Sturm und Drang: Eva Hesse’s Sans II at SFMOMA

By LIZ HAGER

Eva Hesse, Sans II, 1968
Fiberglass and polyester resin, 38 in. x 86 in. x 6 1/8 in.
(Courtesy SFMOMA)

In the 10 short years that comprised her mature career, Eva Hesse (1936-1970) produced a considerable body of work, all of which is deeply and inextricably linked to neuroses born of the troubled events of her life. The facts are well-recorded—escape from Nazi Germany on a kindertransport, the divorce of her parents, the suicide of her mother when Hesse was 10. From these traumas germinated a potent brew of anxiety, inadequacy, separation and loss that drove Hesse’s interior life. She poured that life into her work, particularly her sculptural pieces, and it was often manifested, consciously or not, in the guise of anthropomorphic forms, bodily orifices, sexual references.

Seen from a distance, Sans II, Hesse’s 1968 sculpture currently on view at SF MOMA as part of the celebratory “75 Years of Looking Forward” exhibition, seems serene and orderly piece. But on closer examination the emotion is evident.

Hesse knew she would be an artist from and early age and pursued the goal with single-minded determinism. And yet, self-doubt was a constant companion on her journey. She studied under Josef Albers at Yale (graduating in 1959), but chafed against the yoke of formality imposed by Albers’ color theories.

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1960
Oil on canvas
49 1/2 x 49 1/2 inches

Hesse began as a painter, drawn to the Abstract Expressionists (particularly Gorky and de Kooning). Beginning in the mid-60s, perhaps through the influence of close friend Sol LeWitt, she increasingly appropriated the vocabulary of the emerging Minimalist movement with its focus on pared-down geometric shapes. Hesse never gave herself over completely to Minimalism; the spontaneous gestural style evident in earliest drawings and paintings remained close at hand.

Drawing was an important part of Hesse’s oeuvre; among the hundreds of drawings she completed between 1960-1965 can be found the genesis of the ideas she explored in three-dimensional form. In particular, a small collection of powerful abstract ink and pencil works completed around the time of Untitled (below) introduced the nucleus of the ideas and forms that would form her first sculptural works.

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1961-62
Black ink and wash on paper

The framing device plainly evident in a series of drawings similar to Untitled (below) was one antecedent of “compartment” sculptures like Sans II Hesse would complete in 1968/9.

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1964
Oil on canvas, 32 x 36 inch
(Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul)

By the mid-1960s Hesse had became increasingly frustrated with the “tediousness” of transforming her drawings into paintings. Relentless restlessness and a happy accident turned her toward sculpture and it was through this medium that she began to realize her full potential as an artist. In 1964 she and her husband (sculptor Tom Doyle) were invited by German textile industrialist F. Arnhard Scheidt to live and work in his abandoned machine factory in Kettwig-am-Ruhr. Hesse began working with discarded objects from the factory floor, constructing “relief” paintings, in which the parts were often wrapped and other sculptural bits added.

Eva Hesse, 2 in 1, 1965
Enamel paint, tempera paint, ink, cord and metal belt on particle board, 21 1/4 x 27 x 9 inches

Upon her return to New York in 1965, Hesse felt encouraged to begin executing free-standing sculptures. Repetition of forms, including orderly grids and chaotic hanging, stacked, erect and spilling forms would engage her for the remainder of her life.

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1966
Black ink with wash and pencil on paper, 11 3/4 x 9 in.

Sans II stands as a testament to the tension in Hesse’s work between order and chaos. The outward form may be an orderly grid, but the surface of its translucent membrane (made from fiberglass and polyester resin) is alive with texture and imperfections. The hand of the artist is suggested. The warm and inviting skin elicits the impulse to touch. Hesse once remarked : “If you use fiberglass clear and thin, light does beautiful things to it… it is there—part of its anatomy.” In a way this membrane—both structurally solid and delicate, orderly and sloppy—is a reflection of Hesse’s contradictory persona.

As it turns out, the membrane is also ephemeral. When Hesse began using fiberglass and latex to fashion her sculptures,  she was breaking with historical traditions, which dictated metal or stone as preferred sculptural media. She knew these new materials would deteriorate over time. According to SFMOMA, Sans II no longer retains either its original flexibility or strength. Like the site work artists of the late 60s (Robert Smithson was another close friend), Hesse seems to have embraced aging as part of the process of her art. This was nearly a generation before before the notion became fully popularized through the work of artists like Andy Goldsworthy.

Eva Hesse, ca. 1959 (© Stephen Korbet)

Sans II is confirmation that Hesse was ahead of her time. It is also a somber reminder that she was just beginning to hit her stride. One wonders where she would have gone from here.

Wider Connections

The Estate of Eva Hesse

Lucy Lippard—Eva Hesse

Eva Hesse at Tate Modern (2002-3)

Elizabeth Sussman & Fred Wasserman—Eva Hesse: Sculpture

Cindy Nemsner—Art Talk: Conversations With 15 Women Artists, Revised And Enlarged Edition (Icon Editions)

Machines & Marriage: Eva Hesse & Tom Doyle in Germany

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One Response to “Sturm und Drang: Eva Hesse’s Sans II at SFMOMA”

  1. I saw the Eva Hesse exhibit when it was here and it just blew me off the globe. I love the two pieces that they have up in the show; I’d intended to write a piece on her as part of my on-going examination in depth of the various parts of the exhibit but you’ve done it first and done it much better. Hesse was a major talent and it’s tragic to realize that the materials that she used to such magnificent effect were probably complicit in her early death of cancer.

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