PRINT September 1977


Eva Hesse

Lucy Lippard, Eva Hesse (New York: New York University Press), 1976, 249 pages, 263 illustrations.

LUCY LIPPARD DEALS WITH A body of work that has been surrounded by partisan excess, but she strikes a balanced pose, without dramatic claims, intense personal confessions or far-flung rhetoric. Scholarly and even-toned, her prose is matter-of-fact and almost dry in many places. Somehow Lippard manages to skirt the academic, and nothing seems unthinking or taken for granted. If pared-down prose can be a sign of simplemindedness, here it is the distillation of thought, consciously unadorned.

As a critic Lippard has run between two extremes in her writing, from an early puritanical defensiveness to a self-indulgent advocacy. She is one of the few critics who has not stood still, and she is always undergoing a process of change, as the title of her first book of collected essays (Changing, 1972) indicated. With this Hesse monograph, Lippard keeps self-expression to a minimum, probably because Hesse herself was so devoted to it that there would otherwise have been an emotional overload. Lippard writes that she has made the book “personal,” and that it was difficult to decide to do that. Yet she refrains from a too personal point of view (except for her preference for one sculpture over another). While Lippard likes to account for any success she makes as a “treading on the edge” between the subjective and objective, or between art and life, it seems closer to the truth to say that she finds a centered balance appropriate to Hesse’s own sculpture.

There is a certain old-fashionedness. Lippard approaches Hesse in a “normal” biographical way, in that biography, although kept to a minimum, is nevertheless used throughout as an influence on the work. This usually takes the form of her husband’s hindrances or her visits to the hospital. Otherwise, formal aspects are heightened; indeed, Lippard plays up formal innovation and evolution to a surprising extent. There is a lot of writing about formal refinement, and it takes priority over the experiential. Yet there is also an inordinate amount of studio talk, and long, involved discussions of materials and processes. (It has been a long time since we have read about craft and careful techniques in modern art.) There are about 250 illustrations of the work. Each of the 90 or so major sculptures is given a rather long, footnotelike accompanying text which, by unnecessarily breaking up the main text, is the only really serious flaw. Although we get a good idea of Hesse’s personal interior, what we know when we finish the book is the work: “This is not a full-scale biography, but a book about art” (p. 3).

For those who are unfamiliar with, or unsympathetic toward, Hesse’s oeuvre, Lippard’s method of detailing the physical aspects of every sculpture might seem slightly aggrandizing. It seems her intention, however, to focus on the work as important and great, to maximize its traditionally great art qualities—dedication to craft, consistent formal evolution, emotional expression. Hesse is not done a disservice by this: she saw her own artistic identity as rooted in the expressionist ethos of the ’50s, and she was driven by an angst and an obsessiveness that we associate with the most romantic artists (and which the general public associates with all artists). Lippard accepts Hesse’s expressive intent. She doesn’t question it, but she doesn’t fall for it either, for Lippard’s taste has never gravitated toward the emotional (witness her early critical writings on behalf of LeWitt and Ryman).

Of the first 180 pages, therefore, there is little to say, and nothing to add. I am not one of those who can “disagree” (as Lippard says) with either Lippard’s reactions or her account of Hesse’s feelings. Everything seems to be admirably straightforward, with interesting details and insights for the cognoscenti, and an overall freedom from art historical rhetoric that should make the book all the more accessible to the general reader. There are a few slips (like the use of the word “semiotic” once, and a tendency to quote too extensively from Tom Doyle), but nothing drastic. Lippard states very clearly which sculptures she thinks are best, and doesn’t agonize or apologize over what that entails. She doesn’t push her favorites as the “quality” works. Instead, they seem to be works that she sees as the most subtle, calm, abstract, simple, and direct in the statement of complementary qualities (hard/soft, opaque/transparent, battered/beautiful). Lippard dislikes fussiness, the pathetic and also anthropomorphism. That I can put it so simply is saying a lot for the transparency of Lippard’s method, and her “upfrontness” about even her own prejudices.

To offset this large biographical part with massive description, Lippard ends gently by skimming over the surface of some “critical issues.” It is unusual for a critic to separate the bulk of the text from the critical issues—one has gotten used to the two being nearly inseparable, never knowing where fact ends and opinion begins. Showing her rigorous levelheadedness, Lippard states, “rather than impose my own personal views so consistently, I will quote, perhaps more than necessary, from [Hesse’s] own and other people’s reactions, so that the reader can construct his or her own image. . . . Since her death, Hesse’s memory has been exploited even by those writers who purported to be seriously discussing her art.” I don’t know if it was a slip, or something deliberate, but no one can exploit someone else’s “memory.” What does Lippard mean? The objective reader has no memory of Hesse; he or she just has the work. As for the exploitation of Eva Hesse as a myth, the critical reader will not be bowled over by hyperromantic and tragic personal information.

The viewer who responds viscerally to Hesse’s sculpture does not need an exploitative abdication of critical responsibility or an impersonal explanation of what makes the work great. Unfortunately, Lippard never arrives at any kind of deep associative meaning in Hesse’s work, nor accounts for the hold it does have on us. She quotes at length a silly conversation which supposedly shows the different kinds of responses that Hesse’s sculptures engender. Things like:

Ishtar was an extension of the breast into the penis . . . Or those dangling things could be a visualization of sucking, drawing out, desire for the mother . . .

Dessication of the organic . . . If someone’s having Oedipal troubles it’s going to come out in perception . . .

High-tension integration.

A subconscious bondage she seemed to exist in.

Acquiring a penis when you come into your own. A mystical penis . . .

And so on. I can’t tell from Lippard’s deadpanning if by presenting it at all she’s accepting this kind of nonsense or parodying it. The meaning of Hesse’s art cannot reside in each of us individually. Furthermore, it must also reach beyond Hesse’s romantic notions of the meaning of the made object, and go beyond biography too. The broader meaning should really have been explored in the “critical issues,” but it wasn’t. We must rely instead on the fact that a book was written at all in order to infer that Hesse’s sculpture is important in a broad sense, as an enrichment of experience.

It might seem crude to say, but perhaps Hesse died at the right time. As Lippard puts it, “Hesse died just before the Women’s Movement gained a broad impact on the art world.” Hesse, who never made a distinction between art made by males and females, said, “Excellence has no gender.” Hesse “cancelled” any reading of her work as “feminine.” Perhaps that was because “feminine” at that time had a pejorative connotation. But her disavowal of the exclusively female identity made it easy for her sculpture to move into the pantheon of “artists who matter,” because male critics felt safe with a woman who held such a view. Lippard obviously doesn’t feel so good about it. She does recognize that Hesse had to have a lot of strength to stick with art when all the odds were against her. But Hesse could not have been consistent and still embraced a “worldly” concern like feminism. If Hesse held a position on the Vietnam war, we are not told about it. Then would it matter if she were a feminist?

Lippard has an artist here who wasn’t affected by anything but her interior landscape, except for an equally emotional and self-centered understanding of others’ art. Hesse is one of the last artists we can surely think about without mentioning outside issues. It seems to have become popular to speak of Hesse and Smithson in the same breath, because they both were “anti”-Minimalist, romantic, and both died early. But they are miles apart. Smithson was constantly involved with issues which affect us from the exterior.

The first quotation which Lippard uses has the following short sentence in it: “Art is an essence, a center” (p. 5). That is actually not an idealistic remark, and it does not refer to something transcendental. Lippard, who is a feminist, completely passes up such a revealing comment, and concentrates on the “edge,” a ’60s concern. The center seems so much more urgent in Hesse’s sculpture than questions of absurdity or edges. The center for her is not just a psychological location, but a physical one. Lippard, usually so conscious of centralized imagery, should have realized how this center could be something directly experienced by a viewer. Even if it can be made deeper through biographical information and introspection, it can be seen.

Psychologically, Hesse’s extended post-adolescent agony revolved around the lack of a center. (The emphasis others placed on her physical beauty was only one indication of this.) But for us, what is amazing in Hesse’s sculpture is how each form is itself a center instead of all together forming a single gestalt. The forms Hesse used didn’t have “edges” and angles; they were continuous: circular, tubular or cylindrical forms. These are all forms whose feature is a center.1 As we walk around each of the multi-sectioned floor pieces—like the best, Repetition Nineteen III—we are at the center at every point.2

Other issues which Lippard does bring up, neither of them very deep but both relevant, concern her use of repetitive forms and the related matter of possible influences on her work.

Lippard does not go beyond the standard reading of repetition in Hesse’s sculpture, a reading—here is the problem—which itself probably relies too heavily on Hesse. Hesse, we learn, used repetition because it was “absurd” to do the same thing over and over again. One hates to contradict an artist’s own stated intention, or disregard her own experience of the work, but I cannot see how the repetition of forms necessarily has anything to do with absurdity. Hang-Up, with its rigid frame and gigantic curving loop, is certainly deformed and strange, yet it is not absurd, any more than one can say a paraplegic is absurd. It is bizarre and owes a lot to Surrealism3; and the juxtaposition of two very different things is jarring. Bruce Boice was very clear about this when he reviewed the Hesse retrospective in 1973. He wrote that artistic absurdity presupposes that the world is not absurd, that things (should) make sense. Since we have no way of knowing that, such “absurdity” is simply an unfulfilled expectation of rationality.

I first saw Hesse’s sculpture en masse at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, without knowing anything about Hesse herself, and not having read anything by or about her. I was struck by the repetition of forms, but much less so than when I first saw Judd’s or Warhol’s works. Repetition means something different in Johns from what it means in Andre, Judd, Warhol—or even Monet, for that matter. Hesse seems to have leveled the meaning of all repetition to the absurd, but no one can reasonably agree with her. Lippard would agree, I think, that repetition can be appealed to for different reasons, and to different effects.

After returning from Germany Hesse did come into contact with the repeated units of Minimalism. But as Lippard so persuasively argues, her personal style was already quite well formed, and Hesse herself was viewed as being “out of it” at the time. LeWitt et al., were making a lot of things which looked all the same, while Hesse was making things which looked different even though they shared common characteristics. It is difficult even to think of the word “character” in the sculptures of the Minimalists, who banished individualism from their work to make it uniform. Hesse’s work had units which were individual, each being a center. Hesse’s units belong to a set where each is identifiable as belonging to the set although no two are the same. It is like the word “cat,” and the difference between the set of all cats and the individual instance of cat. Boice saw this same thing in terms of phenomenology. As with the semiotic approach, that may be philosophically correct but experientially false. The “cat” analogy is only a linguistic analogy. What is more important is that Hesse saw each unit as a center, as a possible psychological individual.4 This is not only an anthropomorphic view; it also implies a profoundly anti-Platonic stance. That is what most separates Hesse from her contemporaries.

Lippard is quite right to minimize Hesse’s influences to the extent that they are no longer influences. Hesse seems to have gotten the most from de Kooning and Gorky; we hardly think of either as being proper or at all problematic influences for any young artist. But Lippard is the victim of a short-sightedness that plagues current art criticism: her historical sights go back as far as Pollock and then stop. Hesse was such a romantic, 19th-century figure, that even making passing references to another tradition would have been more suggestive than just bringing up the names we know everyone has brought up.

Johns and Oldenburg are given as prototypical artists for “multiplicity,” and they are contrasted with artists whom Hesse actually knew, like LeWitt, Judd, Andre and Ryman. It’s difficult for us to see what Hesse responded to in these artists’ work, and it is strange to see Lippard compare Hesse to Ryman in any way. But the strangest and most revealing notion was that Nauman “disenchanted” her because of his Dada interests. I take it that Lippard knows this to be the case.

Now, if there was ever an art movement based on the idea of absurdity, it was Dada. Why wasn’t Hesse drawn to this kind of art, this sensibility? Dada reaches beyond the individual and becomes a statement about society as a whole, a criticism against absurdity. Its venom is aimed outside the self. Hesse, concerned with the expression of an internal psychological state, never seems to care about what goes on “outside.” Her entire existence was obsessed with the inner—about finding her own center. There is not, in the entirety of Lippard’s book, past page 6, any mention of a worldly, historical fact. And I doubt if Hesse was worried about what went on outside, so sure was she of the ultimate self-ness of her sculpture.

Hesse’s sense of the absurd had nothing to do with the state of the world. Her illness couldn’t have brought on this sense of absurdity, because her commitment to art and repetition and absurdity began long before that. One still wants to know from whence her sensibility arose. The answer seems to be that it was purely psychologistic. My notion of Hesse’s art will never be separated from Hesse’s capacity to disregard the transpersonal, the outer, the historical. Lippard responded to Hesse’s antihistoricism by zeroing in on the work. That is now the only passageway to its meaning because Hesse did die so early.

Jeff Perrone



1. Lippard makes it clear that Mel Bochner, for one, didn’t teach Hesse anything. Lippard neglects to mention what younger artists have been influenced by Hesse. Bochner’s attitude toward the center of vision, the center of the paper, the center of a spiral, and forms which are not derived from the edge, can certainly be related to a similar interest in Hesse.

2. This is how Hesse’s art relates to Pollock’s, if it does at all, Pollock’s “all-over” does not establish points of interest, but makes every point interesting, a center.

3. One of the more interesting details regarding Hesse’s stay in Germany is that she met “the lady who in 1935 made the fur-lined teacup.” Meret Oppenheim later sent her a collage.

4. Lippard hints at thus reading, when she says that the units in Repetition Nineteen I (the plaster version) resemble uniformed schoolchildren, or young trees in a nursery, or prisoners—“they carry with them their exuberant individuality.”