Eva Hesse must be placed on that ever-burgeoning list of crucially influential artists unknown to the majority of the general public. One reason for this unfortunate development may be that she died very young of a brain tumor nearly 40 years ago, when she was at her most productive and beginning to make a name for herself as one of a talented group branded by the critics as postminimalists. Since 1970, when she died, her sizable output of paintings and sculptures have gone on to influence countless artists.
Hesse's personal story has as much fascination as the art she created. Though she lived most of her brief life in the United States, she was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1936, to parents who were observant Jews. The world being what it was just then, Eva and her sister were separated from the family for a time, but eventually, all of them managed to make it to New York City in 1939.
Six years later, Hesse had become a U.S. citizen, which perhaps gave her a certain sense of permanence; still, the numerous dislocations that had marked her life until then continued. Her parents divorced, and when Eva turned 10, her mother, who was herself a trained artist, committed suicide.
For much of her life, Hesse, too, was racked by anxiety; and yet she obviously had strength and perseverance, since she managed to carve out a career for herself in a short span of time, in spite of what life threw her way.
During the 1950s, she studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and at Cooper Union in Manhattan. She went on to get a BFA from Yale University, studying there with the great painter and color theorist Josef Albers.
In 1961, she married fellow artist Tom Doyle, primarily a sculptor; together, they created works for one of the most famous of Allan Kaprow's "Happenings" in the early 1960s.
Hesse had her first solo show in 1963, which displayed paintings only.
Beginning the following year, she and her husband spent more than a year in Kettwig-am-Ruhr, Germany, with time spent traveling in France, Italy and Switzerland. Hesse had her first solo sculpture show in Dusseldorf in 1964.
The following year, the couple returned to America, but separated soon after. Following the break, Hesse began experimenting with various materials — latex and fiberglass mostly, but also rubber and cord — to begin creating her sometimes lewd, always startlingly funny pieces, many of which express what critic Robert Hughes has called her "phallic mockery." The body is always present in her work, according to the critic, even when its absent; and Hughes meant both the male and female bodies.
Hesse began gathering a critical following in the late 1960s, through her participation in a number of group exhibitions. But in 1969, the brain tumor was discovered; she had three operations over the course of the year, dying on May 29, 1970.
Where most books about her have looked at the large-scale pieces, the new Studiowork, out from the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh and distributed by Yale University Press, examines the smaller works — what she called her "test-pieces," the majority of which were created at the same time she was working on her major sculptures. Briony Fer is the author of this new and very complete catalogue; she's well-known for her book The Infinite Line, also from Yale.
Writes Fer about these "miniatures":
"Hesse's way of making art was decisively her own, yet it was also shaped by a larger drive to reconfigure what innovative art looked like in the 1950s and early 1960s and from which we are still feeling the aftershocks in contemporary art today. It reflects on the question of what it is for us to discard or save art's waste products as worth thinking about. Some studioworks look like abandoned parts of works. A small grey acrylic painted ball of paper tied round with string … is like those she put in nets in her hanging pieces from 1966, each containing a weight. On its own, it is anomalous but not without effect. Then there are some of the things that Hesse gave to her friend Giola Timpanelli, like the little pink painted boxes she gave her when they met at the end of the 1960s, but which she had made in 1964. Hesse had kept them, after all, and though small they could be seen to mark her move out of painting into sculpture. If a painting could be like a jack-in-the-box with a wooden square protruding out from its centre [sic] then why couldn't you have a painting in a box? Other things might have been kept, but could just as well be spare or abandoned parts, and it's hard to know whether to keep them or jettison them as just artistic footnotes to some other (missing) work."
Very much to the point, Hesse's friend and fellow artist Sol LeWitt called these small items "studio leavings," significant bits and pieces that form a direct line to the larger works that made Hesse an influential force in the art world of her day — and for long after.
A revolutionary artist's "studio leavings":