PRINT November 1971

Eva Hesse: Post-Minimalism into Sublime

EVA HESSE WAS BORN IN Hamburg, Germany to a Jewish family on January 11, 1936—in full Hitlerzeit. Her first three years were spent sheltered with a Catholic family and in 1939 she was reunited with her father, mother, and sister, in New York City. She was raised in Washington Heights, a neighborhood which, since the large emigrations following the First World War, had become largely a German Jewish enclave in Manhattan’s Uptown—an ethnic character sustained by the heavy wave of refugee immigration which attended the rise of Nazism. Ultimately, bilinguality was to serve her well, for, on her graduation from the Yale School of Fine Arts in 1959, she and her husband Tom Doyle spent several years in Germany and Eva Hesse’s first extensive exhibition takes place under the tutelage of the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen in Düsseldorf in 1965.

Eva Hesse’s childhood, difficult to begin with, was traumatized by the separation of her parents in this country, the remarriage of her father, and the death of her mother. Eva Hesse’s diaristic notations, to which I will often refer, indicate that she identified the intellectual and structural side of her mind with her father—sought, in fact, to conform to what she took to be those sources of pride which he took in her, perhaps as a guarantee that she would never again be abandoned.

A highpoint of her young career—and of paternal pride—occurred when, in the September 1954 issue of Seventeen Magazine, Eva Hesse’s illustrations were featured as part of the annual competition award called “It’s All Yours.” Her work had appeared in a nationally distributed magazine. She had earned $100. “We like to think that we discovered Eva Hesse,” wrote Marie McPartland, the editor of the “It’s All Yours” feature, “but actually she came up to SEVENTEEN on her own in February of this year, fresh from Pratt Institute. . . . We hired her on the spot to work part time on our staff. In the evening she attends the Art Student’s League nearby. This month she begins a three-year course in painting, drawing, sculpture, and graphics at Cooper Union in New York City.”1

In the tall of 1965 Eva Hesse returned from Germany to New York City where she was to die four years later on May 29, 1970. Her production, therefore, is strikingly compressed. During the last year the artist was subjected to stupefying, soul-destroying odds. And yet, these four years reveal a whole achievement—in the way that Van Gogh’s, Seurat’s, or Beardsley’s are total achievements—although they too had similarly played out their careers in equally restrained periods of time.2

In addition to the works themselves—paintings, sculptures, drawings, and the combined idiom that Eva Hesse often preferred—Eva Hesse’s estate also includes notebooks which range from ledger size to scratch pad and in which the artist had, from adolescence on, recorded those impressions, experiences, dreams, stray information, and artist’s recipes, which she found to be of interest. At times these were set down with fastidious control; at other times, they were hastily recorded, often in cryptic clues, especially when dealing with aspects of her private life. At the very end, when the intellectual equipment remained, but tortured by muscular deterioration and pure pain, many phrases are left unfinished. Even here there are type-size sheets of manuscript describing this experience, which are only equalled by Edmond de Goncourt’s description of the death of his brother Jules.

While I certainly do not believe that the history of artistic creation can ever be said to be recorded in this way—the growth of a sculptural and pictorial oeuvre answers its own imperatives and not those of literature, even confessional or diaristic literature—still, in Eva Hesse’s case, it would be foolhardy to ignore these notebooks. Art history is richer for them and they bring into microscopic sharpness those personal and artistic events which shaped the production of a gifted art student into the one of remarkable power it so clearly is for me, at least in the last year, when she had gone beyond mere style, as well as for those intimate friends who helped to shape this evolution while they sustained her through dreadful personal miseries. The most painful notations record the central trauma of individuation provoked by the death of the artist’s father in the summer of 1966 and the rupture with her husband which peaked at this time as well, events without which, I believe, Eva Hesse’s art might have remained a derivative affair.

I do not refer to these experiences out of idle gossip. Nothing will be included here in the nature of a sensational account of the last four years of Eva Hesse’s life. Those kinds of private disclosures—as recorded in the journal with courageous frankness—must await the publication of the notebooks themselves. Instead, I refer to these events as a means of introducing certain figures—Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Lucy Lippard, and Helen Charash,3 artists and critics largely, who were to reinforce the vision which these two traumas aided in triggering.The terror and isolation provoked by the death of the artist’s father and the withdrawal of her husband from her—instead of forcing an incipient madness—provoked the crystal lucidity of original creation. In the summer of 1966, during the complex events and family rituals surrounding the death of her father (in Switzerland as it so happened) Eva Hesse found herself in the unfamiliar serenity of her sister’s household in New Jersey, surroundings which intensified a sense of guilt. She had in fact not become the kind of artist which the “It’s All Yours” suggested she might have become (neither for that matter did Sylvia Plath, who shares this curious coincidence with Eva Hesse). She wrote: “I feel more helpless, insufficient, stupid . . . I want to prove [myself]. My only weapon is art.” In August of 1966 Eva Hesse’s life as a mature artist begins.

Even at this short remove it grows difficult to ascertain the individuals who created the movement away from Minimalism and from formalist criticism—probably because the drift away is inherent in the movement itself. Certainly, Richard Serra, Carl Andre, Keith Sonnier, Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, to name artists of wide reputation, and perhaps slightly less well known figures such as Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, and the critic Lucy Lippard, must be recalled (although many of the artists mentioned had functioned in the capacity of theorist and critical essayist as well). It is arresting to note how real the rapport was between these artists and, in the particular case of Eva Hesse, who also contributed enormously to the shift of sensibility into Post-Minimalism, her journal notations after 1966 make constant mention of LeWitt, Lippard, and Bochner, acknowledging their crucial assistance during a period when otherwise she might have felt herself totally alone in the making of a new art as well as of a new life.

In the recent past Post-Minimalism was occasionally referred to as “Anti-Minimalism”—a name which strikes a false note because it engenders a notion of “Maximalism” (whatever that might be)—but equally because it in no way suggests the complexities of option which Minimalism rendered possible, new solutions toward which several Minimalist artists themselves evolved. Robert Morris and Robert Smithson are cases in point. Post-Minimalism is preferable nomenclature—in much the same way as we say “Post-Impressionism”—because it covers a multitude of possibilities, from process-oriented experience to an art of purely intellective activity such as we can find in the Conceptualist movement.

The death of Eva Hesse also makes it possible to regard her production in a way quite different from that of her Post-Minimalist colleagues. Their careers are still being elaborated. What can only be elaborated now, in Hesse’s case, is our changing modes of perceiving what is important in her oeuvre.

During 1965 Hesse began to break with the explicit Expressionist and Cubist clues of her art—those fine ambitions that her extensive art training and long European stay engendered. Anthropomorphic relief elements announced a fresh attitude toward pictorial-sculptural ambiguity. Some fifty items, drawings and combine paintings, comprise the checklist of the long summer run of Eva Hesse’s first exhibition, Materialbilder und Zeichnungen held at the Studio für Graphik in Düsseldorf from August to October 1965. The front page of the onefold checklist reproduces a photograph of the artist surrounded by five works. Although the reliefs are abstract, their organic inferences will, by the end of the next year, have been further attenuated so that what we now view as a kind of generative abstraction—breast and nipple forms, womblike configurations, connective riblike extensions—will have evolved into a vestigial suggestiveness.

As Eva Hesse grew more self-aware of her ambitions and found support, as well, among a small but growing community of similarly inclined artists, a disparate range of work came into being which was resistant to the architectural and sculptural ambitions of Minimalism and the monochromatic and two-dimensional focus of High Abstraction as it was understood in the period. The artists themselves, in order to cut through the atmosphere, adopted a self-mocking stance and the general levity, if it was that, was viewed as doing a kind of Oldenburg number. The shift was expressed in the use of highly colored, emotionally saturated materials and in the change away from the geometrical tradition of Constructivism. The limp, the pliable, the cheap were sought out; the hard, the polished, the expensive were suspect. Limpness was bound and held with unanticipated methods of seaming and joining—sewing, for example, or lacing, or grommeting—and rags, vinyls, street detritus would become choice materials surpassing even luxurious and rich oxyacetylene welded stainless or Corten steel.

In the late spring of 1966 several artists of this stamp joined together for a group manifestation at the Graham Gallery, calling themselves “Abstract Inflationists and Stuffed Expressionists.” The exhibition was largely construed by the gallery-going public as a tardy Pop put-on, a joke, at worst jejune, at best harmless. This condescension was perhaps inescapable when regarded in the context of a larger modernist situation in which Tony Smith, Kenneth Noland, and Frank Stella were taken to be the representative figures of contemporary sensibility—immaculate, flat—artists whose production was coeval with the highest modernist position as articulated in the critical and historical aperçus of Clement Greenberg. The reviews of the exhibition were few and terse, equally understandable granting the youth of the participants and the unfamiliar idiom in which they were working. The most salient feature requiring mention went ignored; namely that such an option should have been adopted by a body of artists in the first place.

Among the participants with whom Eva Hesse exhibited on that occasion were Frank Lincoln Viner (who it appeared had walked away with the exhibition as it was his work the reviewers published in their accounts), Philip Orenstein, Jean Linder, and Marc Morrel, the last perhaps better remembered than the others—with the exception of Hesse—as it was over his stuffed American flags that his dealer, for a time, Stephen Radich was pilloried in a suite of legal decisions leading at length to the Supreme Court regarding the rights of artists to employ the American flag as artistic material.

The announcement for the “Abstract Inflationists and Stuffed Expressionists” exhibition was a toy balloon, surprinted with the gallery particulars, emphasizing in this way an air of comedy. The good nature of the exhibition led me to write that Eva Hesse’s contribution—ironically called Long Life—was a “slapstick ball and chain [that] might easily pass for an anarchist’s bomb designed by a color blind obsessive-compulsive.”4 I had, of course, been struck by the process of manufacture—a core of papier-mâché painstakingly bound in gray-painted cord. The relationship of the piece to the early painting of Jasper Johns is notable particularly as regards the subject matter of the work—if that term is still a viable one. It can easily be allied, say, with the Painting With Two Balls, the gray, version, which, like the gray work by Hesse is equally sexually inferential.5 Although Hesse’s work also seems to bear reference to the early Johns-like production of Robert Morris it seems doubtful to me that Morris’ career ever had a decisive influence on Eva Hesse’s work despite Morris’ celebrated essay “Anti-Form” (Artforum, April 1968) a position paper to which Hesse’s work is appended by virtue of her relationship to the movement Morris was describing.

From 1965 on there appears in Hesse’s work constant motival configurations. One such figure would be the “ball” and “chain” motif of Long Life, that is, a large, round body from which a thin length depends or is extruded. Such a formal predicate remains constant throughout the remainder of Hesse’s short life—abandoned perhaps only in the plastic and rope skeinings and ladderlike structures of her last year. The “ball” and “chain” appears first to have been realized in a piece of 1965, an untitled work, somewhat inner-tube-like in shape from which a short swirl escapes. It appears again, in altered rendition, in the widely reproduced Hang-Up of 1965–1966. I think the motif is sexually connotative, possibly generative, carrying with it an abortive note as well, as it infers both uterine container and slashed umbilicus. While, on some levels it seems clear that such innuendos correspond to the troubled private life of the artist, such a line of inquiry must remain speculative as it falls into the province of trained analysis. But that Hesse thought along such lines is substantiated throughout the notebooks in terms of jottings and dream notations. The notations indicate that Hesse was attracted to Freudian analytical patterns because they are so potently simple and seemingly true. In a notebook dated April 1966 (although it covers a broader period of time), for example, the basic statement of the conflicts besetting her were recorded as the “Underlying Theme [of the] conflicting forces inside Eva”—in her notebooks she often refers to herself in the third person—viewed as an ongoing sadomasochistic multivalence within a Mother-Father polarity:

"1. Mother force: unstable, creative, sexual, threatening my stability, sadistic—aggressive.

2. Father, Stepmother force: good little girl, obedient, neat, clean, organized—masochistic."

Later, through 1967–69, the motif of the trailing cord may be construed in the context of plasma bags and intravenous tubing, although by the period of her life when the surgical reading ought to be most evident, in the last year, this motif had, in fact, been displaced. Still, if these biomorphic indications are present, these motifs are not interesting because they may lend themselves to elaborate extrapolations of meaning but simply because their forms are interesting apart from any thematic obliquity. The forms infer, but they do not depict. Their essential ambiguity attests as well to a stylistic evolution out of Johns and through him to a still larger distillation of Surrealist theory, combined with, in Hesse’s usage, ruggedness, pragmatic resource-fulness and an implacable regard for the nature of the material. These last qualities were those of Robert Rauschenberg’s work of the period 1958–62, and for a European-minded American artist, Rauschenberg, who carried off the first prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964, would certainly be a preoccupation. The doughnutlike apertures of some of Hesse’s pieces of 1965–66 point to the automobile tires of Rauschenberg’s combine paintings, the very term which Hesse had used in German—Materialbilder—to describe her works on the cover of the brochure for her first one-woman show.

The compulsive coiling of these early pieces—a kind of pleasure-inducing craftswork—indicates a curious methodology. In this connection, I have tried to indicate that the influence of Lucas Samaras is sensible in the tendency toward pictorializing sculpture which marks the later ’60s and announces the Post-Minimalist phase, although this emphasis appears to run countercurrent to an emerging official history of the evolution which places Post-Minimalism squarely at the conjunction of a meeting between Oldenburg’s soft sculpture and the gestural tradition of Abstract Expressionism, discounting thereby the long continuity, from late Surrealist theory. But my intuitions are borne out by an important note: “I met Sol [LeWitt],” Hesse wrote, “at the Whitney [Museum of American Art]. Saw recent acquisitions (Held, Johns, Kelly) & Lipman Collection. Lot of mediocrity along with few fine pieces. One beautiful Samaras (2 inferior ones), a fine Morris & Judd. The Samaras I loved was a box covered with pins, cover slightly ajar, with bird’s head forcing its way out from under cover. Old cords and rope dropping out from front.”6

In addition to the dangling, stray appearance of the sculpture, Hesse also must have responded to the fact that the characteristic surface of a Samaras box is formed by a network of parallel strands of multicolored knitting yarn. The obsessive nature of Samaras’ work of the period—both in subject and method—must be emphasized as another means of altering the idiom of Post-Minimalism. The conjunction of the psychological strain to a less sensuously appealing art sustained by the lucid theoretical positions of her friends Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, and Robert Smithson, may have accounted for the enormous psychological persuasiveness of Hesse’s manipulation of the otherwise spare rigor of Minimalist and serial structures to which she was already being drawn. Certainly LeWitt and Bochner both as artists and theorists have contributed to our understanding of this evolution. Some of the essential reference works in the movement, say Mel Bochner’s “The Serial Attitude” (Artforum, December 1967) include pictorial examples of Hesse’s work without specifically dilating upon the way in which her more psychologically attenuated art elucidated the theory.

Taking into account the organic inference, the mixture of media and the fact that Marisol is a well-known woman artist, one might imagine that Hesse’s work was cued in some measure by Marisol’s work. Yet, a visit to Marisol’s studio is recorded in the April 1966 notebook and the entry makes it clear that while Hesse was struck by the openness of Marisol’s attitude regarding the use of odd substances, she had strong reservations as well. “Marisol does all work herself. She will try anything, experiment with any medium, incorporating all things.” Here the sense of community ends and Hesse sharply notes that “What she does do though is leave too much on the surface—design, decoration. Mystery is lost. She cannot any longer just attach dime store paraphernalia all over, over everywhere—it’s there and it’s no longer even humorous; because one can expect it and there it is, a ring, a necklace, a shoe, a glass, a mirror, a piece of lace, . . . when her pieces hide something from the viewer we look at [them] differently.”

The biomorphic frame of reference in Post-Minimalism generally had, of course, been discussed since the emergence of Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures, especially those of c. 1962–64, when Hesse herself was first being drawn to this metaphor in her combine paintings. It is in this historical relationship that Hesse emerged in the important “Eccentric Abstraction” exhibition which was organized for the Fischbach Gallery by one of Eva Hesse’s close friends, the critic and theorist Lucy Lippard. It was at this time that Hesse came to know Donald Droll who was then the director of the gallery.7

The “Eccentric Abstraction” exhibition, held in September and October of 1966, is one of the most influential group exhibitions in recent history. Lucy Lippard’s selection was arresting in many ways. In addition to Eva Hesse, there was Alice Adams, Louise Bourgeois—the inclusion of women is noteworthy—as well as Gary Kuehn, Bruce Nauman, Don Potts, Keith Sonnier, and, as a reminder of the less prepossessing “Abstract Inflationists and Eccentric Expressionists” exhibition, Frank Lincoln Viner.8

Lippard viewed her exhibition as antithetical to “ . . . the solid formal basis demanded of the best in current non-objective art.” Importantly, she emphasized the “indirect affinities with the incongruity and often sexual content of Surrealism.” Post-Minimal sensibility was described by Lippard as “an aspect of visceral identification that is hard to escape, an identification that psychologists have called ‘body ego’”—an early example of alert critical opinion pressing for an art experienced in viscerally empathic terms. Lippard noted of Hesse’s work that “intricately controlled and tight-bound, paradoxically bulbous forms do not move but their effect is [also] both fixed and changeable. The finality of their black to gray gradation is countered by an unexpected unfixed space and the mood is both strong and vulnerable, tentative and expansive.” Lippard presaged, that “The future of sculpture may well lie in such non-sculptural styles.” What was a “non-sculptural” possibility in 1966 has clearly become a sculptural actuality.

The Lippard broadside came wrapped in a separate sheet of stippled vinyl, the particulars of date and location printed on one face, the other flecked with specks of silver and gold. The vulgarity of the substance—a Warhol film of this date is called Vinyl—and low taste of the mailer, alluded, as Lippard said of Louise Bourgeois, to the “uneasy, near repellent side of art.”

An underground was coalescing and emerging. The then unfashionable loft area south of Houston Street—hence SoHo, bordered on the East with the Bowery, where Eva Hesse had her studio—was discovered to be the new bohemia. Eva Hesse’s life changed from agony and fear into a life central to a vital movement. She was valued as never before by artists, colleagues, and friends. She had found an important gallery to represent her work—the Fischbach Gallery—although she noted in her journal that she had hoped to be shown at the Dwan Gallery at which Sol LeWitt was represented, despite the fact that the astringent severity of the general character of the Dwan roster was foreign to the tendencies exploited by Hesse. Perhaps, too, Hesse still wanted to demonstrate to Tom Doyle, who had been shown at the Dwan Gallery, that she could now stand independently of him, but on his own turf so to speak. Other dealers became interested. “Mike Steiner brought Klaus Kertess here,” she wrote. “He will open a new art gallery in the Fall. He looked hard at work although I could not sense his reaction . . . he said he would like to come back. I felt good. I also liked him although he is four years younger than I am. [He] is also German and also went to Yale.”9

The works of this phase of Hesse’s career emphasize loaded dangling forms, either presented singly or clustered in groups: the ball of Long Life, another untitled black ball caught in a net which hangs from ceiling to floor, a work composed of groups of nets stuffed with crumpled plastic sheeting, the widely reproduced Ingeminate, the sausagelike elements of Several—the last two included in the “Eccentric Abtraction” exhibition. These testiclelike clusters reenact, in terms of their coloristic neutrality, the lessons of Johns but combined with the organic metaphor of Oldenburg. I have attempted to show that they bind the conceptual presentations of early Johns with the viscerally identifiable soft sculpture of Oldenburg. They are unique however, in that they foster an “intelligence” based on natural pressure, an “intelligence” or “rightness” such as we experience in clusters of onions, or sausage links. The tug of gravity, the action of ground sprawl, the steadying and the support of the wall is always felt quite unlike the autonomous works of Oldenburg. This remains constant, even in Hesse’s seemingly errant works, the networks of the last year. These have the natural “intelligence” and “order” that can be found, for example, in the tangled silk snares of certain nongeometric spider webs.

In this way, the visceral punning derived from Oldenburg was displaced in favor of the supporting fundamentalism found in the radical offerings of the day—in Richard Serra’s lead tossings, an important example of which is dedicated to Eva Hesse, or in Carl Andre’s metal “rugs.” These presentations argue for the baldest acceptance of the floor and wall and reject as bankrupt the virtual monopoly which the monolith isolated upon a plinth has enjoyed for millennia. The frank acceptance of the rudimentary—as directed against the base and therefore the isolated “art object”—was only one part of the Post-Minimalist bias apparent in Hesse’s work at this moment, since her work for two years more at least, was to give equally strong evidence of Minimalist structure, a style very much in evidence in New York art at that time.

Eventually Hesse exactly understood her relationship to Oldenburg. In her most artistically exclusive notebook—really a collection of unbound looseleaf pages, undated, but largely after 1967—Hesse observed of Oldenburg’s work: “. . . as eroticism, his work is abstract. The stimuli arise from pure sensation rather than direct association with the objects depicted.” These ideas reiterate contentions made in Lucy Lippard’s essay “Eros Presumptive” (The Hudson Review, Spring 1967) in which the critic attempted to isolate the sexual metaphor in abstract art, an idea which doubtless had been mulled over between critic and artist for some time before publication. In the article Hesse is mentioned, but only in passing and then, revealingly enough, when bracketed with the name of Lucas Samaras. Lippard observed that Hesse’s “black, bound organs” offer an indication wherein “the opposition and eventual union of Eros and Thanatos is one more contradiction to be absorbed by form.”10

During the emergence of an “Eccentric Abstraction” the abstract-sexual legacy of Oldenburg had been transmuted by the free acceptance of natural forces as well as through the idiosyncratic employment of the formalist bias in Hesse’s oeuvre, such as we find in the Metronomic Irregularities, two versions of which were included in the “Eccentric Abstraction” exhibition. It is clear that from 1966 on Eva Hesse was at pains to answer to the total style of Minimalism, then at its apogee, a style given authority by her close friend Sol LeWitt. The notebooks begin to record exact mathematical notations, axioms, and definitions. Ultimately these notations will supply her with a repertoire of titles, just as, earlier, her notes filled with biological and genetic phraseology had provided the names of many “eccentric” works. Transposing notions of graph, seriality, modularity, and checkerboard structure, Hesse, in the Metronomic Irregularities, for example, acted as if she were eviscerating a three-dimensional tic-tac-toe board placing diagrammatic figures one beside the other and then, as if sewing or threading, determining rational junctures for hanging the boards together. This decision combines the firmness of Minimalist ontology with the erratic inconsistency of eccentric interconnection, an impression facilitated by the cotton-covered wires which act as the threading agent.

Despite the marked resonation which the “Eccentric Abstraction” exhibition fostered among the younger members of the art community, the group still tended to be regarded as humorous, divorced from the solemnity understood to be the proper face of art. Sensitive critics, such as David Antin, while employing a favorable tone in a review called “Another Category: Eccentric Abstraction,” threw lines away. Of Ingeminate he saw only “rubber tubing and lacquered cord” [which formed] “a pair of joined sausage shapes. [Hesse] also has a somewhat less successful wall piece resembling a pair of circuit boards of a huge computer, connected by a maze of cottony white wires.”11

Hesse’s serialist presentations were often string-wrapped semispheric reliefs, first realized in the important Ishtar of 1965, from which dangled at each mound’s center, a length of line: the erotic abstraction, of the earlier breastlike configurations, treated in a protomodular sequence. Such reliefs were worked out in numerous geometrical wash drawings which emphasized circles deployed one beside the other in grid formation. This kind of delicate drawing continued throughout the remainder of her life, although in the last year the elements are much enlarged and handled more brusquely.12

The kind of drawings by which Hesse was attracted during 1966–68 emphasized modular and grid arrangements alluding, in this way, to the high regard in which Agnes Martin was held, although the delicacy of wash application in Hesse’s serial compositions—as well as the single motif in isolation—refers as well to the target figure in the Jasper Johns encaustic paintings of the late ’50s.

The controlled gradations of gray in this moment corresponds in the artist’s mind to an absurdist view of the world—an absurdness of the kind she admitted to experiencing in the work of, among others, Duchamp, Johns, and Andre, an absurdness which had been corroborated in the events of her life. It is tragically ironic, for example, that, as a child, Hesse had been destined for German extermination camps and, in 1965, to find her first public there. This kind of world view is expressed throughout an interview with Cindy Nemser, an exchange taped during a three-day remission in the artist’s last months. The interview is the only one to have been published during the artist’s lifetime, published when Hesse was both aware of her rank as an artist and that her life was draining from her, perhaps the most tragic irony of all. She regarded the appearance of seriality as an aspect of the absurd in life. “If something is absurd,” she said, “it is much more exaggerated, much more absurd if it’s repeated.”13

The “Eccentric Abstraction” phase is an incredibly fertile period, dominated by such masterpieces as Ennead and Hang-Up, two works which gained prestige for having been reproduced and exhibited widely. The meandering lengths of string in the Ennead refer to a numerical system, an ennead, a term derived from Greek to indicate groups of nine elements, although it also has a subordinate meaning relating to the mythology of the ancients. It is not accidental therefore that the name carries with it an aural association with name of Aeneas, Virgil’s hero. The confused skeining of gravity-tugged lines do suggest his wanderings. But, of course, the primary experience is mathematical—based on a grid structure of dark, once nipplelike buttons.14

Such mythologizing inferences are not gratuitous. Several works carry classical overtones. The great Vinculum of the last year specifically refers to unifying bonds or links and to the bracketing symbol of compound qualities in mathematical expression. But it also carries with it the forceful name of Vulcan smashing at his forge and the idea of the vincible (or the invincible) as well. Laocoön of 1966 takes the name of the Trojan priest whose warnings against the wooden horse of the Greeks went unheeded, and who was strangled with his sons by the avenging serpents of Athena and Apollo.

Hesse’s journals intersperse mathematical and mythological information. She recorded the information because it corresponded to working problems. She is an artist for whom the title of the work is deeply considered and exactly to the point.

Ennead was a central achievement for the artist. “It started out perfectly symmetrical at the top and everything was perfectly planned,” the artist told Cindy Nemser. “The strings were gradated in color as well as the board from which they came. Yet it ended up in a jumble of string. . . . The strings were very soft and each came from one of the circles. Although I wove the strings equally in the back (in the back of the piece you can see how equal they are) and it could be arranged to be perfect, since they are all the same length, as soon as they started falling down they went different ways and as they got further to the ground the more chaotic they got. . . .”15 But the chaos was valued as it determined the style of much of last year’s work with its sense of arrested clotting and insect-flight web-work such as we find in Right After.

Even dearer to Hesse than the Ennead was Hang-Up. The artist identified it as “the most important early statement I made. It was the first time my idea of absurdity of extreme feeling came through.”16

Hesse’s description of it is the longest personal analysis we possess. Each detail is covered. “It was a huge piece, six feet by seven feet. The construction is really very naive, it is a frame, ostensibly, and it sits on the wall with a very thin, strong but easily bent, rod that comes out of it. The frame is all cord and rope. It’s all tied up like a hospital bandage—as if someone broke an arm. The whole thing is absolutely rigid, neat cord around the entire thing. . . . It is extreme and that is why I like it and don’t like it. It’s so absurd to have that long thin metal rod coming out of that structure. And it comes out a lot, about ten or eleven feet out, and what is it coming out of? It is coming out of this frame, something and yet nothing and—oh, more absurdity!—it’s very, very finely done. The colors on the frame were carefully gradated from light to dark—the whole thing is ludicrous. It is the most ridiculous structure that I ever made and that is why it is really good. It has a kind of depth I don’t always achieve and that is the kind of depth or soul or absurdity or life or meaning or feeling or intellect that I want to get. . . . I know there is nothing unconnected in this world, but if art can stand by itself, these were really alone and there was no one doing anything like that at the time.”17

But the work was not only important to the artist. It formed, as well, the focus of a long description in a New York Letter in which Lucy Lippard further commented on the issues which she had illuminated in the “Eccentric Abstraction” exhibition. “Eva Hesse’s gray sculptures,” she wrote, depart from a . . . fanaticism that has absorbed rather than been conquered by a strong formal sense. . . . Her most impressive work is Hang-Up, an empty six-foot ‘frame’ on the wall, from which emerges a huge narrow loop. Both elements are tightly wrapped, or bandaged, in cloth or cord, and graded, not obviously, from a very light gray at the upper left corner of the frame and a near black toward the right of the loop. Free and confined, regular and irregular, rectangular and unmanageable, the components exist in a peculiar idiosyncratic space. There is a yearning quality of suppression and release as well as pathos and humor to this strange relief that should reach a broad audience."18

Despite the biomorphic inferences in Hesse’s work she did come to grips with the Minimalist issue—but in a highly peculiar way. Facing up to Minimalism meant that Hesse had to formulate her own view of the cube in sculpture and the square in painting. For her these elements provided not so much the means of an artistic structure but an alternative compositional type which employed modular sequences and seriality, but which differed wholly from hierarchic, taste-governed art as we have known it since the success of Synthetic Cubism. It might in fact be one of the very few viable alternatives developed to this esthetic tyranny during the 20th century, Abstract Expressionist “all-over” and the disjunctive compositions of later Surrealism being the only others. Modular sequences or seriality allowed Hesse to fashion her own vision of anti-Cubist structure. They permitted a composition in which no element functioned preferentially to any other element—taste and sensibility being, in Hesse’s case, always imbued with biomorphic inferences and the mark of straight natural force.19

The problem of the cube was easy for Hesse to solve. In the Accession series—“Accession, increased by something added,” she once noted in the “art-notes”—Hesse turned to the conventional cube of Minimalism: LeWitt’s modular frames, Smith’s hollow Die, Andre’s daislike platforms, or Serra’s one-ton lead squares. In the first Accession Hesse built a galvanized steel frame—this solution is closest to LeWitt—and laced the five faces up from the base with plastic tubing leaving the uppermost face open. The loops were then slashed on the inside in a manner similar to the way that woolen loops are clipped in the manufacture of hooked rugs, producing a tactile cube, bumpy yet smooth on the exterior, but brushy within where the cut tubing still projected. The tactile discovery was important to the artist. She repeated it three times, employing a casing of fiberglass from which the plastic tubing extruded in the subsequent versions. “That huge box I did in 1967, I called it Accession. I did it first in metal, then in fiberglass. Outside it takes the form of a square, a perfect square and the outside is very very clear. The inside, however, looks amazingly chaotic, although it is the same piece of hose going through. . . . It’s too beautiful, like a gem, and too right.”20

It was the sense of the hand, of making and doing, which took precedence, even in Hesse’s most serialized conceptions. Compared to more purely theoretical Minimalists—LeWitt, Judd, Morris—Hesse’s version of seriality and modularity appears more playful, even “incorrect.” The smaller floor pieces often seem little more than primitive checkerboards, games, childlike counting exercises quite unlike the irrefragable metal and plexiglass monuments which we take to be the shining examples of Minimalism during its sway. In Hesse’s work structural continuity is often disguised, rendered insensible despite the serialization. A key work is Expanded Expansion of 1969, in which fiberglass and rubberized cheesecloth—industrial materials which allow the mark of the hand—permit a variation even though each of the elements or screens which compose it are fixed one to the other. “I thought I would make more of it, but sickness prevented that—then it could actually be extended to a length one would really feel to be environmental. This piece does have an option. . . . I think what confuses people in a piece like this is that it’s so silly and yet it is made fairly well. Its ridiculous quality is contradicted by its definite concern about its presentation.”21

Such spatial concerns, curtainlike possibilities and serial hints remain as well in the rubberized fiberglass work called Contingent shown at the Finch College assembly, “Art in Process IV,” held in the winter of 1969 and reproduced on the cover of Artforum in May 1970. Writing about the effect that this work had upon him, Philip Leider observed that it was “probably the only piece in the exhibit that had nothing to scream about, no manifesto to adhere to and no theory to back it. It is Abstract Expressionist sculpture of a higher order than I would have thought possible, an inspiration that I would not have thought available to a younger artist. Her work struck me as being as stumbling and as deeply felt, as expressive and as inchoate as, say, a work like Pollock’s She Wolf.”22

“Sickness” broke the hold of Minimalism and opened her to a more sublime vision, one freed of localized theory. It induced the most extreme reach of Eva Hesse’s work. Several masterpieces dominate the last year. With the exception of the two versions of Vinculum, I think Leider was right in observing that the last phase of Hesse was one which was essentially Abstract Expressionist in its larger premises. Whereas Vinculum, in which unified stretcherlike supports of fiberglass rectangles continue Minimalist seriality, the most expressive work of Hesse deals with a skeining and intertwining of forms, which, perhaps in some measure recalls the Abstract Expressionist sculpture of wire and metal tubing of Claire Falkenstein of the mid-1950s, through the early ’60s.23

The prototype of Contingent and its eight-part mock-up were included in the Finch College “Art in Process IV” exhibition. Between the execution of the work and its exhibition in the winter, Eva Hesse, had in the summer, succumbed to the effects of a tumor which was discovered to be growing in her brain. The first of a suite of operations began. She was able, however, at a time when it was hoped that this nightmare had passed, to attend the opening festivities of the exhibition in December of 1969. “Anyway, did go to Finch—and it was an opening and I was told how great my piece was. I enjoyed [myself] despite feeling lousy,” she noted in the manuscript describing the course of her disease and hospitalization. She also read the ambitious statement she had contributed to the “Art in Process IV” catalog concerning the Contingent series. In it she describes the experience of going beyond Post-Minimalism, beyond the local style, beyond art. Her words are only paralleled by the vision of art that was experienced by the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Anyone who has studied Newman’s “The Sublime is Now,” Clyfford Still’s confession in which he describes the discovery of an art devoid of any of the distorting premises of Western culture, or Ad Reinhardt’s statements regarding an iconic art of total placelessness, must be struck by the similarity of voice in Eva Hesse’s statement. Incidentally, Hesse’s words were made literally as a “statement,” since the catalog entry was transcribed from a short tape recording. The apposite passage reads:

". . . Piece is in many parts.
Each in itself is a complete statement,
together am not certain how it will be.
a fact. I cannot be certain yet.
can be from illness, can be from honesty.
Irregular, edges, six to seven feet long.
textures coarse, rough, changing.
See through, non see through, consistent,
Enclosed tightly by glass-like encasement
just hanging there.
then more, others. will they hang in the
same way?
try a continuous flowing one,
try some random closely spaced,
try some distant far spaced.
they are tight and formal but very ethereal.
sensitive, fragile.
see through mostly.
not painting, not sculpture. it’s there though.
I remember I wanted to get to non art,
non connotive, non anthropomorphic,
non geometric, non nothing,
everything, but of another kind, vision, sort.
from a total other reference point. is
it possible?
I have learned anything is possible. I know that.
that vision or concept will come through
total risk, freedom, discipline.
I will do it.

today, another step, on two sheets we put
on the glass.
did the two differently.
one was cast—poured over hard, irregular,
thick plastic;
one with screening, crumpled, they will
all be different.
both the rubber sheets and the fiberglass.
lengths and widths.
question how and why in putting it together?
can it be different each time? Why not?
how to achieve by not achieving? How to
make by not making?
it’s all in that
it’s not the new. it is what is yet not known,
thought, seen, touched but really what is not.
and that is."

At this moment two options were left to Eva Hesse; one, of a purely physical art, the other of an intellectual—mystical art; the conjunction is startling, but I mean it in the sense of ultimate choice, in the way that Still’s is a mystical—intellectual art, or more clearly, Reinhardt’s.

The first option is affecting but, however startling the untitled work of 1970 is (it is sometimes called 7 Poles) it still may fall within the purview of the organic evolution of Hesse’s career. I believe Mel Bochner to be correct when he told me that on seeing the work in progress in Hesse’s studio, the fiberglass over polyethylene was being worked as a kind of physical exercise, squashing, or hand-over-hand manipulation, executed largely as the physical expression still open to the artist at this time. But do not be mislead by the remark; 7 Poles is not an art of physical therapy. Its familiar name is revealing: Pollock’s Blue Poles is the source. In the same way that Pollock was at last able to get past history and culture to a kind of prehistory, the ultimate stylelessness which both Pollock and Newman regarded as equal to, if not superior to, the art of “culture,” so too does Hesse’s 7 Poles have the bedrock fundamentalism of neolithic sources.

The second option projects Abstract Expressionist “all-over” into actual space, a cosmos so to speak, an attitude realized in the Right After works. During the creation of the Contingent series Hesse had undergone several surgical interventions. After these she returned to a piece that had hung fire in her studio for more than a year, suddenly recognizing in it a number of possibilities that had eluded her before, calling the work Right After, that is, a work resumed immediately upon her release from the hospital. “The idea,” she told Cindy Nemser, “totalled before I was sick. The piece was strung in my studio for a whole year. So I wasn’t in connectiveness with it when I went back to it, but I visually remembered what I wanted to do with the piece and at that point I should have left it, because it looked like a really big nothing which was one of the things that I so much wanted to be able to achieve. I wanted to totally throw myself into a vision that I would have to adjust to and learn to understand. . . . But coming back to it after a summer of not having seen it, I felt it needed more work, more completion, and that was my mistake. It left the ugly zone and went to the beauty zone. I didn’t mean it to do that. . . . My original statement was so simple and there wasn’t that much there, just irregular wires and very little material. It was really absurd and totally strange and I lost it. So now I am attempting to do it in another material, in rope, and I think I’ll get much better results with this one.”26

It was in working Right After in rope that Eva Hesse gained her widest, if unaware, public as she was photographed through this work for Life magazine in connection with an article on Post-Minimalism that was called “Drip Art,” acknowledging in this way the resurgence of Abstract Expressionist qualities in much of the newer painting and sculpture of 1968–1970.27

Eva Hesse was no longer making easy or ingratiating Abstract Expressionist statements—she had moved beyond considerations of style. The “decorative,” she had told Nemser, “is the only art sin.” Life magazine had described the rope version of Right After as an unfinished work. Yet in the article Eva Hesse is quoted as saying that “this piece is very ordered. Maybe I’ll make it more structured, maybe I’ll leave it changeable. When it’s completed, its order could be chaos. Chaos can be as structured as non chaos. That we know from Jackson Pollock.”

The plastic version of Right After was included in a large traveling exhibition which documented the use of plastic in contemporary art (organized by Tracy Atkinson for the Philip Morris Company) which, when it came to New York City, was installed at the Jewish Museum. I then wrote that “anyone who has watched the evolution of newer American sculpture is aware of Eva Hesse’s central contribution to this development. Her work, whose forms are strong, suggestive and intellectually focused, surpasses any piece in the show.”28 I still think so—even more, world sculpture.

“I remember I wanted to get to non art, non connotive, non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non nothing, everything, but of another kind of vision, sort. . . . ” The voice no longer speaks to us, but beyond us. In her last year Eva Hesse discovered the sublime, another place and time at which the critic only guesses and of which the historian maps only these superficial paths. She had left her Post-Minimalist colleagues and friends, and joined Newman, Still, Pollock, and Reinhardt.

Robert Pincus-Witten



1. “It’s All Yours,” Seventeen Magazine, Sept. 1954, p. 140. Eva Hesse’s illustrations appeared on pp. 140–141 and p. 161 of the issue.

2. An opinion I expressed in my essay, “The Disintegration of Minimalism: Five Pictorial Sculptors,” for Materials and Methods: A New View held at the Katonah Gallery, New York, Spring 1971, p. 5.

3. The sister of the artist who as possessor of these documents generously allowed me to study them free of any hampering stipulations.

4. Artforum, May 1966, p. 54.

5. I believe as well that this painting is a source for one of Bruce Nauman’s films, Black Balls, in which the artist is seen to slowly apply a black cosmetic to his testicles.

6. The April 1966 notebook.

7. The subsequent relations between the director and the artist were very close. It was at Droll’s loft, in the early summer of 1969, that Eva Hesse first collapsed. He saw her through her medical attentions. I am indebted to Donald Droll for allowing me to examine the Hesse Estate now managed by Knoedler, Inc., a firm which Droll joined in 1970. I appreciate as well the fact that he facilitated my access to Hesse’s private papers and provided the color and black and white photographs of the present article.

8. In a study of the evolution of Keith Sonnier’s work I have previously expressed my admiration for Lucy Lippard’s role in the exhibition. “Keith Sonnier: Materials and Pictorialism,” Artforum, Oct. 1969, pp. 34–45. In this article I indicated that many of the changes sensible in Sonnier’s work were also to be seen in the work of Eva Hesse and Richard Serra.

9. The April 1966 notebook. Kertess opened the Bykert Gallery in September of 1967. It quickly became a center of Post-Minimal experimentation, although Hesse never became an affiliate.

10. The essay gained a broader audience when it was republished in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, New York, Dutton, 1968, ed. Gregory Battcock. I quote from p. 218 of this paperback. Eventually, to view Hesse’s work as a fusion of contradictions became the standard way of handling it critically. In the exhibition catalog, Anti-Illusion: Procedure/Materials written by Marcia Tucker and lames Monte for the influential exhibition of the same name held at the Whitney Museum of American Art between May and July 1969 (at which Post-Minimalism was awarded museological and historical prestige after a studio art gallery existence), James Monte wrote of Hesse’s work in dualistic terms concluding with the observation that “whether her [Eva Hesse’s] works are diminutive and intended to be hand-held, or made on a grand scale, her finest sculpture has a unique animus which is anthropomorphic in quality if not in intent. Her work alludes to human characteristics such as the softness of skin, the swell of muscle or the indeterminate color of flesh fading under clothing after exposure to summer sun.” (p. 11)

Distressed by a facile dualistic argument, Laurence Alloway observed in the exhibition catalog Trio; Delap, Gallo, Hesse (Owens-Corning Fiberglass Center, New York City, May–September 1970), that “one of our ingrained habits of thought is to arrange the world dualistically, in such pairs as right and wrong, us and them, North and South. In art, Classical and Romantic is one such pair; geometric and organic form is another. It is a sign of Hesse’s originality, and to some people a cause of difficulty, that her sculptures do not conform to the latter pair. For example, the sculptures have a curious way of consisting of modular units which, even as we recognize their repetition, become knotted and collapsed. John Perrault described her work as ‘surreal serialism,’ [”Art,“ The Village Voice, November 28, 1968] a phrase that catches very well the ceaseless play of systematic and organic elements in her work.”

11. Artforum, November 1966, pp. 56–7. The review had the positive result of reproducing Ingeminate full-page.

12. In April of 1970, while reviewing an exhibition of drawings held at the Fischbach Gallery, Hilton Kramer gathered that the works were “drawn from the structure of windows . . . all soft-focus and atmospheric, at times Whistlerian.” (The New York Times, April 18, 1970.) This return to a broader drawing style may be regarded as a reemergence of the Expressionism of her drawings seen as early as 1961 when, shortly after graduation from the Yale School of Fine Arts, Hesse joined a three-artists’ show with Donald Berry and Harold Jacobs (the John Heller Gallery, New York City, April–May 1961) at which she was represented by a set of gesturally based drawings.

13. Cindy Nemser, “An Interview with Eva Hesse,” Artforum, May 1970, pp. 59–63, p. 62.

14. It is clear that the Ennead parallels certain string preoccupations of the period, say those made by Keith Sonnier. That it could stand on its own terms in a larger view of modern history was facilitated through its inclusion in the survey of 20th-century masterworks assembled under the title “String and Rope” held at the Sidney Janis Gallery in January, 1970.

15. Nemser, op. cit., p. 62.

16. Ibid., p. 60. The work in fact had been included in the early “Abstract Inflationists and Stuffed Expressionists” exhibition.

17. Ibid.

18. Lucy Lippard, “An Impure Situation; New York and Philadelphia Letter,” Art International, May 1966, pp. 60–65, p. 64. The issues dealt with in footnote 10 are apposite here.

19. These ideas, except for the biomorphic inference and the natural force, were worked out in the modular structures of Sol LeWitt. LeWitt’s influence on the Minimalist movement was enormous and, when honored by a retrospective exhibition at the Haags Gemeente Museum, July-August 1970, he honored as well the memory of his friend Eva Hesse by dedicating the catalog and exhibition to her.

20. Nemser, op. cit., p. 62.

21. Ibid., p. 63.

22. Artforum, Feb. 1970, p. 70.

23. I also think that Lucio Fontana’s savagely rent earthen and metal spheres of the early ’60s were also an important influence on Eva Hesse; since she spent so much time in Europe she could not have failed to be aware of his work. The fiberglass variations of Repetition 19, with its grouped and clustered scatterings, and the more chaotically organized Tori of 1969, made of nine bucketlike units torn on the sides, seem to indicate a knowledge of Fontana.

24. Eva Hesse in her catalog statement for “Art in Process IV,” Finch College Museum of Art, Contemporary Wing, New York City, December 1969–January 1970, n.p.

25. As a formal presentation that bears a superficial resemblance to an untitled work shown at the Whitney Museum’s “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” exhibition of 1969 in which a plasticized ropelike form rose from floor to ceiling. But if this is a source for 7 Poles the thin element now has grown bulky, puffy, is multiplied sevenfold, and organized around a kind of circular ritual site. The relationship seems tangential.

26. Nemser, op. cit., p. 63.

27. “Drip Art,” Life, February 27, 1970, pp. 62–66. Lynda Benglis, Richard Van Buren and Richard Serra were also included in this photo-essay.

28. Artforum, January 1970, p. 69.

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