New York

Eva Hesse

Pat Hearn Gallery

As with Pier Paolo Calzolari, symbolism is latent in Eva Hesse’s art, the basis of its expressive power. It now seems more evident than ever. Perhaps the passage of time is necessary to make the spiritual character of an art manifest, to show that its materiality serves a deeper purpose than to establish a novel appearance. In the case of art, “time will tell” means that if a work still looks purely material after it has been in the world a certain period of time—if it seems nothing but the sum of its “formal facts,” as Clement Greenberg called them—then it is worthless. The ’80s development of neo-Expressionism has made us sensitive to the symbolism latent in other art. It also reminds us that the best abstract art still has spiritual import, and that it is impossible for us to regard its material appearance as significant without our feeling this import.

In Hesse, more than in Calzolari, it is more difficult to determine this import. Two general characteristics seem a clue to it: the irregularity of her objects, and the use of materials (fiberglass, latex) that are presented to us ambiguously as a trapped fluidity, as something both hard and soft. Thus, a wall work entitled Sans II, 1968, consists of a double row of sacklike rectangular units that are awkward in their turgid, crude materiality, and similar but not identical. We read the overall work as a grid in which each unit distinguishes itself from the others and asserts its own particular character through this awkward individuality. In Viniculum II, 1969, the strings that dangle from a support stretched between the wall and a point on the floor are of different lengths and curve in different directions, mocking the “neatness” of their seriality—making the repetition seem less inevitable, more of an effort than it seemed at first glance.

What we are looking at in these and other works is a metaphor for anomie: atoms of disturbed individuality within the enforced conformity—the anonymous sameness—of the social group. The irregularity of the individual units, their misshapen, almost deformed quality, is a defense against that anonymity, that conformity. These works are not only a brilliant material transformation of Abstract Expressionist gesturalism but extend its implication of tragic, alienated individuality by contextualizing it. The seriality becomes the equivalent of the rigid social context that “forces” eccentricity upon certain members of society as a way of feeling alive.

Hesse’s works, in other words, are profoundly subjective. As Theodor Adorno wrote, “In art, the point of reference continues to be the subject”—however repressed, I might add. “Granted, the subject cannot and must not speak the language of immediacy. But it can and does continue to articulate itself through things in their alienated and disfigured form.” Hesse uses the gestural language of immediacy, but translated into a material that makes it less immediate. Moreover, because she often fits the elements of a work into a serial format, like a procrustean bed, gestural immediacy seems impacted rather than explosive. This adds to their subtly alienated, disfigured look.

The discreet eloquence of the installation is worth noting. As in many galleries eager to declare themselves sacred spaces, Hearn’s uses its grand emptiness to alchemical advantage, so to speak. I think the trend is good; the space releases the spirituality held incommunicado by the abstraction. The emptiness sounds the depths of the art that inhabits it, challenges the art to hold its spiritual own, and helps us divine the subjective depth hidden in it. There is no question that Hesse’s work has this depth, which has been almost entirely neglected in the literature. Hesse’s art does not try to be larger than the space it inhabits (the way all too many works do today, as though physical grandeur guarantees spiritual significance) but lets the space lure her art’s depths into the open, onto the surface.

Donald Kuspit