PRINT January 2002

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Eva Hesse

Eva Hesse, with her lumpy, handmade sculpture, her bumpy, dramatic personal life, and her premature death at the age of thirty-four, has long been something of a heroine in college art departments, not unlike Frida Kahlo or Sylvia Plath. With a mere ten-year career to her name (1960–70), you couldn’t say precisely that she was ever overlooked: Early supporters included Sol LeWitt, Lucy Lippard, and Dan Graham, and an adolescent gouache even won her a Seventeen magazine contest. Still, scholars and critics have been laboring for the past fifteen years to shore up her place in the ’60s canon. Although Hesse herself sadly came and went right before the feminist revolution in art, both the initial criticism and much recent writing have focused on contrasting her seemingly personal and expressive work—and her own identity—with Minimalism’s “Me Serra, you Jane” mode of address. Co-organizers Elisabeth Sussman, guest curator for SF MoMA (who brought the show with her after leaving the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York), and Renate Petzinger from the Museum Wiesbaden in Germany are instead exploring the relationships and cross-pollination between the artist’s paintings, works on paper (including Hesse’s copious notebooks), and sculpture, the medium for which she is best known. The curators have gathered an impressive 150 works for the show—from watercolors and collages to latex and fiberglass—including rarely seen pieces from private collections and several David Ross–era SF MoMA acquisitions. The enormous catalogue sidesteps some of the more obvious suspects in favor of Minimalism experts Briony Fer and James Meyer, Philadelphia curator Ann Temkin, SF MoMA conservators Jill Sterrett and Michelle Barger, and writer and Hesse confidante Gioia Timpanelli; it also features a roundtable on conservation issues surrounding the works, many of which were made with experimental (and now disintegrating) materials. Downplaying the biography may disturb the mythology and unsettle the clichés of the Hesse literature (absurdity, obsession, organicism, process, etc.). The paintings, unlike the notebooks, can be weak; seeing them next to her sculpture casts her oeuvre in a new light. And if we see Hesse as neither the anomalous handmaiden of the handmade nor the moral superior of brutal Minimalism, where does that leave her relationship to ’60s sculpture? The exhibition and catalogue attempts to answer many of these questions; the retrospective, if not necessarily definitive, is the first sustained inquiry into Hesse’s materials and practice across both media and time. As Sussman herself puts it, she wants to lead us into “the life of the work, rather than the work of the life.”
Katy Siegel

“Eva Hesse” will be on view at SF MoMA Feb 2–May 19; Museum Wiesbaden, Germany June 15–Oct. 13.