Eva Hesse was born in 1936 in Hamburg, Germany. Of Jewish extraction, the Hesse family were forced to flee Nazi persecution, settling in New York in 1939. From an early age Hesse had declared her ambition to be a painter, and the works shown here were produced in the years immediately after her graduation from Yale School of Art and Architecture in 1959. Included amongst these works are a number of abstracted figures. Rendered in thick impasto and earthy tones, they are thought to be self-portraits, and were painted when the artist was twenty-three and living in New York.

Though she was to become best known as a sculptor, Hesse restricted herself to painting and drawing in this period. A number of works prefigure later developments in her art. In the delicate gouache and ink wash drawings here, for instance, organic shapes, reminiscent of figures or landscape, are contained within painted frames or compartments, a device that frequently resurfaces in her work.