Eva Hesse, who’d been schooled and had worked as an oil painter, watercolorist, lithographer, sculptor, what have you, felt her art was at a dead end when, in June of 1964, at the age of 28, she returned with her husband Tom Doyle to the Germany where she had been born and from which, at 21/2, in 1938, she had been evacuated to Holland by kindertransport, thus saving her life.
Her parents got out too, later. Her grandparents all died at Auschwitz or Belsen Bergen. Eva grew up in Washington Heights. When she was 18, the magazine Seventeen, where she was interning, did a feature on her as a “young artist” along with some photos of her work in gouache, watercolor, charcoal, and lithography.
Tom Doyle, a sculptor whose medium was steel, had converted from Roman Catholicism to Jewish for the sake of Eva’s father. Doyle had been invited by industrialist and art collector F. Arnhard Scheidt to come use the old Scheidt textile mill at Kettwig-am-Ruhr as studio workspace. It would be in that same vast old textile mill, full of materials that artists didn’t then normally use, that Eva Hesse, picking up a piece of rope here, a piece of plastic there, would find a path reopening in directions that would lead an assessor, more than 40 years later – Elizabeth Sussman, a curator at the Whitney Museum – to speak of Hesse as “one of the greatest artists of her generation.”
Which may or may not be. But that art can and does reach out to embrace plastics, latex, cardboard, fiberglass, rope, and other such “anti-artistic” industrial materials, is proved – no, brought back to attention — by “Eva Hesse: Sculpture,” an exhibit through mid-September at New York City’s Jewish Museum, put together by Ms. Sussman and the Jewish Museum’s own Fred Wasserman.
Among other things it recapitulates the (then) shocking “Chain Polymers,” Hesse’s one-woman show at the Fischbach Gallery in November 1968, a year and a half before brain cancer killed her at 34 in May 1970.
“I would like the work to be non-work,” she wrote – typed by hand — in a statement for the gallery. “This means it would find its way beyond my preconceptions. What I want of my art I can eventually find. The work must go beyond this.”
One’s thoughts hit on Heinrich von Kleist’s “On the Puppet Theater” as metaphor of such abnegation. It is as if the work (non-work) makes itself, with no artist involved – no hands – but that of course is not the case. In Eva Hesse’s case she was very much involved, right down to the most scrupulous details and dimensions. Here is one small, lined notebook page on which is scrawled all the precise specifications for Sans II – the very word sans means “without” — a huge 35-foot-long polyester-resin and fiberglass wall piece in five sections of six panels each.
They are today, these sections, separately-sold inhabitants of venues around the world. “Never seen together since 1968,” says Fred Wasserman. How did they come back together for this show? “Don’t ask,” says Wasserman with a cocked eyebrow. “Some very generous lenders.” He himself has been a Hesse nut ever since he saw some of her things at a show in Buffalo when he was 17.
She was meticulous, also, as we see from other scrawled pages, about titles for her pieces, scouring thesauruses and dictionaries for definitions like:
ACCRETION: The growing of separate things into one, the whole resulting from this.
SEQUEL: What follows after, continuation or resumption of a story or process or the like after a pause or provisional ending.
And here is Accretion itself: fifty 58-inch fiberglass and polyester-resin tubes, each wrapped about a cardboard tube like those at the core of fabric rolls, the whole a little standing forest of identical rods, or tree trunks, except that they aren’t totally identical (because how can they be?) and aren’t identically spaced apart. Some gaps are 2 inches, some are 3 inches. “Serial repetition with randomness,” says Wasserman. “Expandable or contractable.”
In the industrial age, there are flyspecks. See Chaplin, Modern Times. Hesse wanted those flyspecks there. Working out of her studio at 134 Bowery, in the lighting and kitchenware district below Houston, she had found a fabricator, Doug Johns of Aegis Reinforced Plastics, on Staten Island, who made her speculations at lot more possible.
But when, with Repetition Nineteen III, an assemblage on the floor of 19 fiberglass “buckets,” Johns smoothed off all the rough imperfections to make them identical, she got angry with him. Artist Hesse wanted those imperfections there. “Each one a little different,” says Wasserman. “Each with its own character,” like faceless people (yes! paradox!) standing around, now this way, now that way, in a large lobby.
Sequel, as the name implies (see above), follows Schema, and Schema is a 40-inch-square grid of 144 halves of Spalding-type latex balls – the “Spaldeens” of legendary four-sewer New York City stickball. Sequel takes the rubber halves off the grid and mixes them up in a stew – true random.
A piece that combines papier-mache, Masonite, cloth-covered electrical wire, pencil, ink, acetone, varnish, and enamel paint – all adding up to a nippled small circle atop a nippled large circle – is called Ringaround Arosie, another touch of New Yorkese, in honor of Eva’s close friend Rosie Goldman. Fellow artist Sol Lewitt called it “the breast job.”
Elsewhere in the Jewish Museum layout are the literature and documentation of Eva Hesse’s short, not overly happy life, in particular the proud-papa tagerbucher – combination scrapbooks, datebooks, photo albums, clipping collections, diaries – that businessman William (originally Wilhelm) Hesse faithfully if not to say overbearingly kept through the years for daughters Helen and “Evchen,” the tiny 21/2-year-old who would grow up to be imaginative, troubled, fiery Eva.
There was reason for her to be troubled. In January 1946, three days before Eva’s 10th birthday, Ruth Hesse, Eva and Helen’s mother, would, as newspapers used to say, jump or fall to her death off the roof of the Eldorado Apartments, Central Park West at 81st Street.
Ruth Marcus Hesse had escaped the Holocaust, but her parents had not, nor her husband’s parents, Eva’s grandparents. Eva’s 1964 trek with husband Tom to Germany was more traumatic than anticipated. She had nightmares, bad ones. The six-months’ stay stretched to 15 months. The Scheidt factory (sounds a little bit like the Germanic for excrement) was near Dusseldorf; Eva wanted to visit what had been her mother’s girlhood home at Hameln, near Hamburg. In Hamburg was the apartment where Eva had spent the first two and a half years of her life. She and Tom knocked on the door. The couple within opened the door, heard Eva say (in German) she’d lived there as a child, then shut and locked the door in Eva and Tom’s faces.
The marriage to Doyle did not last, though not, so far as I know, because of Germany. The Fischbach one-woman “Chain Polymers” show was followed by a year, 1969-’70, of three operations, radiation, chemo. In May she was gone. Some of the industrial material is now beginning to go too. This looks to be the last chance to catch this much of it while you can.