New York

Eva Hesse

The Jewish Museum/The Drawing Center

Eva Hesse has (quite rightfully) long been established as one of the most significant artists of her generation, and aside from calling attention to, say, less canonical works or emphasizing previously unplumbed historical correspondences, most recent reviews have taken her “excellence” as a given, often focusing not on Hesse’s oeuvre itself but on the methodologies used by curators and catalogue writers who take the artist’s short, tragic (and thus mythic) career as their subject.

In this respect, “Eva Hesse” has become as much a signifier as a proper name, sparking ongoing debates around the (in)compatibility of formalism and biography; whether Hesse’s guarded interests in issues of gender can be called protofeminist; and whether hers are sculptures that refer to painting, paintings that refer to sculpture, or a third variant altogether (Anne Wagner has called Hesse’s “an art caught up in a negotional task”). These continue to be vital questions, but attempts to answer them tend to coalesce around stubborn binaries, rarely illuminating the stuff that is Hesse’s beautiful, weird work.

A recent pair of exhibitions mounted simultaneously at the Jewish Museum and the Drawing Center provided in abundance what often goes missing in Hesse discourse: the work itself, from early barely-recognizable-as-Hesse to late couldn’t-be-anyone-but. The Jewish Museum offered the first major New York museum showing of the artist’s sculpture since 1972, while the Drawing Center mounted the only Hesse show in twenty years to focus on drawing. Elisabeth Sussman—cocurator of Hesse’s 2002 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art retrospective—cocurated both shows, working alongside Fred Wasserman on the former and Catherine de Zegher on the latter. Sussman, well aware of the binaries applied to Hesse, had been characterized by Pamela M. Lee as mounting in the 2002 show a “medium is all” exhibition that downplayed the artist’s oft-rehearsed traumatic history (a life story beginning with a childhood flight from Nazi Germany and culminating in death at thirty-four from a brain tumor).

As Sussman herself had put it, she had, in her curating, leaned toward “the life of the work, rather than the work of the life”; but while in this most recent pair of exhibitions she and her cohorts sought more middle ground—recognizing that one can’t exist without the other—“Eva Hesse: Sculpture” at the Jewish Museum still unfortunately posited, to some degree, the division between them, by devoting an adjoining room to materials documenting the artist’s life. While offering amazing, usually inaccessible ephemera, these felt nonetheless rather forensic, as if they were meant to be “evidence” of the beautifully installed offerings in the main space, which included a number of Hesse’s most famous works, the nubby horizontal plane of Schema, 1967–68, the gravity-gorged skeins of Untitled (Rope Piece), 1970, and the slumping skin of Area, 1968, among them.

But it was “Eva Hesse Drawing” that perhaps best got at the vicissitudes at the heart of Hesse’s oeuvre. Jam-packed with works—by no means all “good”—beginning in the artist’s student days and ending with the late “window drawings” executed from 1968 until the time of her death, the exhibition included pages from sketchbooks (ostensibly inconsequential “notes”) alongside works considered “major” for their obvious synergy with sculptural form. Indeed, several sculptures—and a number of preparatory “test pieces” in materials like latex, rubber, and cheesecloth—were offered up within the “drawing” context. These included Metronomic Irregularity II I, 1966, and the breathtaking Tomorrow’s Apples (5 in White), 1965, a relief drawing that, with its handful of umbilical-like cords, appears to both sustain and sap its own resources. In addition to simply being awe-inspiring for their variance (early expressionistic self-portraits alongside erotic mechanical drawings à la Francis Picabia, next to quietly rendered “serial” grids), the works collected here disavowed the need for one angle on Hesse. Or even for one Hesse.

Johanna Burton