Certain artists become famous not just for what they achieve, but for what the art historical consensus believes they could have achieved had they not died young. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesca Woodman, Keith Haring, Felix Gonzalez-Torres -- none reached the age befitting a mid-career retrospective, all left us with the tantalizing beginnings of potentially monumental art practices.
Sculptor Eva Hesse is a member of this “what might have been” club, a prodigious and adventurous maker who died in 1970 at the age of 34, just five years after bursting onto the New York art scene with her particular brand of “eccentric abstraction.”
Marcie Begleiter’s new documentary on Hesse (remarkably, the first documentary about Hesse’s life and work), simply titled Eva Hesse, dwells not so much on the imagined possibilities of a lengthy career, but on Hesse’s dedication to her art. Hesse’s work is beautiful and important, yes, but Begleiter’s lens focuses on her ability to transform emotional turmoil, personal tragedy and even her own uncertainty into art that was wholly her own.
Born into a Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany in 1936, Hesse and her older sister Helen were evacuated via Kindertransport to the Netherlands in 1938, away from the Nazi regime. Reunited six months later, the Hesses immigrated to New York City in 1939. They were the only members of their extended family to escape the Holocaust. Learning this, Hesse’s mentally unstable mother took her own life when her youngest daughter was just ten years old.
In Begleiter’s retelling, Hesse’s early trauma and sense of isolation fostered within the artist a single-minded focus on her career. After studies at Pratt, Cooper Union and under Josef Albers at Yale, Hesse was determined to “make it” as a painter in New York. “I’m almost too anxious for every moment and every future moment,” she wrote in her journals. “I will paint against every rule.”
But painting was not her path. In 1964, Hesse and her then-husband Tom Doyle flew to Kettwig, Germany, for a year-long residency courtesy of a German textile factory owner. There, in the midst of a tumultuous marriage and haunted by the ghosts of her early childhood, Hesse began experimenting with three-dimensional work. She coiled rope on top of canvases, attached appendages to frames, and built up surfaces with texture and color.
Despite the playful and bold arrangements of these artworks -- hovering partway between painting and sculpture -- the documentary shows Hesse full of self-doubt in Germany.
In one letter exchange between Hesse and her dear friend Sol LeWitt, the famous Minimalist patiently coaches Hesse through her studio frustrations. “Stop worrying about big deep things,” he writes. “You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you’ll be able to do.”
Begleiter’s glimpse into this early uncertainty makes Hesse’s later confidence in the fine art world all the more impressive. Her life was full of simultaneous extremes. In 1966, her marriage ended in divorce, her father suddenly died and Lucy Lippard curated Hesse’s formal yet exuberant work into the group show Eccentric Abstraction at New York’s Fischbach Gallery.
Assured of her own skill, she even managed to dismiss the rampant sexism of the 1960s art world. Hilton Kramer of The New York Times labeled one of her Eccentric Abstraction sculptures a mere mimic of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Hesse refused to allow herself to be relegated to the background as a “female artist.”
“The best way to beat discrimination in art is by art,” Hesse wrote. “Excellence has no sex.”
As if to prove this point singlehandedly, she returned to Fischbach Gallery in 1968 for her first solo show, filled with strange material investigations and impressive, mesmerizing sculpture. “This is a first one-man show of uncommon interest,” wrote the very same New York Times critic. In the documentary, Selma Blair (playing the voice of Eva Hesse) reads his adulatory review in its entirety.
In her short time as a showing artist, Hesse was part of a cadre of talented artist friends, many of whom lend their talking heads to the documentary. Lucy Lippard, Nancy Holt, Sylvia and Robert Mangold, Richard Serra, Carl Andre and Dan Graham all make appearances. Their contemporary successes -- and vitality -- make Hesse’s 1970 death all the more heart-wrenching.
Begleiter doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the issue of whether or not Hesse’s materials -- epoxy, rubber, fiberglass, various polymers -- hastened her demise, as many believe. (Hesse died from brain tumors.) The best analog for her brief career comes from Hesse herself, who cared little about the archival qualities of her own work. “Life doesn’t last, art doesn’t last, it doesn’t matter,” she wrote.
To her, making the work, and making as much of it as possible, was the best part of being an artist. She took LeWitt’s advice to heart, replacing “making it” with “doing it” and securing her rightful place in art history in the process.