New York

Eva Hesse

Robert Miller, SteinGladstone

These separate exhibitions suggest the dialectic—dilemma?-—of expression and construction (seminal to Modernism, according to Theodor Adorno) that informs Eva Hesse’s art. Hesse gives each a consciously perverse, perhaps unconsciously pathological twist; expression takes on a peculiarly constructed (inhibited) look, and construction a peculiarly expressive (internally dynamic) aspect. This is hardly a reconciliation, for neither retains its validity as such.

At the Robert Miller gallery, small, intimate gouaches suggest obsessive jottings the artist made to herself, as though redundant expression could generate a sense of self. However, each individual gouache, all too conscientiously unresolved, does not so much evoke a sense of self as suggest an aborted embryo of one. It is as though Hesse were struggling to abandon herself to self-expression, but could not help asserting a self-contained visual idea. This sense of constraint invades her gestures, which seem to work too hard to be spontaneous; the familiar look of accident and tentativeness seems cautiously willed. The result is a sense of inhibited fluidity, at times coagulating into incomplete, if archly surreal, “core” forms. Some are suggestively imagistic: I’d swear that one is a jawless skull, and that others are macabre, if schematic, figures. They are generally gloomy works, as though in mourning for a decaying Abstract Expressionism. Integrative and disintegrative forces are unstably balanced in them, making impulse all too ponderous, as though to counteract a threatening fragility.

The “Metronomic Irregularity” relief sculptures (all works 1966) at SteinGladstone deal with the same issue, but the emphasis now tilts toward construction; for all their irregularity, even Hesse’s expressive lines seem controlled. It is as though Hesse had finally decided there was more safety in the constructed than in the expressive. These works reveal an artist who, while still obsessive, seems to be more artistically mature. She is trying to solve a familiar theoretical problem—the relationship of line (in the form of cotton-covered wire) and surface (in the form of painted wood or Masonite panels)—in a technically new way. If the gouaches read, however loosely, as expressive, the relief sculptures read as an attempt to bring expression under strict control. They restate the conflict in Hesse’s art: between spontaneity in the guise of anonymous chance activity (and therefore not genuinely spontaneous, that is not a manifestation of integrated personality)—and control, in the form of imposed, constraining enframement of spontaneous gesture, forcing it into limits like a procrustean bed.

The conflict, and its seeming—but deceptive—resolution, is epitomized in the title, “Metronomic Irregularity,” which combines the monotonic, superficially soothing regularity of the metronome, neatly dividing time as though it were under control, with the irregularity suggested by linear gesture. The lines, however, are pseudoimpulsive, and their redundancy is not an authentic plenitude; Hesse reveals a false consciousness of gesture, of the letting-go that gesture implies, and the enframement is routine and sterile, suggesting that Hesse could only get it together in a mechanical way. But her “falseness” to—falsification of?—both uncontrolled gesture and controlling enframement suggests the important subjective truth that genuine integration, and the spontaneous fullness of being that comes with it, are all but impossible today. In these works Hesse discovered a new artistic way to articulate a basic truth about the contemporary self.

Donald Kuspit