Meditations: Eva Hesse, a play by Marcie Begleiter based upon the life, art, and writings of the eponymous German artist, premiered at Highways Performance Space in Los Angeles on September 24. Concurrently, the venue is presenting “Permissions,” an exhibition of new works by contemporary artists influenced by Hesse’s oeuvre. Also in LA, the Hammer Museum is exhibiting “Eva Hesse Spectres 1960,” a collection of the artist’s rarely seen early paintings. Here, Begleiter discusses her play and the artist who inspired it.
SEVERAL PIVOTAL STREAMS of twentieth-century experience came together in the short life of Eva Hesse. There was her escape from Germany on a kindertransport, as well as Minimalism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. For me, her premature death brings up some profound questions that touch upon more than mortality. When she died in 1970 (at age thirty-four of a brain tumor), her work was scheduled to appear in twenty forthcoming exhibitions. We developed Meditations with the following question in mind: What must it have felt like to be in your thirties, having connected with your deepest creative self, and then be forced to let go when you’ve just sunk your teeth in?
My interest in Hesse emanated from both her work and her personal life. I was first aware of her art. I had always been taken by the way she infused material-based processes with Minimalist sensibilities. She took off all the hard edges. Hesse spoke of herself not as a female artist but as an important artist. Yet, as a woman, I felt there was a certain gender specificity within her work. In Meditations we also explore Hesse’s personal relationships. She married an established sculptor ten years her senior and by time they split after four years of marriage, the essence of their relationship had changed. During the couple’s stay in Germany, Hesse went from being primarily a painter to also working in three dimensions, and this shift may have also contributed to their marital tensions.
The genesis of the work came in 2003, when I received a grant that allowed me to spend one week reading Hesse’s journals at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio. She was a wonderful writer. The diaries in that collection are tremendously personal and span from the artist’s teenage years to a few months before her death. She was quite prolific in her detailed descriptions of her process and personal life, especially during the time she spent in Germany with her then husband, Tom Doyle. It is interesting to note that it was there, in her problematic homeland, that Hesse began to create the work for which she would become most known. Once I had spent my time with these journals, I felt much clearer in terms of how I wanted to approach the script.
The performance takes place within two levels of conceptual space. One explores the last day of Hesse’s life. This arc is inhabited and embodied by the character “Dying Eva.” About forty percent of the performance centers on this space. The rest of the show resides in memory and concentrates on selections from her own recollection of the years 1945 to 1970. My main collaborator, director David Watkins, has also been central to the development of this concept.
Meditations is a theatrically interdisciplinary performance with nine performers, three video channels, and a soundscape. We are currently planning for a longer run in Los Angeles, and I would very much like to take the show to both New York and Germany. I have already visited a venue in the German city of Essen, which is near Kettwig—where Tom and Eva worked during their residency in 1964. To be able to present it there would really fulfill all of my intentions for this work.