Progression of Art
At 24, Eva Hesse was well informed on matters of recent art history, such as the Abstract Expressionist ethos of the New York School and its "second generation" response in the form of Color Field Painting. In 1960 she set out as an independent artist, producing a series of what have since come to be referred to as "spectre pictures," according to curator E. Luanne McKinnon. What unites these expressionistic abstractions is their flirtation with imagery of the human body and self-portraiture, while they nonetheless seek to express something comparatively intangible, a recurring psychological motif such as a state of mind, a mood or a memory.
In this piece, Hesse hints at the common format of a studio-based self-portrait by the painter standing at her easel, although one would not see this at the outset, which is precisely Hesse's intention. As in many of the works from this series, Untitled presents a largely monochromatic palette of green pigment accentuated, or visually compartmentalized, by sharply contrasting tonalities articulating the two-dimensional space of the canvas. The compartmental imagery of Untitled will be repeated in Hesse's sculpture, such as in the Repetition Nineteen pieces, and may have been influenced by Hesse's exposure to the work of Louise Nevelson in MoMA's contemporaneous Sixteen Americans show. The gestural brushwork here derives from Hesse's training in the Abstract Expressionist style, while her restricted color scheme and compartmental leanings might be attributed to her study under Albers. All speaks to her desire to simplify, reduce and visually pare the subject down to its most essential qualities.
Oil on canvas - Private collection, Zurich
A German exhibition by Jean Tinguely may have triggered the kitschy, playful vein of Ringaround Arosie, although Hesse was already familiar with the erotic surrealism of Marcel Duchamp. We might also see in this work the playful, absurd qualities of Dada, as well as the more fantastic, futuristic elements of late Bauhaus as manifested in the abstract theatrical costumes of Oskar Schlemmer and others of pre-war German design culture. Hesse has identified the two central objects as a breast and a penis, which lends the work a humorous quality; at the same time, the relief exudes a stereotypically feminine persona with its pink tonality and craft-like texture. The title, which recalls a well-known childhood game with a haunting subtext referring to "falling down" or similarly suffering a calamity, has been interpreted as a statement of Hesse's own desire at that time to become a mother. As if giving birth to another dimension in her own work, this first relief by Hesse is an important landmark in her evolving path from painting to so-called "eccentric" sculpture.
Pencil, acetone, varnish, enamel, paint, ink, and cloth-covered electrical wire on paper-mache and masonite - The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The seemingly simple addition of the long metal rod to a canvas in Hang Up dramatically transformed a painting into a sculpture, symbolizing the artist's own transition from working in two to three dimensions. Hesse called Hang Up her earliest important artistic "statement", due to its successful manifestation of her fascination with "absurdity." The wire juts out seemingly too far into the space before the "picture", and the cloth-wrapped frame of the canvas contrasts strongly with the metal loop. The soft and hard textures are subtle testaments to the self-contradictory nature of much of Hesse's sculpture, keeping any given work's meaning shrouded in mystery. The rod protruding from the canvas might even be said to evoke the erotic, as did the orbs in Ringaround Arosie.
Acrylic paint on cloth over wood; acrylic paint on cord over steel tube - Art Institute of Chicago
Metronomic Irregularity II
Lucy Lippard, who organized the seminal show Eccentric Abstraction, was originally disappointed with Hesse's selection of Metronomic Irregularity II for the exhibition, due primarily to the work's apparent lack of sexual or organic qualities. Here, we see Hesse interested in something relatively free of erotic overtones, but just as extraordinary, by marrying Minimalist forms with Expressionist gesture. Indeed, the square pieces of slate with equal spaces of blank wall between them utilize the formal, highly reductive vocabulary of Minimalism. This visually muted impression is overcome, however, by the twisted fibers that approximate the effects of early 1950s "Action Painting". The push and pull between these different sources of inspiration and such starkly contrasting textures create a dissonance that gives Metronomic Irregularity a unique intensity, evoking at once the beat of a clock and the disarray of an all-enveloping windstorm.
Paint and Sculp-Metal on wood with cotton-covered wire - This work is no longer extant
Accession II seems a logical, structural outcome of the compartmental images characterizing Hesse's early paintings. Once again, the metal cube seems to have dropped straight out of a two-dimensional, Minimalist work of art, all the while the interior rows of tubing complicate its clean, exterior sensibility. Bristling along the inner walls of the cube like the quills of a porcupine, the protrusions give the cube an ominous aura that belies their soft plasticity. Is this a cloister of cushioning, or a torture chamber? The dual qualities of the box aptly characterize Hesse's own "life of extremes", the unknowing girl of a forced and tragic diaspora, and the accomplished university design student. Alluding to unexpected dangers and the need for a safe, protective space, Accession II embodies the artist's own fears and desires just as effectively, perhaps, as any more representational self-portrait.
Steel with plastic tubing - Detroit Institute of Arts
Repetition Nineteen III
The cylindrical structures of Repetition Nineteen III are of fiberglass, one of the many industrial materials that Hesse experimented with in her later work. The process of repetition and subtle variation speak to a recent heritage of Minimalism, but Hesse imbues each form with a hand-sculpted individuality. Visually simple in its design, Repetition is actually complex for its many associations, both to Hesse's work to that date, as well as to the world around her. The tube-like objects are in keeping with Hesse's compartmental preoccupations, but they are also ambiguously sexual. Even so, the translucent fiberglass allows light to pass through the containers glowingly, lending the composite artwork a calming pastoral or even quasi-spiritual quality.
Polyester and fiberglass resin - Museum of Modern Art, New York