Saturday, 16 March 2013

Eva Hesse

Hesse was born into a family of Jews in Hamburg, Germany. When she was two years old in December 1938, her parents, hoping to flee from Nazi Germany, sent Eva and her older sister to the Netherlands via Kindertransport. After a few months of separation, the reunited family moved to England and then, in 1939, emigrated to New York City.

Hesse moved back to Germany for a year in 1964-65. She was not happy to be back in Germany, but began sculpting with materials that had been left behind in an abandoned textile factory: first relief sculptures made of cloth-covered cord, electrical wire, and masonite, with playful titles like Eighter from Decatur and Oomamaboomba. Returning to New York City in 1965, she began working in the materials that would become characteristic of her work: latex, fiberglass, and plastics. She also had an interest in painting in the earlier stages of her career, as well in drawing, as shown by her numerous workbooks.

image for Eva Hesse

She was associated with the mid-1960s postminimal anti-form trend in sculpture. Hesse is one of a few artists who led the move from Minimalism to Postminimalism.  In working with a series of forms, Hesse was engaging with the language of Minimalism, the dominant art movement of the time. But, whereas Minimalism was all about repetition and geometry, Hesse wanted to introduce a note of disorder to her sculpture – hence the snaking, coiling cords. Indeed, many of the forms that she used in her sculptures evoke parts of the body. Among some of the enigmatic objects she produced were pouches of rubber that look like interior parts of the human anatomy. There are also flaps of latex that resemble flayed skin. The ropes become disconcerting trickles of liquid (breast-milk? Blood?).


By working with unconventional materials such as latex, fibreglass, wax, wire-mesh and cheesecloth, she changed the course of post-war art and has been idolised by the art community ever since she died, from a brain tumour in 1970, aged just 34. Except for fiberglass, most of her favoured materials age badly, so much of her work presents conservators with an enormous challenge. But Hesse did not worry too much about her legacy. 'I am not sure what my stand on lasting really is,' she said shortly before her death. 'Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last. It doesn’t matter.'

Arthur Danto,  refers to 'the discolorations, the slackness in the membrane-like latex, the palpable ageing of the material… Yet, somehow the work does not feel tragic. Instead it is full of life, of eros, even of comedy… Each piece vibrates with originality and mischief'.

One of her final works, Untitled (Rope Piece), from 1970, consists of a great tangle of rope dipped in latex and suspended from the gallery ceiling, like a 3D version of a drip painting by Jackson Pollock.

This is a photograph I took at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art last year.

'Don’t ask what it means or what it refers to,' Hesse said about her art. 'Don’t ask what the work is. Rather, see what the work does'.

Art that wasn't 'art' was her aim. 'I wanted to get to nonart, nonconnotive, nonanthropomorphic, nongeometric, non, nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort from a total other reference point', she wrote in an exhibition statement in 1968.

Her death in 1970 at age 34 ended a career spanning only ten years. Her art is often viewed in light of all the painful struggles of her life including escaping the Nazis, her parents' divorce, the suicide of her mother when she was ten, her failed marriage.

Eva Hesse, 1965, at Hauser and Wirth, Saville Row, London


Oomamaboomba, 1965 (paint, varnish, cord, metal, saw dust, glue on masonite)

H & H, 1965 (gouache, varnish, ink, papier-maché, wood, cord and metal on masonite)

Legs of a Walking Ball

Legs of a Walking Ball, 1965 (varnish, tempera, enamel, cord, metal, papier-caché, unknown modeling compound, particle board, wood)

No title

No title, 1965 (oil on canvas)

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No title, 1965, (oil on canvas)

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No title, 1965 (ink and coloured ink on paper)

No title

No title, 1965 (ink and coloured ink on paper)

Sans II
Sans II, 1968 (fibreglass and polyester resin)

Hot on the heels of minimalism in the late 1950s and early 60s, with its emphasis on the "object-ness" of art, came the post-minimalists: artists who called attention to the physicality of their materials, focused on process rather than end product, and welcomed the chance effects of environmental forces on their work.


  1. A great introduction to Eva Hesse's work. I particularly like Untitled (Rope Piece). I'm interested in works like this, abstract sculptures which cast interesting shadows on surrounding surfaces.

    1. Thanks. It's a great piece. When I saw it last year it made me want to know more about her work, so when this exhibition came up in London, I just had to go and see it.