We sat in the dusty Manhattan office of a well-known director of art documentaries, towering piles of DVDs threatening to topple over and bury us beneath decades of his work.
“Not possible,” he said, with a discouraging shake of his head. “Can’t be done. There’s no footage of her, at least not enough for a feature.”
“But you found some.” I offered.
“A few minutes. Without sound.”
With a wave of his hand he promised, if we were to take on this fool’s errand, to let us use some of his interview with Sol LeWitt, a great friend of Eva Hesse, the artist we were determined to have at the center of a documentary about her life and work.
And so began a long, sometimes frustrating but often delightful romp through archives—public and private—in search of photos, journals, letters, and the all-illusive footage that would allow us to create the feature-length documentary Eva Hesse and tell the story of this important artist and ground-breaking woman who ran with the art world “big boys” in 1960s New York.
Eva Hesse was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1936 and passed away in Manhattan in 1970 at the age of 34. Because of this timeline, virtually all the known documentation related to her brief life is analog: paper photos, 35mm negatives, some 8mm film, and a single reel-to-reel tape of her one in-depth interview. But we were hopeful that with some digging and luck, additional material would emerge. It had to if we were to succeed.
When Hesse passed she was just gaining renown and the materials of her life scattered among her friends, family, and the few institutions who early on recognized the importance of her work. The Allen Memorial Art Museum, located at Oberlin College, had the foresight to be an early collector of Hesse’s work and through the guidance of art historian Ellen Hulda Johnson and the support of Helen Hesse Charash, Eva’s sister and head of her estate, the museum acquired a trove of the artist’s drawings, journals, letters, and other ephemera. It was there, while on a research grant, pouring over the artist’s 1,200 pages of writing, that I began to hear Hesse’s voice. It was a voice that propelled me through subsequent years to haunt the shelves of numerous archives—public and private.
The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art yielded Lucy Lippard’s notes on interviews she conducted in the early 1970s for her book Eva Hesse; the Getty’s Research Institute’s collection of materials from the 1960s group Experiments in Art and Technology held never-before-seen images of Hesse at a lecture about polymers. At the Leo Baeck Institute we found the repository for Hesse’s father’s extensive journals, and at the remarkable Film-Maker’s Coop in Manhattan—in one of the highlights of this research treasure hunt—I found footage of Hesse dancing in a field, a scene from a rare copy of Bud Wirtshafter’s 1963’s What’s Happening. Brava to the public archives for investing in the preservation of and access to these irreplaceable historical gems.
And yet, as much as the public collections offered, we were still missing the private Hesse, a view of her as seen by friends and family. Perhaps we cannot technically call these archives, the boxes stored under beds and in the backs of closets, the envelopes yellowed with age that hold 50-year-old snapshots, but they proved to be an extraordinary boon to crafting a film about a woman long gone who lived before the time of 4K video in most every pocket.
Each time we met with one of Hesse’s contemporaries, the conversation would eventually turn to what they might have in their possession that would help us tell Eva’s story. Her sister Helen immediately brought out the family albums that were rich in images from her early life in Germany and Washington Heights. But it was an offhand question—posed as I was walking out the door—about whether the family had owned a movie camera that brought out a forgotten box of 8mm home movies. That’s where we found footage of Eva’s father which we cut into a scene reflecting the deep relationship between daughter and father. The same question was posed at a later date by my producing partner, Karen Shapiro, to the children of Friedrich Arnhard Scheidt, the German collector who hosted Hesse and her husband Tom Doyle in the summer of 1965. This resulted in another fortuitous find when his children unearthed a cache of 16mm film that had been lying in their family’s vault for decades. Once these finds were digitized, the amount of known footage of Hesse increased by over 25%. As you can imagine, the whole team, especially our industrious editor Azin Samari, was overjoyed.
And one of the most remarkable treasures that helped build the first act of the film were the “lost” photographic negatives of Barbara Brown, a street photographer active in NY in the 1960s who was a good friend of Hesse’s and shot numerous images of the artist at work and at play. A few of the images had been reproduced through the years, but until we found Barbara—now living in Venice, CA—the entire breadth of her work had not been seen. Her generous offer for us to look through hundreds of negatives led to the discovery of images even the family had never seen.
So, is there a lesson in this synchronicity? Call out into the universe for what you need. Don’t be discouraged if the material is not easily found. Librarians are your friends and so are folks close to your subject including those who have worked in the field (shout out to Elisabeth Sussman, Whitney curator and Hesse scholar who shared her box of material gathered in working on an unpublished biography of the artist). I will admit to being a library hound—the touch of old paper and the fragrance of dusty boxes will always thrill. In creating a documentary about times gone by, and the people who inhabited them, the internet is certainly the first place to start your search. But you may find that engaging in far-ranging conversations with sources and investing in a bit of travel to engage with the primary materials will yield unexpected and seriously marvelous finds.
Links to the film, which can be streamed from iTunes, Amazon, or Kanopy, more info about how it was created and some of the sources used in Eva Hesse found here:
Marcie Begleiter is a writer and filmmaker who wrote, directed, and produced Eva Hesse, a feature documentary about the 1960s groundbreaking artist, which was released theatrically in 2016 and was broadcast in the U.S. in 2018 as part of the 32nd season of PBS’ American Masters. She is currently writing and producing a screen adaptation of Ursula Hegi’s best-selling novel Stones from the River.