Eva Hesse aimed to create ‘nothings’, but the humanity of her work has ensured that her artistic reputation has triumphed over the cliché of a tragic life and early death. Darian Leader introduces a rare retrospective at Tate Modern.

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  • Photograph of Eva Hesse

    Photograph of Eva Hesse

    Photograph by Stephen Korbet, Concord, Massachusetts

    © Estate of Eva Hesse

  • Eva Hesse Ringaround Arosie

    Eva Hesse
    Ringaround Arosie 1965
    Pencil, acetone, varnish, enamel, paint, ink and cloth-covered electrical wire on papier-mâché and Masonite
    67 x 41.9 x 11.4 cm

    Courtesy Martin Bernstein, Birmingham, Michigan
    © Estate of Eva Hesse
    Photo: Courtesy The Estate of Eva Hesse. Galerie Hauser & Wirth, Zurich

  • Eva Hesse Hang Up

    Eva Hesse
    Hang Up 1966
    Acrylic paint on cloth over wood; acrylic paint on cord over steel tube
    182.9 x 213.4 x 198.1 cm

    The Art Institute of Chicago,
    Through Prior Gifts of Arthur Keating and Mr and Mrs Edward Morris
    © Estate of Eva Hesse

  • Eva Hesse Untitled or Not Yet 1966 Net bags, clear polyethylene sheeting, paper, metal weights and string. 180.3 x 39.4 x 21 cm

    Eva Hesse
    Untitled or Not Yet 1966
    Net bags, clear polyethylene sheeting, paper, metal weights and string.
    180.3 x 39.4 x 21 cm

    Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchased though a gift of Phyllis Wattis
    © Estate of Eva Hesse

For an artist whose work makes such an impact on other artists, Eva Hesse’s name is still relatively unsung in Britain. Her work may be known to anyone who has been through art college, but it is much less familiar to the broader public. This is all the more remarkable given the dramatic events of her short life. Her death at the age of 34 from a brain tumour saw a perpetuation of all the old clichés of the tragic female artist. In the US, she was labelled the ‘James Dean of art’, despite the efforts of critics and friends to temper the mythmaking.

The British artist Anya Gallaccio saw the Hesse retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art earlier this year, and on her return to London all she could talk about was the beauty of the show, the power of Hesse’s latex and fibreglass sculptures, her astonishing fluency in whatever materials she chose to work with, the evocative tension between geometric and organic forms, and the pure sense of presence and absence. The show transfers to Tate Modern this month, and Gallaccio has already pitched her tent.

Eva Hesse was born in Hamburg in 1936 into a Jewish family. She was sent with her sister on a Kindertransport to Holland to flee the Nazis in 1938. Their parents joined them and they moved first to London, and then to New York in 1939. When Eva was nine, her parents separated and her father remarried. A few months later her mother, who had a history of depression, committed suicide by throwing herself from a window.

Hesse studied art at Cooper Union in New York and moved on to Yale in 1957, where her teachers included Josef Albers. A group exhibition in 1961 was followed by her first solo show at the Allan Stone Gallery in 1963, featuring a series of busy, vital collages. In 1964, she was invited with her husband, the sculptor Tom Doyle, to spend a year in Kettwig an der Ruhr, Germany. They occupied the disused floors of a factory, where Hesse would create her first works in relief. It was here that she began using industrial materials and also visited shows of many continental artists who would inspire her. Her return to New York saw the start of an amazingly productive period of work, cut short by her death in 1970.

These last years gave Hesse the chance to experiment with materials such as latex and fibreglass, which were fairly new to the art scene. Her feel for them and her command of composition were breathtaking. Several of these works have either disintegrated or are so fragile that extended display would damage them irreparably. Museums are understandably cautious about lending out works, and the few retrospectives of Hesse’s work have involved both curatorial ingenuity and diplomacy.

A landmark show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1979 gave the UK public the chance to see a wide range of Hesse’s works. In his foreword to the catalogue, almost ten years after her death, Nicholas Serota was still careful to try to shift the emphasis away from the traumas of Hesse’s life to an appreciation of the ‘authority and continued freshness’ of her work.

Perhaps the time that has elapsed between the Whitechapel show and the Tate retrospective is a mixed blessing. Distanced from the hyperbole of myth, we now have the chance to see her work more for itself and less as simple documentation of the tragic artist. We can have a sense of the threads and sequences in her work, rather than simple testimony to the fact that society tends to acknowledge a woman’s creative success only on condition that some tragedy has befallen her.

But Hesse’s work does tell a story and not only in the art historical sense. As we look at the progression from 1960–1 through to the Kettwig pieces and then the stunning pieces in latex and fibreglass, we can think of the other artists who clearly had an effect on her: Arshile Gorky, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, Agnes Martin, Lucas Samaras among others. We could look at each work in isolation and think of its influences and inspirations. But what is so striking about the work is the way that Hesse inhabits it. As Lucy Lippard wrote, Hesse ‘took exactly what she needed from the art around her, transformed it, and gave it back to the art world’. If the vocabulary is often that of her contemporaries, the language is unmistakably her own. But what sort of a language is it?

Exploring boundaries was crucial to Hesse. ‘Where does painting end and drawing begin?’ she asked. ‘A lot of my sculpture could be called a painting.’ Contingent 1969, a series of eight hanging pieces of ripple cloth coated in latex and fibreglass, ‘could be called a painting or a sculpture. It is really hung painting in another material than painting.’ This disturbance of opposites is mirrored in Hesse’s challenging of conventional dimensionality. If, in her early drawings, a line is a line, in the Kettwig reliefs lines start to emerge in three dimensions right out of the painted surface. As she said of this work, ‘I literally translated the line.’

Lines are so important for Hesse. They frame, divide and join. The early drawings often include linear boundaries, ‘windows’, as Hesse called them. Lines start to form boxes, containing hybrids of artificial and bodily forms. In the strange and sustained series of machine drawings she executed in the mid-1960s, the concern seems to shift from framing or boxing-in to joining. As they return repeatedly to the crossing and linking of tubular, respiratory forms, these images ask the question: what is the nature of connection?

The Metronomic Irregularity series 1966 continues this questioning about linking, and the later work in latex and rope asks both teasingly and with great seriousness if a line has to rejoin itself or not. If a line joins itself to make a box or a frame, it can keep things inside and outside itself. It can separate. But if a line ends nakedly or if its ending is obscure or sinewy, the separation of space is undone. It’s more dangerous.

In work using cord and rope, the line has ceased to be two-dimensional. Untitled 1966 confronts us with a hanging mass of rope that could be the myriad lines of a painting or drawing but with the canvas or background removed. As has often been pointed out – and also fiercely contested – it evokes a Jackson Pollock that has come to life and shed its material support. The 1966 Ennead is like a transitional stage of this process: it is as if we are seeing a surface in the act of unravelling, as its many strings dissolve and then collect on the wall perpendicular to it.

Almost everyone who has written about Hesse’s art evokes the tension between contraries: the geometric and the organic, the serial and the unique, chaos and order. And yet her work consistently challenges the very idea of contraries. Her early ink drawings involve wash after wash, transposing the layering process from painting to drawing. The later sculptural works often hang like paintings, and the layers of material evoke both the methods and the touch of the painter. In Hang Up 1966, a steel rod coated in bandagelike cloth extends from a carefully painted and entirely empty frame. What we expect to be a painting suddenly becomes a sculpture. The demarcation between the space of the viewer and that of the art work is collapsed. And painting and sculpture can no longer be neatly distinguished.

It is tempting to link these motifs to Hesse’s life – for example, the concern with connection to the contemporary break-up of her marriage, or the haunting motif of the window frame with her mother’s suicide. The crucial relief from 1965, Ringaround Arosie, not only evokes her pregnant friend Rosie Goldman but also the rhyme in which ‘we all fall down’.

But in a sense, as with every artist, it is less what happened that matters, than what they did with what happened. As she often said about her work, ‘Don’t ask what it means or what it refers to. Don’t ask what the work is. Rather, see what the work does.’

And what the work does is to touch us in a special way. As we register the presence of serial and repeated patterns or elements, we think of order, of structure, of the inorganic. But the very real feeling of the materials – hanging, sagging, billowing, angled, irregular, organic – works against this priority of form. When we look at Hesse’s three-dimensional work, we are looking at ourselves. Not because the materials Hesse worked with are really that similar to our bodies, but because Hesse shows us that the body itself is a tension between imposed, regulating structures and a substance that is never entirely subsumed by them. The tension that makes our bodies is exactly the tension that makes Hesse’s sculptures. In this sense, the artworks are us.

And this is perhaps why so many viewers of Hesse’s work speak of a strange sense of recognition. We have a feeling of empathy quite beyond an acknowledgement of the specificity of an artist’s pain. Although we might view the work as a documentation of the convulsive moments in her life, it is in fact about all of us. About how we are incarnated as bodies.

This is perhaps what Hesse was getting at when she said that she aimed to create ‘nothings’. One can create a ‘nothing’ by making an empty space, as with Hang Up 1966, or through the empty window frames of the 1969 Woodstock series of drawings. But one can also create a nothing by making things that aren’t things, in the sense of nameable, fixed representative objects. Hesse’s objects always do more than represent. They are never just symbols. If art is always made to mean things and to represent, the only way out is to make what Hesse called ‘non-art’.

Through the elegant, direct way in which Hesse’s works don’t represent us, they are us. That’s one of the ways in which they touch us. As she said, what mattered to her was to find ‘a quantity for myself’. Not a symbol of herself, but a quantity. The works aren’t there to symbolise anything, but, on the contrary, to show the inadequacy of symbols. That’s why they are so often like cast-off, thrown-away things, things that have been shed like residues: just quantities.

Looking at Hesse’s work, we are not seeing objects shifted into another environment in order to perceive them in a new way, like a ready-made, but rather things in the process of being transformed. Hesse’s objects are never identical with the structures they bring with them as their frameworks. These works evoke the body, but not because of any similarity of surface or form: rather, due precisely to the tension between the formal and the uneven.

Perhaps we can see in Hesse’s work a gradual separation of two forces: the figuration of the body and the surplus that cannot be reduced to the simple body image. In a student notebook, Hesse referred to what she called a ‘logical sequence’ in art. Applying this to her own work, we could say that the nameless, ghostly presences of her early work become the three dimensional sculptures. They are given a real, material incarnation. Where the early work sometimes shows us a human figure plus some formless substance – a hidden double – the later sculptures dispense with the human figure to focus on the substance. The question that runs through these series of works is how one space can intrude into another. The final, stunning work is just that: strange, nameless, comical protrusions, which don’t look like us but nonetheless embody us more than any representational sculpture.

Once the Tate show opens we will have the chance to experience the beauty – a word Hesse loathed – and the absurdity – a word Hesse loved – of her art. Anya Gallaccio will bet her bronze cast potatoes that after seeing it, British art students will be ‘doing Hesse’ for years to come. Hesse once said that many of her sculptures could be called paintings, but also that they could be called ‘nothing – a thing or an object or any new word you want to give it’. Hesse’s work invites us to invent new words, and also, if Gallaccio is right, it invites us to invent new objects.

This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 2