Eva Hesse, No title, 1964. Collage, gouache, watercolor, ink and graphite on paper, 11 5/8 x 16 5/8 inches. Allen Memorial Art Museum. Gift of Helen Hesse Charash, 1983.
On ViewHauser & Wirth
September 5 – October 19, 2019
To view drawings from an artist’s archives is to engage in an intimate encounter. Expressions of labor and subconscious emotions, sketches, and workings-out; these are things an artist probably never imagined would see the light of day, and confronting them is like stumbling upon an open diary. That sensation overcame me as I studied a small, untitled drawing from 1970 by Eva Hesse, on view in Hauser & Wirth’s current exhibition, Forms Larger and Bolder: Eva Hesse Drawings from the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. Three anthropomorphic boxes stand upright on stringy legs, linked to one another by equally gangly arms. Hesse’s notations surround the little figures, and indicate that she was working out an idea for a sculpture. “Boxes, connected with rubber hose,” Hesse scrawled. “Positioning can be varied.” Her notes transform the drawing into something technical, a practical tool in her labor. However, it remains difficult to avoid reading the image as a representation: three vulnerable figures holding hands, tears spilling from their eyes. I felt as if I was uncovering a secret.
The drawing is the latest of the works on view at Hauser & Wirth, and was made shortly before Hesse’s premature death from cancer at age 34. Spanning two floors of the gallery, the exhibition proceeds in reverse-chronological order so that the viewer finds herself ambling backwards in time to more tentative beginnings. Curators Andrea Gyorody and Barry Rosen have drawn all the works from the collection of Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum, which maintains Hesse’s archive. After Hesse visited Oberlin for the first time in 1968, the Allen staged an impromptu exhibition of her drawings. It was also the first public collection to acquire one of her sculptures, Laocoon (1966), in 1970. Given their long association with the artist, this institution’s careful stewardship of Hesse’s work is unsurprising.
Eva Hesse, No title, 1965. Ink and graphite on paper, 7 1/2 x 7 1/8 inches. Allen Memorial Art Museum. Gift of Helen Hesse Charash, 1981.
The exhibition takes its title from a letter Hesse wrote in 1965 to her friend Sol LeWitt, in which she observed that a recent series of drawings were, “Crazy like machine forms larger and bolder...” The show’s unusual rearward trajectory underscores Hesse’s thought. The fluency and sensitive underpinnings of the 1970 sketch demonstrate the assuredness of an artist who has hit her stride. As one moves farther away from the drawing, which hangs at the beginning of the show among a number of late sketches depicting concepts for sculptural projects, there’s a sensation akin to flipping backwards through a photo album: maturity and experience give way to youth and a disarming innocence. This is not at all to say Hesse’s earliest work is unskilled, but rather that a questioning apprehensiveness grows in proportion to the age of the works.
Passing Hesse’s late project sketches, one soon approaches the pivotal moment of 1965, when her “larger and bolder” forms emerge. At this time, Hesse’s marriage to artist Tom Doyle was unraveling. The two had relocated from New York to Germany, where Doyle had been offered a residency. Hesse decided to return to New York on her own, and the couple would soon divorce. From then until her death just five years later, work consumed Hesse. She quietly reinvented sculpture with her use of industrial, pliable, and toxic materials like latex and resin, and her three-dimensional work is often noted for its unique ability to feel both muscular and gossamer. The thick lines and decisive shapes found in a series of 1965 ink drawings on view mirror these qualities. Though they don’t depict any recognizable objects, they are not fully abstract either—Hesse’s drawings suggest sculptural forms. The artist highlighted this physical quality by cutting them out from the paper she drew on, so that her strange shapes stand on their own, much like freestanding sculpture.
Eva Hesse, No title, 1954. Ink on paper, 11 x 8 5/8 inches. Allen Memorial Art Museum. Gift of Helen Hesse Charash, 1983.
Earlier still, a small collaged drawing from 1962 zings. Hesse glued down several rectangles of paper and then let loose, scribbling on these incongruously contained spaces with an assertive hand. That hand, we soon appreciate, seems to have been newly freed. As one finally approaches Hesse’s work of the 1950s, her lines become more contained, diaphanous. While a series of delicate nudes drawn in ink from 1955 match the 1970 drawing in pure feeling, their compositions are but a susurrus of lines alighting on the page. Coming full circle to these tentative, but manifestly corporeal, early works, Hesse’s short but meteoric trajectory is reframed. By 1970, the similarly figural qualities of that late drawing I began with will take on a deep pathos. Hesse confidently expresses a fragile emotion she was likely enduring as her health so quickly failed: tender sorrow. Three crestfallen boxes stand forever on shaky legs and clasp hands, awaiting a three-dimensional transmutation—and physical embodiment—that will never come.