‘Excellence Has No Sex’

Eva Hesse, who died tragically young nearly 40 years ago, was one of the most fascinating and accomplished artists among those gathered under the rubric of postminimalism (though, in reality, no specific art terms can capture the nature of her work, which has been immensely influential since her death in 1970). Her personal story alone has a fascination matched only by the outpouring of paintings and sculptures she managed to create throughout the 1960s, a decade her work both reflects and comments upon.

This most American-seeming of artists was actually born in Hamburg, Germany, on Jan. 11, 1936. The world being what it was then, her family fled their native land and the Nazi regime, in particular, arriving in New York City when Eva was just 3 (she became an American citizen in 1945). When she was still quite young, the first of a series of dislocations began to dominate her life: First, her parents divorced; then, when Eva was 10, her mother, who had been trained as an artist, committed suicide.

Hesse was herself racked with anxiety for much of her life (she was only 34 when she died of a brain tumor); and yet, she clearly had considerable resolve, since she persevered in her goal to be an artist of substance, in spite of whatever life threw in her path. She first attended the School of Industrial Art, then Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1952, and Cooper Union from 1954 to 1957. She moved on to the School of Art and Architecture at Yale University, where she studied with the great painter and teacher Josef Albers. She earned a BFA from Yale in 1959, and soon moved back to Manhattan and got down to work.

In 1961, she married sculptor Tom Doyle, and together, they created works for one of the more famous "Happenings" organized by Allan Kaprow in 1962. The following year, she had her first solo show, featuring paintings only. In 1964, Hesse and her husband spent more than a year in Kettwig-am-Ruhr, Germany, and they traveled in Italy, France and Switzerland. Hesse had her first solo show of sculpture in Dusseldorf in 1964.

The next year, she and Doyle returned to the states, though they separated soon afterward. Hesse then began experimenting with different kinds of materials — latex and fiberglass primarily, but also rubber and cord. She began being noticed in the late 1960s, through solo shows and through her participation in significant group exhibitions. She taught at the School of the Visual Arts in New York from 1968 to 1970. In 1969, the brain tumor was discovered, and she underwent three operations within a year, dying on May 29, 1970.

In his book American Visions, art critic Robert Hughes writes with great empathy and insight about Hesse.

"Spurred by the examples of Joseph Beuys, Claes Oldenburg and Jean Dubuffet, Hesse grew more and more interested in what usually doesn't pertain to sculpture. Backing away from its 'male' rigidity, which included the high-style rhetoric of Minimalism, she allowed her fascination with the 'female' and the inward, including what was grotesque and pathetic, to enlarge. The phallic mockery in Hesse's work can be comically obscene: black salamis wound with string, slumping cylinders of fiberglass. Even when it looks entirely abstract, her work refers to bodily functions. Hang Up, 1965-66, looks at first like a query about illusion and reality — the big rectangular frame hanging on the wall with no picture in it, but with a loop of steel tube spilling onto the gallery floor and connecting the frame's top left to its bottom right corner. But again, there's a fleshy metaphor. Both tube and frame are wrapped in cloth, like bandaged parts of a patient, and the tube might be circulating some kind of fluid. Blood? Lymph? Fantasies? Even in absence, the body is somehow there, as an ironically suffering presence; the title phrase, 'Hang-Up,' means both what you do to pictures and (in '60s slang) a mental block, a neurosis.

"However, Hesse wasn't an art martyr and her images are very much more than mere enactments of illness or oppression. They reflect on identity, sometimes with wry wit or angry fatalism; but to see Hesse as a precursor of 'victim art' does her a disservice. She never wanted to see her work smugly categorized as 'women's art.' Quite the contrary; Hesse wanted it to join the general discourse of modern images, uncramped by niches of gender or race. 'The best way to beat discrimination in art is by art,' she brusquely replied to a list of questions a journalist sent her. 'Excellence has no sex.' "

Encountering Eva Hesse, a volume of nine, good-sized essays, edited by Griselda Pollock and Vanessa Corby, and accompanied by a selection of the artist's varied work, covers all of these issues, biographical and critical. This unusually shaped volume, published by the ever-enterprising Prestel books, is not, however, for the beginner. The text can get a bit thick at times, especially when assessing the art milieu that Hesse inhabited (plus a lot that's happened since then), but for the modern-art connoisseur, this is a book that should not be missed.



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