The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

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APR 2014 Issue
Art Books

Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt

For artists, the supposed dreamland art world of the ’60s in Lower Manhattan is almost painful to hear about. The idea of working part-time as a security guard at MoMA alongside future bigwigs like Robert Ryman and Dan Flavin and earning enough to pay $20 a month for a live-in loft/studio on the Bowery, while curating exhibitions of your friends’ work at soon-to-be-legendary galleries and developing cutting-edge artwork in a reality where cubes were conceptually exciting, leaves a lot to be desired from today’s New York. But the nostalgic glamour of this period can overshadow the serious disparity between the recognition of female artists and their male counterparts at the time, and the effects this had on the reality of those working then. Important figures like Nancy Holt, Lee Bontecou, and Carolee Schneemann were historically eclipsed by peers like Robert Smithson, Frank Stella, and Carl Andre. These women have since received acknowledgement for their contributions to the canon, but navigating their legacy is still complicated by that initial lack of critical reception.

(Yale University Press, 2014)

It was in 1960s New York that Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt became friends, and went on to become two of the most influential artists of the century. The corresponding influence that their aesthetics had on each other’s work is chronicled in Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt. Published as a catalogue for the current exhibition at the Blanton Museum in Austin, the book features essays by the exhibit’s curator and the catalogue’s editor Veronica Roberts, and critics Lucy Lippard and Kristen Swenson, as well as a previously unpublished LeWitt interview from 2001 and a wealth of correspondence and biographical information on the two artists. What comes through clearly in Converging Lines is the fundamental importance of the cultural and artistic environment that these two emerged from, beginning as painters navigating a problematic Modernist tradition and becoming active participants in and reactionaries to the Minimalist movement. As both developed in seemingly divergent directions, Hesse and LeWitt maintained a conceptual bond related to process and experimentation.

In the periphery is another, perhaps more important issue of perception, illuminated most clearly in Lippard’s reflection on the friendship between LeWitt and Hesse. What does it mean to compare two artists as peers and influences when the relative critical and popular success and reception of their work was largely determined by their genders? What is the responsibility of the curator to address and navigate this inequality? Throughout Converging Lines, the issue is alluded to but never directly addressed.

While the influence of Hesse on LeWitt has been described in previous texts, Converging Lines is the first book to explore the reverse relationship. LeWitt’s artistic career continued for decades after Hesse’s death at the age of 34, and her influence reverberates throughout his work, Roberts asserts, as he pushed his trademark geometric aesthetic into more organic arenas. Much of LeWitt’s work in the exhibit was created after 1970, the year of Hesse’s death, and the implicit comparison between her work and his later pieces is a testament to the lasting power of the fruits of her short-lived career. It is clear that Hesse felt a strong impetus to create—a drive that LeWitt compares to Mozart’s work ethic—and this intensity was largely self-imposed. Considering the historical moment that Hesse operated in, her artistic accomplishments are no small feat. As she was acutely aware, Hesse did not enjoy the same consideration as her male counterparts, a discrepancy still prevalent in the art world today. In her essay, Lippard describes Hesse’s frustration with this, and writes of the ironic fact that Hesse missed the women’s art movement of the 1970s. “To friends, Hesse chastised herself for lack of (male) confidence and self-esteem, but I believe she died knowing that her contribution was unique,” Lippard states. A close friend to both artists and the author of the first monograph on Hesse, Lippard’s reflection on the climate of the time is a personal one, which does a great deal to resist the catalogue’s idealization of both the friendship and the era.

Championing Hesse’s work in this context and identifying her significant effect on someone as formidable as LeWitt is exciting, though long overdue. Roberts organized an earlier incarnation of this exhibition in 2011 at the Craig F. Starr Gallery in New York, and many of the same pieces are featured in this exhibition. A LeWitt scholar, Roberts identifies the catalyst for this as “Wall Drawing #46,” a work LeWitt created two days after Hesse’s death and dedicated to her with the intent to “bond” their artistic practices in some ways. In this piece, LeWitt departs from his signature attachment to the straight line in favor of the “not straight” line, as he called it, crediting this inspiration to Hesse’s aesthetic. Roberts describes how LeWitt’s first real understanding of and appreciation for Hesse’s process came when he accidentally destroyed one of her pieces—“Metronomic Irregularity II”—while trying to install it in a show and watched her carefully reassemble the intricate piece in the gallery. The effort she put into the reconstruction revealed to LeWitt the power of hand-making in her practice, whereas LeWitt typically relied on fabricators to create physical manifestations of his ideas. 

LeWitt’s work largely lends itself to the traditional definition of Minimalism, in its sparse vocabulary of geometric form and structural design. Hesse opened a critical door in sculpture, considering space from a more fluid perspective. Her works tend toward suggestion, implying, rather than occupying in a solid, monumental way, an innovative concept for sculpture that would prove to change the landscape of the medium. For those familiar with the work of each, the strength of their artistic collaboration can be surprising, innovative, and representative of an ideal, open-minded creative attitude. It seems that the place where the connection between artists is strongest lies within the development of a concept and the style of mark-making. Both explore the geometric language of Minimalism through shape. Hesse’s style is typically associated with the handmade, and therefore her particular geometries are hairy and imperfect. LeWitt let the structured limitation of geometric perfection give him the freedom to explore scale, physicality, and concept. Converging Lines postulates that the wall drawings—each installation unique, as its creation is dictated by a set of loose directions to be interpreted at will—are conceptually inspired by Hesse’s lines, and its scale by her work’s relationship to the body.

Today, although Hesse is widely celebrated, much of the scholarly investigation on her art is indelibly tied to her complicated biography, which can serve to undermine the power of her work itself. There is the constant reminder of her untimely death, as well as the nagging sense of self-doubt that plagued her for most of her short life; her interest in the handmade creation of vulnerable objects is related to her own emotional experience as a German Jewish expatriate. Little is said about the connection of LeWitt’s personal history to his art; his conceptual difficulties with conventional design and Abstract Expressionism are identified as the catalyst for his early three-dimensional works, and though he also came from a European Jewish family, this fact is accepted as irrelevant and never connected to his practice. In the context of Converging Lines, which tackles the biographies of both artists, some of these elements persist, skewing the portrayal of these two art-world powerhouses. Editorial elements relating to framing and contextualization, like the inclusion of an essay by Roberts that is solely devoted to LeWitt, of which there is no counterpart for Hesse, add to this imbalance.

LeWitt’s famous five-page letter of encouragement to Hesse, willing her to ignore her own reservations about good and bad and to simply create without classification or judgment, is included in the catalogue and the exhibition as an art object. “You also must believe in your ability,” he wrote. “I think you do. So try the most outrageous things you can—shock yourself. You have at your power the ability to do anything.” Wise, sympathetic, funny, and honest, the note describes a shared experience between all artists of confusion and doubt, and demands that Hesse overcome these obstacles without second-guessing herself. However, the catalogue’s presentation of the letter walks the line between illumination and sentimentalism. LeWitt’s letter is not a didactic document in itself—it is more of an informal, supportive exchange between two good friends—but in this context, it presents a skewed dynamic where Hesse is fragile and in need of LeWitt’s affirmation and sage advice. It introduces a fissure in the even keel of the bond between the two. That Hesse frequently questioned her work and motivations is not rare among artists—self-doubt is as much a prerequisite for success as the egomaniacal imperative to create. But a single line from an earlier letter Hesse sent LeWitt—“We strike some diametrically opposed balance, reacting emotionally so differently, yet somewhere understanding”—clearly captures Hesse’s feeling of connection to LeWitt and her appreciation for his feedback without setting them apart, one self-assured and the other self-doubting. Reference to this letter is made deep within one of Roberts’s essays, and one can’t help but wonder why Hesse’s letter was not printed alongside his.

That LeWitt’s letters are considered art objects and Hesse’s are not seems to change the reciprocal nature of the concept of correspondence. Perhaps this is because he was a famously devoted letter-writer and was published throughout his career, while her prolific writing was privately maintained in journals, only made public posthumously. Some of Hesse’s writings and notes are printed in Catherine de Zegher’s 2006 book, Eva Hesse Drawing (also published by Yale University Press) and do a great deal to bring the artist’s thought process to life in the same way that LeWitt’s do. Although this discrepancy in representation is problematic, it does not detract from the fascinating and illuminating aspects of the correspondence itself. The catalogue reprints a collection of postcards LeWitt sent Hesse from around the world between 1964 and 1970 that provide a playful visual puzzle that is a physical testament to the lasting bond between the two. Seeing the cards printed side by side chronologically, one can’t help but make connections between the random assortment of imagery and themes in Hesse’s work that LeWitt picked up on. One postcard features a photograph of a mummified Egyptian bull, a hulking, ambiguous, loosely wrapped form with (what appears to be) a single glassy eye peering out, and on the back the inscription: “Dear Eva, I hope this doesn’t scare you, Sol.” That the mummy could be one of Hesse’s artworks is abundantly clear, as is its terrifying nature, embodying the duality of life and death within her sculptures in the preserved body of a dead bull.

In this exhibition’s mission statement, Roberts shares her intention to investigate Hesse and LeWitt as equally impressive artists who had a “reciprocal and profound” effect on each other. While the disparity in recognition between the two, symptomatic of the gender gap, is recognized, it is not in any way subverted, lurking instead as an unspoken dark side to the romanticized vision of the 1960s that the catalogue offers. Regardless, the book does bring to life what seems a supportive friendship and fruitful artistic dialogue between Hesse and LeWitt, who were not responsible for the inherent inequality of the time and clearly valued each other. In establishing Hesse’s influence as echoing through decades of LeWitt’s process development and experimentation with/movement away from Minimalist ideology, Converging Lines takes steps toward filling a critical void.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

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