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'Panic States'

July 7, 2011 By:
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Eva Hesse standing next to a conventional portrait of herself by an unknown artist

SPEAKING VOLUMES

It seems that every season or so, a new book appears about the great artist Eva Hesse, and with each volume, we learn something new about her and her artistic output. Many of these books have been produced by the inestimable Yale University Press, which would have pleased the late artist since the publishing company's standards, especially when it comes to art books, have been notoriously high.

This year's Yale entry is called Spectres 1960 and is unlike any book about Hesse that's appeared thus far. The artist is known primarily for her sculptures, which broke new ground in the 1960s and '70s, and are notorious for their size and often satiric, sexual edge. This particular book, though, is filled with paintings that are figurative for the most part (in the Abstract Expressionist sense of the figurative -- think de Kooning); and, for that reason, may come as a surprise to even those who think they know Hesse's postmodernist work well.

We may always be learning new things about this artist because she died so young, more than 40 years ago when she was in her mid-30s -- really at the height of her powers and just beginning to make a name for herself outside of passionate art circles.

Her Parents Divorce

Hesse was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1936, and came to the United States with her family three years later, just escaping the Nazi madness by a hair's breadth. The Hesses settled in New York City, but soon after, the parents divorced. Then, when Eva was just 10, her mother, who'd been trained as an artist, committed suicide.

Hesse was known to have been racked with anxiety throughout her brief life (no wonder, with such a past); and yet, she clearly had a sense of mission and purpose, and managed, despite what life threw her way, to transform herself into an artist of substance and power. She began her studies at the School of Industrial Art, went on to the Pratt Institute in 1952, and Cooper Union from 1954 to '57. She then studied at Yale, with the great teacher and artist Josef Albers, earning a BFA in 1959. By the time she moved back to Manhattan, she was ready to get down to serious work.

She married the sculpture Tom Doyle in 1961, and together they worked on one of the more famous "Happenings" put together downtown by the legendary Allan Kaprow. Hesse had her first solo show in 1963, which featured paintings only. The next year, she and her husband went off to Europe, spending time in Germany and traveling as well in Italy, France and Switzerland. Hesse had her first solo sculpture show in Dusseldorf in 1964; by then, she'd seen the work of German artist Joseph Beuys and was influenced by his approach.

The following year, the couple returned to the United States, but soon separated. It was at this time that Hesse began experimenting in her sculptural work with a variety of materials -- latex and fiberglass, rubber and cording -- and it was these elements that sent her art into satiric and sexual realms. She began being noticed by critics and gallery attendees in the late '60s and began teaching at the School of the Visual Arts in New York in 1968. In 1969, a brain tumor was discovered, and though she went through three operations within a 12-month period, she died in May 1970.

Spectres 1960 includes four essays on the work Hesse began doing once she returned to Manhattan after receiving her master's degree from Yale. This book focuses on some of the 48 paintings she executed during the period, when she began as a determined abstract painter, then moved to semi-figuration. These works, as editor E. Luanne McKinnon writes in her introduction to Spectres 1960, remained unknown until the 1990s when a few of them were displayed in a retrospective held at the Yale University Art Gallery.

A Woman Called Eva

These strange, disturbing, sometimes ghoulish images are self-portraits, according to McKinnon, different views of a woman that Hesse calls Eva, and were created at a difficult personal time for the artist. The only recognizable features in these portraits are the eyes, which sometimes seem clouded or unseeing.

As McKinnon writes, "For Hesse, abandonment by her parents in Germany [she and her sister were part of a kindertransport before the family was reunited], by her mother in America, and by a lover in New York were central to her anxieties. It has been observed that 'in adults, separation anxiety is particularly evident in severe forms of anxiety neurosis which are characterized by panic states, a sense of impending doom, and overwhelming feelings of incompetence and inferiority.' So perhaps by recreating a self or imaginary selves that would not see, or vaguely saw with one eye or through damaged eyes, if at all, Hesse was symbolically working through her fears in order to protect herself from recurring and debilitating anxieties."

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