San Francisco

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1969; Untitled (Rope Piece) (detail), 1969-70. Installation view.

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1969; Untitled (Rope Piece) (detail), 1969-70. Installation view.

Eva Hesse

Eva Hesse remains a strangely undecidable figure. Since her death at a premature age thirty-two years ago, critics and historians have been unanimous in their acclaim for her art but with little consensus as to what makes it important. Much of the debate rests, no doubt, on the fact of Hesse’s too brief life and the broken-record narration of her biography: Hers is a career endlessly reduced to art-historical boilerplate, all morbid excess and spectacular tragedy. She has been variously treated as a protofeminist reckoning with the Art World Boys Club; a childhood survivor of the Shoah; a patron saint of female pathology; a Minimalist with guts, her work appearing to spill over with viscera. Too often the work itself is seen as little more than an epiphenomenon of the life—a life caricatured in terms of victimhood and neurosis, even as Hesse was achieving critical success with her art.

Organized by guest curator Elisabeth Sussman, Hesse’s retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art provides a rare—and perhaps final—occasion to confront these and other controversies surrounding her work. Indeed, to hear any admirer of Hesse tell it, the significance of the show far exceeds the usual batch of claims attached to museum retrospectives. Ten years ago, the last major Hesse exhibition was mounted at the Yale University Art Gallery, and its catalogue set an infamously morose (some would say ghoulish) tone for Hesse scholarship by stressing the most excruciating details of the artist’s biography in interpreting her work: her escape from Nazi Germany as a child and the resulting temporary separation from her parents; her mother’s depression and suicide; her own lifelong struggle with illness. Sussman’s show begs to be seen in the context of this earlier reading as well as in light of two additional factors that directly and indirectly figure in the artist’s legacy: the tenuous physical condition of Hesse’s work on the one hand and recent museum politics on the other. Hesse may have exploited the notoriously fugitive properties of latex and fiberglass to produce some of the most gorgeous objects of the postwar era, but the diminishing shelf life of her art now betrays that achievement. For months there have been whispers that this was the “last chance” to see a comprehensive survey of Hesse’s work before the major sculpture disintegrated. Now the situation has become that much more desperate with the cancellation of the show’s only East Coast stop (the Whitney, where Sussman was previously employed and where the idea for the exhibition originated), a casualty of the post–September 11 economy.

All this may seem like so much art-world gossip when one is confronted with the presence of Hesse’s work, but it is critical to understanding the motivation behind and significance of Sussman’s exhibition. The scale of the retrospective inadvertently addresses its importance: 153 objects spanning the course of some dozen galleries, resulting in the largest Hesse show ever staged. Some might complain that editing is in order—that the galleries of early paintings and works on paper are little more than a long-winded preview before one finally gets to the good stuff. Yet if we take seriously the prospect that much of this work will never be shown together again, we should welcome the opportunity to trace both the dead ends of Hesse’s output as well as the extraordinary richness, weirdness, and humor of her vocabulary. It’s all here: the crude, early “self-portraits” rendered in gray murk; funky, coiled assemblages produced during her stay in Kettwig, Germany, the work that effectively began Hesse’s sculptural practice; the arid, clean-lined schemata of the machine drawings of 1965; the mid-decade breakthrough of her eccentric abstraction. Beautifully installed in the awkward galleries of SF MoMA (with its curved walls, Mario Botta’s museum has always proved challenging), it is a well-paced exhibition, from intimately scaled rooms of early work to larger galleries revealing the full-blown denouement of Hesse’s late sculptural achievement. What we get in this unfolding is how the artist’s work consistently locked horns with the prevailing currents of her day, from Abstract Expressionism to the ’60s engagement with Surrealism and Minimalism. For audiences who still like their artist’s practice neat and tidy, the show will produce doubts, but in some ways Hesse’s untidiness seems very much to the point.

It’s a bit surprising, then, that as far-flung as the artist’s formal range may appear, the retrospective turns specifically around issues of form and media. In what seems an effort to steer clear of the biographicizing tendencies in the Hesse literature, Sussman places great stress on the formal character of the work, as if the curatorial pendulum had swung to the opposite extreme since the Yale retrospective. If Hesse’s art once invited comparisons to “giant, soiled bandages”—what some historians saw as an index of the artist’s long-term physical and mental problems—in this show Medium Is All. But what medium means in this context is expansive: It would appear to refer not only to the categories of painting and sculpture but also to the very materials that compose both. At first this may seem like modernist business as usual, but Sussman’s gesture is essential in recovering Hesse for the history of art (as opposed to, say, the history of female neuroses). The exhibition insists on Hesse’s long-standing engagement with the question of medium, not as a blinkered Greenbergian by any means but as an artist bent on exploring the inevitable collision of painting, sculpture, and drawing. With its scumbled surfaces and drippy facture, Hesse’s late sculpture has always been a painterly sculpture, inheriting lessons of process from Abstract Expressionism while simultaneously questioning that movement’s claims to medium specificity. Nowhere is this idea better illustrated than in the witty Hang Up, 1966. A simple wood frame wrapped in strips of cloth, painted in graduated shades of gray, houses an empty space behind; a coil of wire erupts from this structure as if lassoing the viewer’s space. What Hang Up drives home––and what could well be the mantra for Sussman’s curatorial effort––is the illicit encounter between pictorial and sculptural space explored in Hesse’s practice; it’s a great pun on the modernist “hang up” of keeping paintings pictorial and sculptures sculptural. In the last few galleries of the exhibition, the status of the material matters because of the critical relation between process and medium so fundamental to Hesse’s generation of artists. The presentation is plainspoken in this regard: Galleries are marked frankly by the predominant material of the work displayed (“Latex,” “Fiberglass”); one room’s organizing principle is simply called “Materiality as Subject.”

Of course, the question of medium does affect what gets shown and how objects are ultimately exhibited; and it is clear that some hard choices were made in determining the final selection of objects (of course, this was not solely at the discretion of the curator, as some pieces were too fragile to be lent). Some major later works are striking in their absence (one thinks in particular of Contingent, 1969, and Augment, 1968), forcing us to imagine them crumbling away in a warehouse somewhere. By the same token, some sculpture that did make it into the show wears its age in equally striking ways. Only a few years back, works such as Accession II, 1967/1969, Accession III, 1968, and Repetition Nineteen III, 1968, might have been exhibited as they had been in Hesse’s time; that is, directly on the floor and without the protective barrier of museum cases. Here many of Hesse’s objects are enshrined in Plexi or set above the floor on relieflike stages. It’s hard not to find the presentation a little distracting: All those extra layers of mediation significantly alter the work’s figure/ground relationships, the phenomenological approach the viewer takes to the objects, as well as the decidedly unprecious quality of Hesse’s best process work. (The inclusion of Dorothy Levitt Beskind’s fascinating film of the artist in her studio from 1967 underscores something of the workaday aspect of the late sculpture.) But the compromised display, however sad, is sadly necessary, and it unintentionally dramatizes the question of medium for Hesse’s art.

Still, one danger in taking issues of medium to a thematic extreme is that one might miss out on the historical and interpretive complexities surrounding Hesse’s work. There is no reason, for instance, that Hesse’s status as a woman artist working on the brink of Second Wave feminism could not be acknowledged in the course of the exhibition. (The catalogue, of course, provides far more space to explore such issues and is to be praised for its critical and historical rigor, particularly in contributions by Briony Fer and James Meyer.) Hesse’s place in relation to feminism continues to be a pressing concern for her reception, and referring to it in the context of a retrospective needn’t signal a descent into the vulgar psychobiography that plagues the writing on her practice.

An even larger issue in Hesse criticism needs to be addressed. Scanning the wall texts from the first room to the last, one is struck by the rhetoric of dualities long used to describe her art: chaos/order, beauty/ugliness, abstraction/figuration, etc. This is standard jargon within the artist’s literature (Hesse herself seemed to advocate the jolie-laide camp of art writing), and it has come to function as shorthand for the peculiar tensions her art so brilliantly suggests. What this language doesn’t quite articulate is the way that Hesse’s work plays on the knife-edge of the literal and the metaphoric: that her art consistently stages the very problem of interpretation in confusing the formalist grammar of the modernist object with the sticky vicissitudes of bodily representation. An assemblage like 2 in 1, 1965, may recall for some various traditions of abstraction, such as the biomorphic tendencies of Surrealism; for others its forms may suggest breasts and nipples and genitalia. To see the piece as necessarily one thing or the other is to miss the joke in a way. Hesse’s inclusion of a tactile, mildly obscene part-object itself plays on the fetish for opticality within modernist abstraction just as much as the work revels in its confusion of the painterly and the sculptural.

In spite of these shortcomings, the SF MoMA exhibition represents the necessary historical response to an earlier moment in Hesse’s reception. There’s no hyperbole in calling this a major show, at once ambitious in its display and acute in its focus. For the next go at it, some middle path between the traumatic excesses of previous criticism and the medium-based concentration of Sussman’s Hesse seems the logical step. Given the critical, nearly desperate condition of Hesse’s most important works, we can only hope there will be a next go as comprehensive as this one.

“Eva Hesse,” on view at SF MoMA through May 19, travels to Museum Wiesbaden, Germany, June 15–Oct. 13; Tate Modern, London, Nov. 2002–Mar. 2003.

Pamela M. Lee is assistant professor of art and art history at Stanford University.