Eva Hesse

The earliest drawing in this retrospective dates from 1958 and the latest from 1969, the year before Eva Hesse died. The rich and comprehensive selection provides a unique opportunity to study works that are now dispersed and rarely seen apart from the sculpture. But despite the quality of the curatorial selection and the beauty of individual drawings, especially the gouaches, the exhibition resonates because of the constant foreshadowing of and relationship to the ideas and forms of the sculpture.

Ellen Johnson, who curated the show for the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio, makes a convincing case in her catalogue essay for the central position of drawing in Hesse’s work and career. She points to the drawings as the area in which Hesse found her personal style, notes that she was better in her drawings than on canvas, and finally suggests that it was in her use of line that Hesse discovered that she was a sculptor. The exhibition therefore is more than an academic exercise: it is an argument, albeit a modulated one, for the unraveling of the drawings from the fabric of the total work in order to create a distinct focus, establish a chronology, and highlight the individual achievement of Hesse’s drawing. Although the show does not include working sketches for sculpture, the relationship between the drawings and sculpture is nevertheless telling. The fact that some drawings precede and others follow the three-dimensional work further underlines the central place they occupy; and though the drawings do not explain the sculpture, some are only interesting because they refer to it and offer an alternative to a problem or a variation on a theme. The inclusion of so many drawings can be rationalized on the grounds that one wants to know as much as possible about a major figure; only in the case of the drawings from 1963–64 are we given so many examples that the remarkable quality of Hesse’s discovery is somewhat mediated by the imperative of scholarly comprehensiveness.

At the beginning of her essay, Johnson notes the affinity of Hesse’s concerns to a Northern tradition preoccupied with line and light, and quotes a statement by Hesse: “Light I’m not too concerned with because if you use fiberglass clear and thin, light does beautiful things to it. . . . It is there—part of its anatomy.” The exhibition chronicles Hesse’s use of light and line, following line into sculpture and light into transcendence. In her conclusion Johnson again emphasizes the dominant role of light, illuminating the late “window drawings” and animating the sculpture, and contradicting the artist’s disavowal. The exhibition begins with academic brown-ink studies of landscape motifs or trees. Next come velvety ink washes that are also metaphors of growth; the round bloom on a stem is an image that will reappear as a circle, target, or breast with dangling cord in both drawings and sculpture. The large section from 1963–64, of color drawings with collage resembling game boards, documents the acknowledged influence of Wassily Kandinsky, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning. With arrows reminiscent of Paul Klee and patches of bright color, these drawings contain the chains of boxes that would later be realized in Hesse’s sculpture, for example Sans II, 1968.

In the drawings from 1964–65, a crucial period, there is a growing assurance and even elegance of execution. At first, boxes contain machine parts; these fragments are then liberated from their containers to become self-sufficient anatomical equivalents floating against the white page. The strong line in these spirited drawings is almost cartoonlike and there is tension between the floating spatial sensation, the fluid and the dotted line, and the mischievous erotic fragments joined in formal rather than logical connections. These drawings suggest suction devices, plumbing gaskets, and propellers, or plant forms where bulges protrude from narrow tubes. Several have the chilly wit of Surrealism, recalling, for example, Roberto Sebastian Matta’s mechanomorphs or, more directly, the machines of Konrad Klapheck. A pod, slipper, or phallic form is balanced with a minimum of lines. The lines that Hesse used for shading, and her sensitivity to spatial composition, anticipate her wrapping process and suspended sculpture. A 1965 exhibition in Düsseldorf of 14 sculptural reliefs and 36 drawings included the pink papier-mâché relief Ring Around Arosie, 1965, which suggests two breasts; it is this work that Johnson feels is the critical link leading to the wrapped sculptural works and the circle and target drawings of 1966 and 1967.

The penultimate group of works in the exhibition is the most well-known and provides the closest equivalent to the sculpture. Repetitive in an obsessive rather than a systemic way, these circles on graph paper emerge from layers of monochrome washes and have a luminosity that refers back to the first ink washes. In their contradictions these drawings recall such sculpture as Accession I, 1967, a box threaded with rubber tubes so that the exterior’s woven, regular surface contrasts with a bristling interior. Johnson sorts out the Minimalist influence, always stressing the subjective impact of Hesse’s work. The modest scale, understatement, and limited tonality paradoxically result in drawings that are almost tactile. Hesse’s use of ink washes endows these drawings with an atmospheric presence, as if she incorporated the graph paper’s rationalist grid only to undermine its geometry by repetition. She fills the grid with crosses, and with circles whose centers are threaded with cords so that overtly sexual connotations cohabit there. Again and again one is struck by Hesse’s sensitivity to formal contradiction: the hard clean line of the 1965 drawings is the boundary for forms that would have to be soft and round; the sculpture often has a pictorial surface and position. In her drawings as well as her sculpture Hesse addressed an important issue of the mid-’60s—reversals of and the interface between sculpture and painting.

Hesse gives up the circle form in the last series of drawings in the exhibition, which date from 1968–69. These “window drawings” (Hesse’s own term) and “Woodstock” series (she spent the summer of 1969 in upstate New York) are of course related to the earlier containers and refer, according to Johnson, to the window in Hesse’s studio. The sculptural correspondent would be the panels of translucent sheets that capture and layer light in Contingent, 1968–69, but even the specific window imagery seems incidental in the last, simplified drawings that become enclosures for what Johnson calls a “large rectangle of light, a silent void”—for example, the opalescent washes in an untitled work from 1969 (no. 90 in the catalogue), where light penetrates beyond page into space.

This exhibition calls for close observation if one is to appreciate the subtleties and delicacies of Hesse’s vision. Such concentration almost seems an archaic exercise in the face of the more obviously legible imagery of recent painting. In addition the viewer has to address, if not come to terms with, the overlap of the artist’s tragic biography onto one’s perception of the work. It is often impossible and perhaps not even necessary to separate life from work, but it is almost equally impossible to approach these drawings without the biography casting its shadow. Hesse’s artistic development has been embedded in and informed by the narrative of her life. The role of a woman in a male-dominated prefeminist art world, the failed marriage, and Hesse’s deep fears of abandonment are all well documented and do provide psychological insights. Looking at the sculpture one is swept away by its idiosyncratic materiality and by an utterly moving presence which indeed transcended boundaries of painting and sculpture. What one misses in this collection of drawings is the sense of absurdity, the disconcerting otherworldliness of Hesse’s objects. The questions that still make the sculpture so immediate and even disturbing are quietly answered in this exhibition of drawings.

Judith Russi Kirshner