New Haven

Eva Hesse

In a now-famous 1970 interview, her death imminent, Eva Hesse told Cindy Nemser, “In my inner soul, life and art are inseparable. . . . Absurdity is the key word. It has to do with contradictions and oppositions.” Her affinity for paradox is revealed in her art as an extraordinary synthesis of organic and geometric form, a synthesis tempered by a sharp analytic edge. Hesse’s work ended by subverting Minimalism’s extreme insularity, causing what Robert Pincus-Witten aptly called its “disintegration.”

A recent retrospective at Yale brought together a substantial selection of works, providing a rare opportunity to trace the roots of Hesse’s achievement. At the entrance to the show were paintings and ink-and-crayon drawings from 1960-61, a period during which Hesse’s work was informed by the work of Abstract Expressionists like Arshile Gorky. The drawings balance delicate scraping and washes with dark heavy forms, while the sagging and leaning shapes of the paintings anticipate the black humor and vertiginous weight of some of her mid-’60s sculpture. A series of Hesse’s works made over a 14-month period during which she and her husband lived and worked in a textile factory in Kettwig am Ruhr, Germany, reflects a crucial phase in her artistic development. She began to make mechanomorph-like drawings of machine-part detritus, and sculptural reliefs animated by grotesque shapes, inflamed color, and sexualized materials.

Duchampian dichotomies inform much of this work; both the reliefs and the drawings of mechanical parts imply a dual sexuality. But Hesse’s conflation of deadpan humor and feigned resignation in the face of terrible circumstances comes closer to the Berlin Dada of George Grosz, who said, “Our symbol was nothingness, a vacuum, a void. To what extent we were the expression of a despair that knew no salvation, I cannot say.” Or, as Hesse herself once said, she was striving for the “big nothing.”

Hesse’s melancholy—produced by a deep anxiety rooted in her family’s flight from Nazi Germany, her parents’ divorce, and her mother’s subsequent suicide—and its relevance to her work have been the subject of much discussion. These and later events—the unhappiness and relative brevity of her marriage to sculptor Tom Doyle, and eventually the extreme circumstance of her brain cancer—instilled in Hesse a sense of the value of intellect as a weapon against life’s irredeemable absurdity, manifested in her work by, among other things, serial repetition and perilous relationships to wall and ground. In some of her work, time itself seems to be in imminent danger of collapse, as in the blackened sausage shapes of her mid-’60s balloon pieces that eerily evoke Germany, the site of her original trauma.

Although the opportunity to see such a large group of Hesse’s fragile late work was more than welcome, the exhibition space at Yale was often inappropriate. Seminal works—Accretion, 1968, Sans II, 1968 and Repetition Nineteen III, 1968—which require both light and space, were shown in a dimly lit, foyerlike space. Others, such as Accession II, 1969, and Sequel, 1967, were displayed on a brownish dais, which at once excluded the viewer from interaction with the objects and detracted from their subtle coloring. Most distressingly, both Sans II and Accretion were placed along walls not much longer than the pieces when installed, thwarting the feeling of a potentially endless repetition.

Unlike the closed, mathematical forms of Minimalism, which seduce with the promise of completion, Hesse’s work disturbs. Her art’s insistence on a fragmentary and variable relationship between the body and its environment is apposite to post-Modern concerns, but equally important, her lasting influence is a comfort to female artists who battle learned insecurities, as did Hesse.

K. Marriott Jones