New York

Eva Hesse

Once in the grip of the story of Eva Hesse, and just about everyone who knows her name knows her story, it is difficult to separate her art from her life story, and even more so by the evidence for their inseparability presented in the diaries she left and in Robert Pincus-Witten’s writings which make convincing use of the diaries. The point is not that it is necessary to separate Hesse’s art from her biography nor to argue against the case which has been made for inseparability, but rather that the interest I find in her art is in the art and not from the perspective of her biography. Eva Hesse’s story makes her apparent obsession with expression and absurdity understandable, but expression and absurdity in art are not in themselves any more interesting to me now than they were in the late ’50s. Expression in art has never made sense to me because I’ve never been able to see a direct relation between what is purportedly expressed or expressible and the physical object which is said to contain or embody the expression. Within a notion of absurdity is the presupposition “things should make sense”; the world or life is absurd from the point of view that it doesn’t make sense, or the world doesn’t make the kind of sense it should make. Without the expectation of the world’s making a certain kind of sense, there is no conception of the world’s absurdity. It is possible, then; to consider the absurd apart from expressionism as the relation between a mental construction of the world and whatever world exists outside of our construction of it. An insistence on the world’s absurdity is an insistence on unfulfilled expectations, and in Hesse’s work, I sense more a presentation of the relation necessary to a conception of the absurd than an insistence on the expression of absurdity.

The sexual connotations of her earliest work in the retrospective at the Guggenheim are blatant, as is a sort of primitive clumsiness presenting a kind of explicit dumb sex rather than erotic euphemisms. The sense of the absurd, at this stage, seems to relate more to dumbness or the ridiculous than to an existential expressionistic conception. Beyond the load of sexual content, what may be surprising in the progression of her work is its origins in and derivations from painting which eventually evolves into something closer to sculpture. All the work in the show from 1965 and most of the work through 1966 hangs from the wall, andmost of those works take place on the surface of a shallow boxlike structure normally associated with painting; what prevents these works from actually being paintings are the materials that protrude and dangle from the surfaces of the canvases. Even the well-known Hang-Up of 1965–66 is essentially a wrapped frame or stretcher bar with a great wrapped wire extending out from it much like a regular picture frame with its hanging wire. The point is not to locate Hesse within painting or to get involved with a facile interpretation of Hang-Up as a painting hang-up, but her work at this point seems to have been struggling to do something else in an area that has conventionally belonged to painting. The history of art in the ’60s is littered with artists who stopped being involved with painting and Hesse is not unusual in that respect, but the strangeness of the look of her art makes it more difficult to think of her progress in such conventional terms outside the realm of biographical stress.

Hesse’s work after 1965 moves away from explicit sexual forms toward a greater, more focused interest in contrasts, often thought of as oppositions or contradictions. The primary contrast developed in her work between 1966–67 is that of the unpredictable results which can follow from premises of a mental construct of order, which, in terms of her biography, is exactly the way a notion of absurdity can apply to Hesse’s art. From an ordered grid or horizontal line of hemispheres, strings or rubber tubing protrude and hang down, often to the floor and often in a bizarre, chaotic tangle. In this sense, the world is absurd because it doesn’t conform to the sort of order we have in mind for it just as the tangle of strings does not conform to the neat conceptual order of the grid from which the tangle originates. The title Metronomic Irregularity seems to indicate a conception of absurdity or of an absurd relation, while on the other hand, titles from antiquity such as Laocoön and Ennead suggest intentions closer to an expression of absurdity; but the contrasts explored in the works are essentially the same and, of course, one is free to read the works either way. In any case, Hesse’s work of this period seems almost inescapably biographical and there seems to be no other approach to it.

Eva Hesse’s work after 1967, made mostly of latex, fiberglass, and rubberized cloth, could be said to show the same generally biographical concerns as the earlier work, but they become secondary to the added concerns of what amounts essentially to Minimalist theory. An interesting aspect of the progression of Hesse’s work is that it was accumulative; her progress seems to have been a matter of adding new concerns or ideas rather than ever actually abandoning old ones or simply changing direction. Most of what can be said of her earlier work can also be said of her later work, but not the converse. Her later work, for example, is not devoid of references to sexuality or the absurd, but these concerns are implicit rather than explicit in the later work, as if they were metaphorically underneath the successive layers of newer interests.

In addition to her use of new materials, Hesse’s work after 1967 tackles more directly the concepts of Minimalism not so much in terms of reacting against it or establishing something essentially different from it, but by approaching its concepts differently and in the end, making them more convincing. In physically realizing concepts at the core of Minimalism Hesse took a route in sharp contrast with Judd and Andre, and to some extent with even Morris’ later Minimalist pieces. The fundamental distinction between Hesse and the Minimalists seems to have been one of methodology rather than theory, and the methodological distinction can be summed up as the Minimalists presented USUAL objects for consideration in terms of phenomenological experience and Eva Hesse presented UNUSUAL objects. The Minimalist solution to the problem of making objects which would be experienced only as objects in the world having a physical relation with other objects was to present unadorned, simple, regular objects with as few internal relations and cultural connotations as possible, which in their work meant the neutrality of the cube. Contemporary critical response is evidence that the Minimalist strategy worked pretty well, but the problem with experiencing Minimalist work now is that the strategy worked too well, the objects are so neutral, so transparent that it seems hard to remember what sort of experience they were supposed to force us to contemplate. Eva Hesse’s solution to essentially the same problem was to present the irregular object or objects within a regular system; but for all their irregularity Hesse’s objects are as simple as Minimalist boxes, but they are in direct contrast to the neutrality of the Minimalists. Hesse’s objects are simple, irregular, allover lumpy and uneven, abstract, not formal (unless one is determined to look at them that way), and obvious as to what they are and generally how they were made. This adds up to the fact that these are extremely unusual objects and very puzzling ones. And these ridiculous, almost comic (absurd) objects of Eva Hesse’s later work accomplish everything which Minimalist theory prescribed; to experience them is to confront the existence of physical objects which are difficult not to notice.

As I have indicated, the psychological and biographic aspects of Eva Hesse’s work don’t particularly interest me, but her later works, especially Untitled (Seven Poles) 1970, have an unusual and persistent presence completely outside of biographical considerations. The seven puffy, lumpy upright L-shapes are odd forms in themselves and more so in combination with each other. But there is nothing unusual about an L-shape. And, while we don’t know without reading that the elements are made of “fiberglass over polyethylene over aluminum wire,” we can see plainly that the elements are made of those sorts of materials and the making of them doesn’t appear to be anything special. There are no secrets or mysteries as to what the objects are; the puzzle is in confronting such simple but unusual objects and in trying to understand what about them seems so strange. This is the contrast in Hesse’s work that most interests me: the contrast between simultaneous obviousness and strangeness. For what is obvious is not normally thought to be puzzling or strange, and if Hesse’s works are enigmatic, in this contrast is where the enigma lies.

Within the context of her art, at least that shown in the retrospective, the nature of the difference between Hesse’s serial works and those of the Minimalists seems predictable. There were, within the general category of Minimal art, essentially two kinds of serial systems: one based on the uniform repetition of a unit in which each unit differed from the others by not being the others; and the other was progressive or sequential, in which some sort of systematic change operated on each element of the work, so that the work was the result of the system of operations often paralleling mathematical systems. Eva Hesse’s serial works are in a certain sense a compromise between the two kinds of serial systems, and in another sense an entirely different kind. Like her other works, Hesse’s serial works are simple, irregular, obvious, and most important, still develop contrasts between units. The fundamental contrast developed is that between class and individual, the Levi-Straussian notion of simultaneous heterogeneity within homogeneity and homogeneity within heterogeneity. In Repetition 19, III of 1968, for example, each of the 19 fiberglass wastebasketlike units are basically alike enough for us to say they were all the same, but each is just as clearly unique and each looks unique. They are, however, all the results of the same operations and are not uniform, systematically different, nor different in terms of variation. The presentation of the contrast between conceptions of class membership and the individual within a class goes beyond the Minimalist conceptions of phenomenological experience to more fundamental philosophical problems, which could be phrased as “the identity of discernibles.”

In the end, what pleased me most about the Eva Hesse retrospective was finding that her work offered so much to think about completely apart from her moving life story and that being interested in her work is not necessarily contingent on being interested in her story.

Bruce Boice