Eva Hesse

Marcel Duchamp marked a historical rupture when he spoke of wanting to make works that are not “of art”; on the other hand, artists have always produced (or can I say “by-produced”?) art that does not quite amount to works. Painters used to call such things sketches, and rigorously distinguished them from finished works. For example, the ravishing plein air oil sketches that Corot produced in Italy in the 1830s, now so highly valued in part because they seem to point the way to Impressionism and beyond, would never have been exhibited or openly sold in the artist’s lifetime, even if they circulated extensively among artists. They were exercises intended, as scholar Jeremy Strick says, to “capture the experience of a specific and contingent moment rather than the precise details of a determined form,” but they were also part of a practice premised on the overriding importance of finished works.

In part because Eva Hesse’s career was so painfully short and her mature canon so small, there has always been a lively interest in those manifestations of the tentative, the exploratory, and the unfinished in her work that I would call three-dimensional sketches but which art historian Briony Fer prefers to call “Studiowork.” The current traveling exhibition, which originated at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh last year (and of which Fer is cocurator, along with Barry Rosen, director of the Estate of Eva Hesse), is, however, the first to focus on this aspect of her production. (The show will travel to the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.) Fer’s accompanying book is a signal contribution to the burgeoning literature on the artist—perhaps the most important single contribution since Lucy Lippard’s pioneering monograph of 1976. Yet in the face of the mutely expressive, itchily inert objects themselves, Fer’s scrupulously tentative ruminations leave me in doubt. Lippard, as she notes, systematically classified these relics: test pieces, prototypes, studies, and models, each made for distinct purposes. Fer wants to hold back from such categorizing in order to catch hold of what is “raw and provisional” in them, what is makeshift, precarious, nonsignifying, just “fooling around.” That desire is, I think, entirely in the spirit of Hesse, an artist who said, “I would like the work to be non-work.” The space of unknowing that Fer wants to get to through the studio works—are they something or are they nothing?—is one toward which Hesse’s art as a whole was oriented. But I wonder whether the extraordinary perceptual and hermeneutical labor Fer exerts does not end up veiling precisely what she wants to explore.

Maybe her task is itself an impossible undertaking. The very name Eva Hesse, and the pieces’ family resemblance to what we know as Hesse’s works, makes it impossible to subtract from them the sense of completion and authority they never had for the artist in her studio. Things folded, things piled, things twisted, things wound and unwound; tangled things, blunt things, abject things, things with appendages and appendages lacking things to connect to; materials that have a congealed look, materials that seem lost or discarded or mistreated; shapes that look like they should have been made of flesh and shapes, that look like they might be made of flesh but should not have been—you can look at these things, these materials, these shapes, and feel the shudder of an unnameable nanosensation, or you can let your eye pass by them without reaction; maybe you can do both at once. If it weren’t for the effect of the artist’s name, they might be just gnarly bits of matter, but in association with it, they are the traces of an intention, one that we cannot escape even as it escapes our impulse to define it.

Barry Schwabsky