PRINT Summer 1999


THERE ARE WORKS OF ART that can be confidently described as minor and of marginal importance, perhaps even to the artists who made them, that for reasons far from clear, one can’t get enough of. In my own case, I have often been drawn to works, from Joseph Cornell to Agnes Martin, where the paucity or the almost complete absence of narrative, even of formal complexity, was an invitation to a kind of poetic reverie. I suppose this is like saying I prefer an empty room to the clutter of an overdesigned interior, that I prefer a space in which a single chair or an empty birdcage can do wonders for the imagination. Empty spaces make us discover our inwardness. In such rooms one has the feeling that time has stopped, that one’s solitude and that of the remaining object are two actors in a metaphysical theater.

This work is one of the series of semiabstract, untitled ink washes on paper that Eva Hesse composed in 1960 and 1961. They are like symbolist poems. Instead of words and images, smudges, erasures, chance drippings, scribbles, tangled and incomplete forms, contrasts of shadow and light tease our imaginations. If the drawings had titles, of course, that would be another story. A title is like the caption to a news photo; it conditions our responses as it tells us what we are supposed to be seeing. Hesse’s untitled drawings, on the contrary, give rise to the free play of associations and a delightful uncertainty as to what precisely is being represented, if anything.

At first glance the ink wash I’m enchanted with doesn’t pose much of a problem in that regard. The silhouettes of two tall buildings and perhaps even a third one are visible through a small window across a stretch of what very likely could be Central Park in puddles of shadow. It’s the brown darkness of an overcast evening with clouds racing and traces of dying light lingering on in the west. There is an air of decrepitude about the scene. Here is the laundry of sundown hung out to dry, as it were; the day’s washing, wind-beaten and begrimed by the fumes of the city.

No sooner have I said that than I begin to have my doubts. The window does not really look like a window. It’s more like a bamboo picture frame. I have seen such frames on mirrors in people’s hallways and on photographs on side tables in a living room where someone once young and handsome is surrounded by souvenirs, knickknacks, memorabilia. How strange to find that sort of frame enclosing what presumably is an urban scene, unless what we are seeing here is a reflection in a mirror? The point is, it doesn’t quite make sense. The frame inside the frame is tilted as if held in someone’s unsteady hands. The artist’s strategy unsettles our expectations and makes strange what was ordinary only a moment ago.

The more I look at it, however, the more taken I am by the power of its ambiguity. The trap it sets for the imagination is no different from the one found in the sediments on the bottom of a fortune-teller’s coffee cup. Blurry outlines, partial views, off-kilter cropping work a suggestive magic. This drawing is, indeed, like a symbolist poem. (Think of Mallarmé or Hart Crane at their most hermetic.) The secret of that art is not in what you put in, but in how much you leave out. The “poetic” and the “lyrical” states, the symbolists knew, are beyond exegesis. For instance, in “To Brooklyn Bridge” Crane describes the lit windows at night as “The City’s fiery parcels all undone”; the spark of that image transcends any paraphrase. Crane writes, “as a poet I may be possibly more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness . . . than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations at the cost of limiting my subject matter and perception involved in the poem.”

Opacities of the evening, a city that appears in ruins, a scene out of a dream, memory of a momentary glance, remains of an old sadness without a cause, the enigma of the real, and the threatening unreality that always hovers over the real. There are times when the world wears the colors and the shadows of our inner life, when reality and imagination appear to be in cahoots. “The imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself,” Blake wrote. Hesse may have thought she was drawing a cityscape, while in truth she was dipping into the ink of her own inwardness.

The simplest test for the strength of any work of art is how long one can bear to look at it. This work passes that test for me. I experience in it the shudder of two different selves coming together. I know why Hesse stopped when she did. I picture her pausing with her brush, staring at the drawing, beginning to fall under its spell herself, then for a brief moment fancying someone else seeing what she sees. Being a poet, I know what she was after. I, too, wish to make contact with some unknown person’s inner life. Our mutual hope is to bequeath a phrase or an image to the dreamers so that we may live on in their reverie. Because she has done that to me, I have no choice but to revisit this little work, again and again.