PRINT November 1972

Eva Hesse: Last Words

THE RELATIONSHIP OF EVA HESSE’S art to the record of her immensely troubled life is recorded in private journals and notebooks which she kept from late adolescence onward. The first diary, a small bound journal, dates from her days as a graduate student in Fine Arts at Yale. It deals mainly with a generally Freudian understanding of the pattern of her family conflicts, patterns made evident by the thrust of the psychological counseling of which the artist availed herself at this time. Also included are gynecological concerns occasioned by some surgery the artist had undergone, which served to intensify her elaborate conception of feminity and the female. She refers to her relationship with the sculptor, Tom Doyle, whom she married, the joys of marriage, and a violent sickness: a jealous depression that characterizes her “mourning” over the loss of this relationship. Her grief dominates the supreme journal, the small notebook of April, 1966, which runs until June of that year. The trauma of separation from her husband is, however, only a shadow of this journal; the substance records the emergence of Eva Hesse as an individuating, if not yet fully individuated artist central to a body of artists and critics—Mel Bochner, Sol LeWitt, Lucy Lippard, and Robert Smithson among others. The nature and events of this journal preclude publication at this date since it is intrusive on the private lives of numerous figures, all of whom should be allowed to state their versions of that history if they so wish. Certainly Eva Hesse’s estrangement from her husband—and perhaps a loss of face she felt because of her view of marriage—triggered an immense growth in her work. Her major “eccentric” works come into being during this period. The death of her father, who seemed to be the real focus of Eva Hesse’s life, intensified her emotional state. It caused a double “mourning” and formed the content of the third major notebook, written during the summer of 1966, a kind of paean to her father. These intertwined themes also place this journal beyond immediate publication.

This brings us to the last effort, a set of seven typewriter-size sheets of manuscript, which relate the course of the disease which destroyed the artist. The pages, apparently written in three reprises, run from early April, 1969, to May, 1970, during which time the artist had had a brain tumor removed. A short remission followed the ordeal—a period accompanied by the flowering of the artist’s reputation. Toward the end of the manuscript the artist mentions a “Whitney pickup.” This refers to her wide representation at the important exhibition organized by James Monte and Marcia Tucker, called “Anti-Illusion: Procedure/Materials” which ran from May through July, 1969, at the Whitney Museum. At this time post-Minimalism moved out of the small gallery and artist’s studio existence into sanctioned public quarters. Similarly “Janis pickup” refers to the inclusion of her Ennead, a late skeining of cord, in an historical survey at the Janis Gallery called “String and Rope,” January, 1969. Here Hesse more than held her own in a continuum from New York Dada to the present day. The happiest recorded moment notes the reception of her work at Finch College. For Elayne Varian’s fourth annual survey called “Art in Process,” Eva Hesse contributed the prototype of Contingent, a major work of the last year (illustrated on the cover of the May, 1970, issue of Artforum). The manuscript concludes with a reference to the three days that Cindy Nemser taped with the artist at Al Held’s studio during the remission. However, by the time of publication, Eva Hesse was terminally hospitalized.

Though written in pain and under sedation, there are few repetitions in the last seven pages of the manuscript. In only one place is it illegible. Occasionally I have included a word or two to make the idea clearer; these are marked by brackets. In places I have dropped a repeated word; these are marked by triple dots. The punctuation has been smoothed so that the sentences parse. Footnotes identify the persons referred to. At the end when transcription was arduous, the artist no longer writes subject-predicate sequences, but only short phrases which add great rush and power to the conclusion.


If I could go back to the beginning [when] it all began. I was at Donald’s,1 with students. We finished the box for Larry Aldrich.2 They went home. I went to sleep—such a long sleep. I did not wake till April 18, evening. Not really. I spoke, they say, mostly as [if] I were cognizant of life, of what was going on. But, I was not. I remember only Monday, April 5th, finishing the box and going to sleep. A few isolated images and sounds. Ethan Ryman3 running back and forth, Lucy4 reading on the couch, telephone conversation, [taking a] prescription, change of guards [the change of nurses or those keeping watch at bedside], Rosie’s new dress,5 tulips from Marilyn,6 one trip to bathroom and seeing an old Italian sick lady in bed, and a talk with a young doctor who asked me a number of questions—then, 12 days later. Those were the only things I knew and knew till the evening I woke from operation.

Then I seemed to know everything. I knew, I recognized, I spoke. I smiled. I fantasized. I had visions. I loved. I could not speak enough. I saw faces. I saw [in them] love, happiness. I knew all but not really. I knew I was very ill. I thought concussion, not tumor. But I knew, my head, serious—no fear, no fear. Amazing. When fear has a right to be there, I did not fear death. I knew it was there, [that it] could be, but I did not fear [it]. Felt drugged. Knew that too was there. Saw images, color flashes, very very beautiful—but despite awareness of high, [of] drug, was not afraid. Wanted to touch [to] connect with those with me. Was very in touch with them, they with me. That is a special in touch.

What actually happened. What I know now too accurately, is this. Lucy, Donald, Roy,7 Ruth,8 Helen,9 Murray,10 Naomi,11 Lester,12 Ethelyn13—they were trying to connect [with] hospital—arrangements evidently not so easy. They somehow aware of seriousness. Arrangements not easy. Why?—emergency. If connections don’t connect, emergency. Get in through emergency. A doctor, some doctor unknown to them, came through. He would admit Eva.14 April 10th I was admitted to N.Y. Hospital, 17th floor, to be examined, tested—for? Drs. all said “depression, some form of extreme exhaustion.” My side, friends, allies said “No—test her—keep testing her—It is not her way. It is not . . . [mental]. She does not follow this kind of pattern.” Clash of opinion [that] is somewhat absurd to me. A few days passed. Tell me they gave me a lumbar puncture. That tells enough. Why did they wait days? A question. After that test comes other tests. They show enough immediately. Why so much thought, diagnosis, hypothesis, when a test, one test shows enough—immediately? Forgot the name of test. Did not know anything then. Its not no recall, [but that] nothing registered in my intelligence. Not amnesia, forgetfulness, loss of memory. I knew nothing then, not a thing. My condition worsened. It was bad. I was out. To what extent? Emergency. Dr. B. . . . R. . . .15 came back that afternoon. He would operate in the morning. He would sleep, have his own team—intensive care, a nurse there. If change, an operation [would take place] during night. I had not much time to live. My optic center was in immediate danger. My tumor was so enlarged it had no free space to move so it was tipping my brain over, over, on to respiration. There was not much time, not much chance—but Dr. B. . . . R. . . . saved my life—and I was very alive, very fast. Change of head gear, bandage, wrappings, care, very tender care, time—vague, and very real things. Space orientation all off—totally inaccurate and unaware, dislocated. Never afraid. Someone always there, never aloneness—tender closeness. Remember being told what happened. Helen telling me how sick I was. Like that. Straight. I knew I was not afraid. Not then. And now I was amazed. Why not? Why, when one really has right to be afraid, is one not? One can [then] afford to be brave or strong.

Cannot keep this in actual sequence. Too late. Too much has happened. Does not matter. There is no real way, real sequence. Things happen concurrently—depends who you are, where you stand and see. [Depends on] so many things.

It’s been a long time. April 6th. Today is December 9th. Now 1:30 P.M. A long haul. Today is 3rd day I feel a little better, a little stronger, a little more hopeful, a little less sickness. How grateful I am. I really can be pleased, made happy and can be so grateful. I can do the other too. Go down so easy, become soulful . . . sad, lonely, depressed. But I’m up, sitting up but the other up [too] because I’m sitting up. Playful . . . I am because it does mean much to me to be up—I have much to do.

A day lapsed. Sorry about that. Two reasons. Would like to write each day. A challenge. More than a challenge. It has a special meaning for me. I think I would rather be able to write each day than anything else. How’s that to say. Said. Second reason—was feeling shitty again, and it was physical—not anything else. I had good reasons for feeling good, Whitney pickup, Janis pickup and evening opening at Finch. Not that one must feel good for those reasons but not sick [about them] either. Anyway, did go to Finch—and it was an opening and I was told how great my piece was. Enjoyed [myself] despite feeling lousy. I therefore declined dinner with friends.

Today. Try to sit up. 2:00 P.M. Have been up total of maybe 1 hour. Bathed. So many baths. Stimulate the circulation. Build up some energy. Try to stay up. Have a lot of work waiting for me to get done. Other people, waiting, exhibitions. I don’t mean I feel pressure, I don’t. It’s kind of nice. Waiting for each thing I do. It is better than doing and no one waiting to see at all.

That is no problem. Artist thinking, working, doing. Doing is for now. But that should not matter so. I must not begin to transfer doing to another. When one is confident and can act, decide, do—then [there] is no problem. Problems exist where one is indecisive, fearful, reluctant. Therein lies the hassles. Where I worry I cause worry and something goes or can go amiss for life to go as clear as art.

2:45. Stay up. I rest my arm on table, my head rests on hand. Patience. A few more weeks at most. Less sickness, less weakness. Strength.

Arm is very painful. How to describe pain. How much pain can I take? [What is my] pain threshold? I don’t know. I dread it or fear it as other. Yet the nagging persistent leveled doses I seem to harbor, take, don’t take pills for [illegible]. Explain to Dr. and then take. The arm. A needle. Not an average kind. The experimental medicine. The one that will fly me to the moon. That chemical, or that needle went away. 10 days of steady arm pain—ridiculous. No one want to know of my arm pain. So many days, weeks have past
I have not kept writing.
I will try a tape recorder after I get one.
There certainly is the desire to write and work (draw). I can’t get started.
Days pass.
I do so very little.
Amazing to see time pass
so fast
doing so little
I admit to a little more activity now than baths but not much.
I did tape interview with Cindy Nemser—3 different days—would say each day we . . .


Here the manuscript ends. Eva Hesse died on May 29, 1970.

A retrospective of the work of Eva Hesse, organized by Linda Shearer, a Research Fellow of the Guggenheim Museum, opens at that institution December 8, 1972. The exhibition will travel to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, and the Pasadena Art Museum.



1. Donald Droll, then the director of the Fischbach Gallery, New York City, which represented the artist. I am indebted to Mr. Droll for many generous services which repeatedly facilitated my research on Eva Hesse.

2. Larry Aldrich, collector, and President of The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The box in question is Accession II.

3. Ethan Ryman, son of Robert Ryman and Lucy Lippard.

4. Lucy Lippard, noted critic and friend of the artist.

5. Rosalyn Goldman, long-time friend of the artist and recipient of a body of important letters.

6. Marilyn Fischbach, the artist’s dealer.

7. Roy Leaf, friend of the artist.

8. Ruth Vollmer, friend and artist.

9. Helen Charash, the artist’s sister. As possessor of Eva Hesse’s private papers I am in her debt for allowing me access to them for study, for her consent to quote from these documents as well as to publish this manuscript in its entirety.

10. Murray Charash, the artist’s brother-in-law.

11. Naomi Spector, then the office manager of the Fischbach Gallery.

12. Dr. Lester Honig, husband of Ethelyn Honig.

13. Ethelyn Honig, friend and artist.

14. In her journals Eva Hesse repeatedly refers to herself in the third person singular.

15. The surgeon in question has requested that he not be identified beyond the use of initials.