obsession with Doyle, who she met and married in 1961. The relationship quickly went downhill, but even after they separated, Hesse hung on, in fantasy and in her diaries, rationalizing, strategizing, reassuring herself that her love would win out. Had she lived longer, and given her fabulous sense of the absurd, she might have laughed as she put this hackneyed melodrama script in the shredder.
“My whole life has been absurd,” Hesse remarked in an interview with Cindy Nemser a few months before her death. (The interview was published in the issue of Artforum which had Contingent on the cover. “That’s me,” Hesse is reported to have said when a friend pasted the cover on the wall of her hospital room.) Nemser tape-recorded the interview, and Begleiter uses some of it in her film, the only time we hear Hesse’s girlish voice with its New York Jewish inflections. The filmmaker weaves primary source material—the audio recording, bits of home movies, still photos, letters between Hesse and her close friends, excerpts from the diaries, and images of Hesse’s work from early paintings and through her last sculpture, Untitled, 1970, the fiberglass-over-polyethylene over–aluminum wire abstract piece that evokes broken picture frames or dismembered legs suspended from the ceiling and kneeling on the floor.
It’s a measure of Begleiter’s documentary skills and her commitment to Hesse’s work and vivid presence that such scant materials have resulted in a portrait that is so lively, intelligent, and moving. But Hesse and the art world of the 1960s is also brought to life by the cast of artists, curators, critics, friends, and family members that Beglieter assembles. Begleiter uses a clip of Sol LeWitt from Michael Blackwood’s 1988 documentary 4 Artists, and she also shows the famous letter LeWitt wrote to Hesse with “Just Do” written in large letters in the middle. It was part of an epistolary exchange during 1964–65, when Hesse was living in Germany where Doyle had a residency. Hesse was blocked in her work, traumatized by the return to the scene of the Holocaust and by the disintegration of her marriage because of Doyle’s alcoholism and womanizing. Nevertheless, LeWitt’s “Just Do” had an effect: Hesse went to Germany as a slightly whimsical, slightly surrealist, post-abstract painter and returned as a maker of hybrid 2D/3D works that were both minimalist and disquietingly organic, and led to the development of some of the most expressive, purely sculptural works in American postwar art.
One of Hesse’s longtime friends, outsider artist Rosie Goldman, observed that “everything that happened to her, good and bad, empowered her.” Hesse’s longtime friends largely speak about her personal life, but it’s Hesse’s contempories in the art world—Richard Serra, Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Carl Andre, Dan Graham, Nancy Holt, who was then married to Robert Smithson—who testify to her work’s strength and uniqueness, and also to what the New York art world was in the ’60s. Soon after Hesse returned, Lucy Lippard, one of Hesse’s first supporters and the author of Eva Hesse (1978) invited her to be in her 1966 show “Eccenctric Abstraction.” She said that she partially conceived the show around Hesse because “she wanted to see these cold, hard grids [in LeWitt, Andre, et al] screwed up a bit and messed with.” Lippard says she didn’t quite realize at the time, but what she was talking about was wanting to see work that was female. Hesse was aware of the sexism of the art world, which she thought was the reason she was often slighted by critics, but she also wrote that “excellence has no sex,” and she was proud to be the only woman in the “Nine at Castelli” warehouse show in December 1968. It made her “just one of the boys.”
One of the most interesting figures in the film is Doug Johns, who in the late ’60s ran Aegis Reinforced Plastics. He helped Hesse fabricate all of her polymer pieces, living and working with her in her studio until the last months of her life. “She wasn’t manipulating materials, she was the materials,” observed Lippard. If you suspect that the plastics Hesse used might have had something to do with her brain cancer, there is a particularly chilling photo in the film. It’s of Hesse sticking her head into Accession III, 1968, a fiberglass box pierced by thousands of narrow fiberglass plastic tubes, which reminds me of Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup. (Hesse met Oppenheim during the year she spent in Germany.)
“Matter matters,” says Serra, “and I think it’s really clear in Eva’s case that the material manifestation of the form comes out of an intense investigation of matter.” Of course, one can say the same of Serra’s work. Serra and Hesse are two of the greatest pure sculptors to emerge from the minimalist, process-oriented ’60s. They are two side of the same coin, each married to a single material, although it is a sign of deeply entrenched sexism that while we do not hesitate to embrace Hesse’s description of her work as “personal” and “expressive,” we do not use those words in relation to Serra’s work, which is just as personal and expressive—and gendered. There is no way to know what Hesse might have done had she not died at thirty-four. But those twenty-odd pieces she made between 1967 and 1970 are as great as any twenty Serras.
Their greatness has something to do with their beauty, but it is also because we recognize that, for all their fragility, they are deeply adversarial. They are made of material that goes against everything that art is meant to be. It is transient (Hesse said that the instability of the materials she used is a problem, not for her but for collectors) and not entirely under the control of the artist’s hand. Begleiter ends her film with something that Hesse said during the Nemser interview: “Life doesn’t last. Art doesn’t last. It doesn’t matter.”