Shortly before her death, Eva Hesse described her subject as ‘the total absurdity of life’. Indeed, one of the chief characteristics of her work is a vein of subtle humour that runs from the self-deprecating, abject quality of her early self-portraits to the quirky fetishism and playful repetitions of her later sculpture. Yet in other ways her achievement could not be more serious. Working in what was then very much a man’s world, she pursued her ambition to become a great artist with single-minded determination. Hesse readily absorbed the influences of Surrealism, Conceptualism and Minimalism, always filtering them though her own distinctive sensibility to produce a unique and highly individualistic body of work. She continually experimented with new processes and materials, which included the use of string, resin and latex, in order to push the boundaries of art, moving beyond definitions of figuration or abstraction. Combining both rigidity and pliability, the machine-made and the hand-crafted, hard geometric abstraction and soft organic curves, her work refuses to be categorised. As Hesse herself commented:
The drawings could be called paintings legitimately, and a lot of my sculpture could be called paintings, and a lot of it could be called nothing – a thing or any object or any new word that you want to give it.
In a mature career spanning just ten years, Hesse created a considerable legacy of work that was respected as much by fellow artists and critics during her lifetime, as it continues to influence artists to this day. Sadly, many of the experimental materials that she used subsequently turned out to be very fragile. The works assembled for this exhibition include her early drawings and paintings, the painted reliefs, and many of the astonishing sculptures for which she is best known. A number of these have never been seen in the UK, allowing visitors a unique opportunity to explore the work of one of the most important sculptors of the late twentieth century. In addition to the texts and images shown here, there is a special interactive programme about the exhibition.
This exhibition is co-organised by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Museum Wiesbaden.
Generous support has been provided by The Edward E. Hills Fund, The Henry Luce Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Hessische Kulturstiftung, and Sparkassen-Finanzgruppe Hessen – Thüringen.
The exhibition is co-curated by Elisabeth Sussman for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Dr Renate Petzinger for Museum Wiesbaden.
The Tate Modern installation is curated by Sheena Wagstaff and co-ordinated by Helen Sainsbury.