“Forms Larger and Bolder: EVA HESSE DRAWINGS” Hauser & Wirth

Eva Hesse (1936-70) is the kind of artist whose brief, brilliant creative life has permanently captured the public’s imagination. A sculptor of immense innovation and independent imagination, she outdid the mostly male minimalists at their own game, fashioning works made of resin, rope, and wood that are so decidedly contemporary they seem to have been made yesterday. But is also true that her drawings are as profoundly original as her three-dimensional work. Indeed, the approximately seventy drawings on exhibit, all of them from holdings at Oberlin College in Ohio, run the length of her career--from early figurative work to the inspired abstractions to the ink drawings serving as structural studies for her sculpture. Hesse worked during the zenith of the minimalist period, but her biomorphic art, often made from resin, an apparently organic but actually dangerous material to work with (the brain tumor the artist died from may well have stemmed from her use of resin without wearing protective covering). This show of two-dimensional work indicated she was nearly as inventive in this genre as she was in her sculpture, although a good portion of the drawings are closely linked to her sculptures, being structural studies for what she wanted to do.

 

Sculptors’ drawings always possess a frisson of excitement, often being esthetically pleasing and technically interesting in the same moment. In Hesse’s case, her drawings, the abstract work especially, are unusually achieved and ambitious. Moreover, the examples describing the sculptures she would make, and portraying the means of their making, has an occupational interest for her audience, who quite naturally would be interested in seeing her thinking out loud in regards to the facture of the work she is best known for. Because these schematic drawings are not terribly involved, and usually include phrases guiding her structural concerns, they can be understood best as part of a process that supported her sculptural efforts from their conception. As it stands, in fact, her imagination may be said to be devoted to a process art notable for its free-form improvisation. It feels like many of Hesse’s artistic decisions were made spontaneously, giving us a sense nearly of performance when we look at her sculptures. Unlike the minimalists working at the same time as she did, Hesse was not so much interested in reductionism as she was taken with the abstract possibility of unrestricted, disengaged play, in which on-the-spot site decisions in regard to placement add a feeling of openness to the visual experience of her work. In some ways, Hesse’s sculptures are a kind of performance art, tying in with the events and happenings staged by artists during this time. In a similar fashion, the drawings in this very good show detail an esthetic whose key attribute is its uncertainty of installation, its allowance of the artist’s decisions to let things turn out as she happened to find them.

 

Even so, while we recognize the indeterminacy of Hesse’s remarkable imagination, the drawings connected to making the sculptures are precise if not overly detailed. In an ink-and-graphite work on paper the artist made in 1969, we see Hesse work up a simple version of a well-known piece of sculpture: cheesecloth attached to a series of thin poles that are vertically aligned. The handwritten comments above the drawing on the same sheet are as follows: “lots of their long forms to be used together with rubber in the cheesecloth.” And underneath the drawing is the question: “can cloth go through forms”? The comment and question are not so vague as to be idle musings, but neither were they written with posterity in mind. Just as Hesse’s sculptures invoke a spirit of iterative play, so does this drawing and others of its kind suggest an ad hoc intelligence devoted to immediate problems--they are working drawings more than they are deliberate works of art. Hesse was active at a time when a lot of very good art was based on the notion that nothing is fixed, that it is most important to capture not form in a full stop but as a momentary setting down--or even a motion-filled image--addressing the awareness that we are always between places, things, thoughts, and feelings.

 

A very early untitled work from 1957, made of colored paper collaged onto cardboard, indicates Hesse’s marvelous facility with abstractions, even when she was only in her very early twenties. In this work, two sets of two colored papers overlap. On the left, a rust-brown sheet partially covers a smaller gray sheet; and to its right a transparent pink sheet covers a brighter, bigger hot pink layer of paper, with the brown of the cardboard serving as a general background. It is a very simple, but very effective work of art, strengthening what might seem overly simple with a highly effective sense of placement and color. Another work without a title, done in 1958, consists of a series of concentric, near circles, done in gray and surrounding a filled-in gray ground, against a light-yellow background. The image might be that of closely petaled flower or the segments of a tunnel; more literary viewers might associate the drawing with the circles of Dante’s hell. But it doesn’t truly matter what the picture represents, only that our reading indicates the wish to interpret an abstract work of art in figurative terms.

 

There is a marvelous abstract work, also Untitled, from 1961, which takes on monumental proportions despite dimensions that are only 6 ⅝ by 9 inches. It consists of four quadrants of brown color, each of them scored with vertical lines. Separating these components is a kind of cross of dark red and brown, partially painted and partially transparent, showing the white paper that is the drawing’s ground. Despite the small size of the image, it nevertheless communicates a feeling of weight and gravitas--attributes not usually associated with small pictures. Hesse’s figurative output is very limited, indicating that very early on she understood how--and in fact needed to--work non-objectively, in ways that accentuated form for form’s sake, without referring to real things in the world. Abstraction in 1961 was a well-established visual idiom, to the point that, even then, issues of repetition and overfamiliarity were coming to the fore. But then it is clear Hesse was a master of an idiom that had been around for a while. In one of the other later works on show, made in 1964, like the others untitled, Hesse made a collaged drawing using several materials: gouache, watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite. The mostly oval shapes slowly build upward and to the right at a slight angle. They are yellow and white, with doodles and abstract marks toward the end of each form, toward the right. In the center is an egg-like oval split down the middle.

 

Here the casual markings occurring within Hesse’s chosen shapes are not readable at all in any figurative sense. Instead, they feel nearly awkward--excrescences that are occurring on the inside rather than the outside of the form. As rough and awkward designs of small size, the doodles underscore an interesting component of Hesse’s esthetic--her interest in the untoward, not only in these drawings but also in her sculptures. While it is not necessary to address the artist’s oeuvre as inspired by Arte Povera, it shares with the work of that movement the feeling for the marginal, both in materials and form. In America, we steadfastly eschew work that tends to openly confront our social and economic context--even the minimalists, most of whom leaned sharply toward the left and fiercely opposed the Vietnam War--made work that was on some level a recognition (if not an open affirmation) of our country’s capital and industrial power. Minimalist work was monumental in conception and production, but Hesse’s art always moved in a bit of a different direction. It’s deliberate precariousness and humble materials suggest a critique of minimalist grandeur, at least indirectly, now. And, in truth, her sculptures have acted much more as a window of opportunity for younger artists than the relatively small, tight group of the minimalists, whose work has not provided such an opening. It may not be entirely useful to compare Hesse with her counterparts; likely, we are comparing of apples and oranges, given her penchant, from the start, for an independent esthetic, a vision made memorable by her reliance on her own worth. This is all the more remarkable when we acknowledge the immense amount of critical credit and publicity the minimalists were given at the time of Hesse’s activities.

 

This excellent drawing show underscores Hesse’s considerable abilities as an artist working two-dimensionally. But we remember her primarily as a sculptor for a reason. The structural sketches on exhibit are mostly interesting for their ability to show the artist thinking publicly, and so we gain from insight into her creative process. But they are not finished works of art, being drafts involved with the construction of her sculptural work. And the abstract sketches, deeply beautiful, show her high command and accomplishment in regard to nonobjective form. They can be taken as imagistic likenesses in dialogue with Hesse’s sculptural art, which increasingly looks like both a rejoinder to minimalism’s masculine rhetoric and, more important, like a new vision pushing abstraction onward, away from industrialism toward a more organic outlook and an orientation determined by chance. Hesse’s intuition, always of great importance to her output, is made clear in this show, which brings to the public an important, if slightly underrecognized, body of work by someone who will remain permanently in our view.

 

Jonathan Goodman

Images courtesy of Hauser & Wirth