Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Eva Hesse, as portrayed in Marcie Begleiter’s superlatively penetrating Eva Hesse, sadly but exquisitely zoned in on mortality as the paradoxical stuff of life and art. She was a vexed woman, her life a tragic mid-century opera. She escaped Nazi Germany as a two-year old with her sister Helen Hesse Charash, was separated from her parents for six months, settled in New York, lost her mother to suicide when she was 12, and married and divorced charismatic sculptor Tom Doyle, who drank excessively and philandered.
[Image at top: Eva Hesse]
Hesse endured the specter of the Holocaust – many of her relatives died in the camps – as well as the male chauvinism and institutionalized sexism of the New York art world. (A notable exception was the supportive and crucially inspirational Sol Lewitt, with whom she forged a deep aesthetic and sisterly bond.) Just when the art world had taken notice of her unique sculptures, Hesse was afflicted with a brain tumor that may or may not have been caused by the toxic materials (fiberglass, latex, and plastics) that she used in her work. She died in 1970 at 34, shortly after her work appeared on the cover of ArtForum.
Eva Hesse is a layered cultural biography, sensitively cued by quotations from her diaries and blessed by considered testimony from her sister Helen and a healthy range of friends and fellow artists. The groundbreaking dimension in Hesse’s work is hard to miss. She certainly had an avant-garde appreciation for jarring the senses: her sculpture, though grounded in both Minimalism and Surrealism, was physically unlike anything that had preceded it. Some pieces, like the wall sculpture Metronomic Irregularity II (1966), are unabashedly beautiful. But beyond the iconoclasm of the object, her work agitated broader conventions and dislodged biases, ushering in a kind of feminist Minimalism. The same piece sharply imparts the impossibility of order in one place without disruption nearby, and there was no doubt that it was she who was doing the disrupting.
It may be that her work retrospectively seems more valuable simply by virtue of the aching finiteness of her life, and the consequent sparseness of her archive. But the inseparability of her biography from her artistic output would jibe with Hesse’s view of art as the culmination of an ephemeral and personal process – in her case, a regrettably truncated one – that is integral to the objects themselves. Her work, from this perspective, seems not merely to comment on her world but truly to embody her life.
Eva Hesse, directed by Marcie Begleiter. Film Forum, New York, NY. Back by popular demand for a limited engagement.
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