Eva Hesse: Myth versus Legacy

“There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol… But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male.”

– Linda Nochlin in Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

Although it is arguable that to this day there have been no “great” women artists in the public cultural view, it is a fact, of course, that great women artists have existed.The notion of greatness that Nochlin refers to, rather, is one having more to do with myth and legacy than with artistic talent or merit. The question of a gender imbalance in the cultural myth of the artist is all the more pertinent today, seeing as Nochlin’s words were written nearly fifty years ago, and those words ring as true today for many in the art world as they did then. Perhaps no artist of the last century makes for a more illustrative analysis of a female artist’s enduring myth and legacy than the renowned. German-American sculptor and painter Eva Hesse. Despite a life cut short, Hesse was a crucial artist of the 1960s, working with and within the contexts of her time but pushing boundaries through her work– materially, formally, and conceptually– in a way that is still felt today. The myth of Hesse that has survived is one tied to her gender and to the drama of her life and death, arguably eclipsing the importance of her work itself. It has long been argued by art historians whether her biography eclipses her work, but a bigger question underlies this: whether her myth eclipses her legacy– a legacy that, through many lenses, has not been done justice in the popular cultural narrative. By examining Hesse’s biography, her work, and the way critical and public perceptions have participated in forming the different facets of the Hesse Myth, I hope to show how Eva Hesse’s legacy has been undervalued– an injustice that has been repeated throughout the history of art in different ways, further gendering the narrative of the “great” artist.

Eva Hesse’s work, in the contexts in which it has been shown since her death, has been inseparable from her biography. This is at least partly due to an undeniably remarkable life, a fact Hesse herself admitted, writing in her journals, “There’s not been one normal thing in my life.” (Eva Hesse). She was born in 1936 in Hamburg, Germany to a Jewish German family. Hesse, her sister Helen, and her parents managed to escape Nazi Germany, and immigrated to New York City. By all accounts, Hesse did not have an easy childhood. All of Hesse’s extended family was killed in Nazi concentration camps. Her mother was mentally ill, and her illness was not aided by the hardships the family faced in this period. Hesse’s mother became unstable, leaving her children and husband, and eventually committing suicide when Hesse was 10 years old. Hesse attended Yale for painting, and shortly after returning to New York, she met and married sculptor Tom Doyle. They moved to Kettwig, Germany for a year in 1964, at which point she began to experiment with sculpture. After returning to New York in 1965, Doyle left her, yet her career took off as she committed to sculpture and found highly acclaimed success within the New York art world and the art movements of the time. Her period of sculpture, although prolific and to this day widely regarded and hugely influential, tragically only lasted half of a decade, as Hesse died of a brain tumor in 1970 at the age of 34.

Hesse was, for most of her life, thoroughly a painter. While studying painting at Yale in the late ‘50s, she was largely influenced by abstract expressionism. She did not begin experimenting with sculpture until her year spent in Germany in 1964, where she began to work on reliefs that combined painting with sculptural work. Her early and obscure sculptural work is catalogued as surrealist, both reminiscent of the absurdist work she would later become known for but a far cry from the Minimalism she would try to subvert. When she returned to New York in 1965, Minimalism was established as the artistic movement of the time, and “she was keenly aware of being left out” (Sussman 22).

Minimalism arose in New York as a response to counter the expressivity and noise of Abstract Expressionism. Minimalists favored thinking about space, form, material, light, and shadow. Art historian Briony Fer writes of the movement, “One characteristic feature of [Minimalism] is that works in which nothing much seems to be happening still have the capacity to hold a certain type of visual, and not only conceptual, interest.” (Fer 431).

Hesse’s sculptures stepped out of the canvas, as she fully engaged with Minimalism quickly upon returning to New York and began to exhibit on a small scale. Her intimate social circle included Minimalist masters such as Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre, and Hesse, throughout her career, sustained a dialogue in her work with the men on the forefront of the art world. Hesse’s sculpture became known, characterized and read as using the language and grammar of her contemporary Minimalists, but departing for a more organic, absurdist, eccentric and erotic direction. Mel Bochner notes, “Eva gave the language of minimalism, as well as its form, an erotic twist.” (Nixon 42). Taking note of young artists engaging with Minimalism, an early Lucy Lippard review called Hesse’s work “intuitive rather than intellectual” (Sussman 23), after which Lippard asked Hesse to participate in her exhibit Eccentric Abstraction, now widely regarded as Hesse’s critical turning point.

Art historian Anna C. Chave summarizes the critical consensus of Hesse’s engagement with the Minimalist movement: “In lieu of the apparently neutral and neutered forms commonly identified with Minimalism, Hesse tendered forms more idiosyncratic, more suggestive of the body, and more patently open to those metaphoric valances that the Minimalists claimed to abhor– forms more expressive, in a word, and in that sense, more aligned with values the society coded as feminine.” (Chave 155). However, Fer, alluding to the Hesse Myth, gives a crucial rebuttal to this popular view of Hesse: “There is little to be gained… from setting up Hesse as the ‘feminine’ to counter the ‘masculine’ hard surfaces to which Lewitt, Andre and others were drawn. Hesse was also drawn to modern hard surfaces and not as symbols of virility.” (Fer 427). This duality and complexity that Fer points to, while attempting to resist reducing Hesse to a feminine Minimalist, perhaps best describes much of Hesse’s work. Hesse used familiar and of-the-time Minimalist materials and forms balanced with experimental alternatives. Her working materials ranged from wood to steel to fiberglass to string to rope to latex.

Hesse’s complexity and duality surfaced in her lauded participation in Eccentric Abstraction. Hesse’s place within Minimalism was among those offering the “eccentric or erotic” alternative to the works of minimalists such as Judd, Morris, Andre that Lippard sought, but her standout piece Metronomic Irregularity II “turned out to confound such an opposition.” (Fer 426). Metronomic Irregularity II was made of three grey square boards spaced apart with hundreds of white cotton-covered wires running through and connecting all of the boards (Sussman 26). The chaos of the wires was at play with the severe forms of the background squares. It was Minimalism with a touch of abjection. The piece marked a turning point for Hesse as her initial stake in the movement and in the art world.

Hesse’s work is, almost through every critical and historical interpretation, concerned with dualities: organic and industrial, chaos and order, feminine and masculine. Particularly the connotations to the organic and bodily, however, have been central to interpretations of her work. Fer notes: “Hesse’s work may bear the marks of the body, or have bodily connotations, without being of the body, and without being symbols in the sense of individual forms standing in for parts of the body.” (Fer 424). Art historian and current Whitney Museum curator Elizabeth Sussman, who has been a more recent critical proponent for Hesse, as well as a more recent voice of interpretation of Hesse’s work for the contemporary art world, writes, “She was always interested in an art that was bodily in its materials and processes, where change and time were first implied and then, increasingly, actualized.” (Sussman 37). Hesse’s renowned oeuvre of sculpture is a collection of objects of pure experimentation, and in no aspect is that more clear than in that of her chosen materials. Despite sharing a curiosity for new materials with the Minimalists, Hesse diverted this curiosity in a different direction. She was the first sculptor to work at length with latex, “hardly the resilient material we associate with Andre or Judd.” (Fer 443). Latex was malleable, but unlike any other material Hesse worked with, it was inherently unstable. It had a life of its own, and took her into a state of unpredictability– undoubtedly an attractive quality to Hesse. Eventually, Hesse worked primarily in latex and fiberglass– unconventional hardness and softness.

Many of Hesse’s materials have proven to not be durable. She was, however, fully aware that latex, as an example, was a decaying material– with time, it became rigid, could crack, tear, become discolored and deteriorate. Her assistant Doug Johns specifically explained to her when she began to use latex that the material would change over time and deteriorate, leading to problems for galleries, museums and collectors. Hesse reportedly replied by saying, “Good, let them worry about it!” (Eva Hesse). This problem of durability and of works changing over time has been a controversy surrounding Hesse’s work throughout the years, and it has only been amplified because of Hesse’s death. Sussman notes: “Many of Hesse’s late sculptures have been removed from view because of their fragility or their deteriorated condition, often the result of the instability of her beloved materials, latex and fiberglass… A central problem raised by works not necessarily designed for longevity is that at some point their status as an artwork may come to an end… Hesse’s latex works were something, at what point would they become nothing, and is this a status she wanted for them? Must they be removed from view when they become significantly different from what they were?” (Sussman 33).

No doubt were the time-based and variable qualities of her chosen materials important to Hesse, but the recent decay of much of her work brings to the fore many questions pertaining to Hesse’s legacy. To what extent do the decaying works contribute to the Hesse Myth? Decay and disintegration, without much of a conceptual stretch, recall death and mortality, further complicating, or more easily rendering reductive, interpretation of Hesse’s oeuvre. Additionally, Hesse always worked in a different tone of the same language than that of her contemporaries, but the decay of her work further offsets her work from the resilient Minimalist materials the others used. Unconventional issues regarding the durability of an oeuvre will no doubt take a toll on the future legacy– in the traditional sense– of an artist. No artist whose work becomes nonexistent with time will stand comparison with the “greats,” like Michelangelo, Cezanne or Picasso, that Nochlin summons.

Although we may never know if the effects and connotations of decay were intentional on behalf of Hesse, and art historians and critics have tightly held to an interpretation of Hesse as the organic Minimalist, Hesse herself did offer clues to what she sought to depict in her art. She wrote in 1969, in the midst of her sculptural success: “I remember I wanted to get to non art, non connotive, non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort, from a total other reference point. Is it possible?” (Sussman 17). Hesse, above all, sought to depict a work’s “non-logical self,” or the unconscious aspects that contrast the “understandable and understood” aspects of a work of art (Fer 434). She wanted to put forth and create something that had not yet been put into the world physically or verbally, often repeating her focus on “absurdity though the ordered, yet not ordered, chaos structured as non-chaos.” (Eva Hesse). Mel Bochner interestingly notes of this focus on absurdity through chaos: “At the time, who could have known that this was the question that the most advanced mathematicians and scientists were grappling with… in chaos theory?” (Nixon 40).

The notion of the Hesse Myth itself begins with Hesse’s gender. Hesse is widely regarded by art historians for being an early figure in the feminist art movement, simply, and rightly, based on the fact that Hesse was a woman who made art at the time that she did in the way that she did. Hesse was an ambitious female artist in a way few female artists publically were at the time. Lippard calls her the “preface to feminist art.” (Eva Hesse). She sought a greatness reserved then (and arguably, even now) solely for male artists, publically labeling herself an Abstract Expressionist– a charged label– in the beginning of her career. Towards the end of her life, she listed undoubtedly “great” artists such as Pollock, Oldenburg, Nauman, Andre, Warhol and Serra as the artists with whom she felt the greatest artistic affinity (Wagner 77). Her diaries reveal an awareness of the biases held against her for being a female artist seeking to be on the same plane as several male artists in a particularly masculine American artistic movement– 1960s Minimalism. Chave notes: “The Hesse who emerges in those diaries was keenly aware of the forces within her personal and domestic, as well as public and professional, life conspiring to admit her to, at most, secondary standing as an artist… Not many female artists in or prior to the 1960s managed to “speak” or, in any case, to attain the authority to speak and be heard. All the more reason why the speech of Eva Hesse signaled a new quarter heard from, a quarter that has in due course shaken the indifferently male textual monolith of the history of art.” (Chave 151). Despite her legacy– agreed upon by many art historians– as a feminist artist, there are lingering questions as to whether Hesse herself would embrace these interpretations of her artistic career. Hesse famously wrote: “The way to beat discrimination in art is by art. Excellence has no sex.” (Wagner 83). Her friend Mel Bochner noted that the effects of the Hesse Myth that have tied Hesse to feminist art make it “almost impossible for people to appreciate her real contribution, which was to art history rather than social history.” (Nixon 36).

The Hesse Myth ultimately goes beyond simply Hesse’s gender, and has much to do with how Hesse’s biography, circumstances, and her own words meld with what has become her cultural image– a shadow cast on her artistic legacy. Wagner notes, “Hesse at fifty-seven, I feel certain, would have been a considerably less attractive cultural commodity… than the Hesse fate has provided. It is her timely death that has meant that she has survived to play a special cultural role: forever under thirty-five, she answers a hunger for youthful, tragic death. She is the ‘dead girl,’ the beautiful corpse who counts for so much in so many cultural narratives.” (Wagner 54). Wagner goes on to point out a selection of titles from academic and pop cultural pieces published about Hesse through the 90s: “"Heartache Amid Abstraction," "Fragile Artist's Agonized Life," "A Portrait of the Artist: Tortured and Talented,” “The James Dean of Art,” “Eva Hesse: A 'Girl Being a Sculpture," and "Growing Up Absurd.”

Wagner stipulates that the roots of the Hesse Myth may be traced to both the access the public has had since her death to her diaries– given to the art press by her sister after her death–, as well as her extensive interview with Cindy Nemser conducted shortly before her death in 1970. Hesse is often quoted from her diaries and from the interview, and in both she repeatedly wonders about the conflation of an artist’s life and their art. She famously said to Nemser: “In my inner soul, art and life are inseparable. My life and art have not been separated. They have been together.” In the highly influential 1992 Yale retrospective of Hesse’s work, curator Helen Cooper thoroughly included journal entries and Nemser interview excerpts along with the art. Cooper wrote, “The fabric of Hesse’s identity is a tight weave of intertwined words and art.” (Wagner 60). Wagner criticizes Cooper’s decision to heavily feature Hesse’s private thoughts along with her art in that exhibition, which would become crucial to the legacy of Hesse. Wagner makes the case that the Nemser interview was conducted over three days, was originally more than 90 pages long, and was edited in its various publications for convenience, while the true context of Hesse’s statements make the matter more complicated and contradictory. Mel Bochner furthers this, stating that the diaries “have distorted the way her work is seen.” He notes: “I think she would have been appalled by the publication of those diaries, the public invasion of her most intimate thoughts. And, although they’ve been important to a lot of people as an entry into her work… I think they’ve actually damaged the understanding of the work.” (Nixon 39).

Another layer in analyzing the question of the role her diaries play in her work’s legacy is that of the comparison between the extremity of the personal that Hesse’s diaries have allowed for, and the utter and complete lack of the personal found in the legacy of her male contemporaries. Chave notes how male Minimalists rarely, if ever, even mentioned any biographical information and were, as a standard, depersonalized– often even lacking a personal or professional chronology in their exhibitions. In Chave’s own words: “By literally sharing her life story, by leaving her diaries to posterity, and by playing to the camera’s lens, Hesse would seem to have invited personalized critical treatment. But the pronounced camera-shyness of Andre and Judd, for example, was seemingly immaterial to the kind of privacy these men were reflexively accorded by critics.” (Chave 153).

As Wagner points out, it is evident that critics’ responses to her work throughout the years have conflated her art and her life in terms that are “unthinkable without the artist’s death and the subsequent uses made of her life and art.” (Wagner 62). From 1970 until today, writings of Hesse’s work include repeated references to disease, death, women’s misery and the subjugated female body. As an example, the latest, Hesse’s untitled 1970 rope piece on view as part of the Whitney Museum’s inaugural exhibition for the summer of 2015, is accompanied by a wall text listing, among its crucial contexts, its creation “before her untimely death at the age of thirty-four.” In the work’s cataloguing on the Whitney Museum website, curator Elizabeth Sussman notes, “When she was making it she was physically very, very ill because she was fighting brain cancer. Her manual abilities were really reduced considerably. She worked with a studio assistant to make this piece, but she accepted these limitations… There’s little humor in it. There’s kind of a pathos in it, I think.” Wagner’s argument, made in 1994, still holds true in the professional interpretations of Hesse’s work in 2015, demonstrating a cemented Hesse Myth.

Interpretations of Hesse’s work prior to her death, notes Wagner, did not contain references to disease, decay or death, but many did contain references to how Hesse’s work related to the body and to bodily connotations. “[Hesse] could claim the body as real, and personal, and symbolic, with no wounds being opened, and without that claim seeming to involve her alleged lack.” (Wegner 65). Hesse’s work connoted the bodily then as it does now, but the Hesse Myth has contorted interpretations, and by extension Hesse’s legacy, to fit a specific cultural narrative.

Eva Hesse is only one woman artist to exist and work in a very particular and notable time, place and context. But perhaps the extremity of circumstances surrounding Hesse’s life, work, legacy and myth lends to making all the more visible a truth about the art world of today, a truth extending to artists making and exhibiting work and who happen to be female. In 1971– a year after Eva Hesse’s death– Linda Nochlin asked, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” That today the same question can still be asked of our greater cultural narrative is telling of where the answer lies. “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces,” Nochlin says, “but in our institutions and our education– education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals."

Chave, Anna C. "Minimalism and Biography." The Art Bulletin 82.1 (2000): 149-63. JSTOR. College Art Association. Web. 15 May 2015.  

Eva Hesse. Dir. Marcie Begleiter. BDKS Production, 2015. Film Screened at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Fer, Briony. "Bordering on Blank: Eva Hesse and Minimalism." Art History 17.3 (1994): 424-49. Web.

Hesse, Eva. No Title. 1969-70. Latex, rope, string, and wire. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY. On view at the exhibition America Is Hard to See             

Nixon, Mignon, and Cindy Nemser. "About Eva Hesse: Mel Bochner Interviewed by Joan Simon." Eva Hesse. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002. N. pag. Print.

Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art and Power and Other Essays. Westview Press, 1988. Print.

Singular Visions: Eva Hesse, No Title, 1970. By Elizabeth Sussman. The Whitney Museum of American Art. Web. Short video for the work narrated by Sussman as part of the 2010-2012 exhibition Singula Visions

Sussman, Elisabeth. "Letting It Go as It Will: The Art of Eva Hesse." Eva Hesse. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2002. N. pag. Print.

Wagner, Anne M. "Another Hesse." October 69 (1994): 49-84. The MIT Press. Web.