Eva Hesse

From ActiveArchives
Jump to: navigation, search




Eva Hesse was born in Germany in 1936. She and her sister escaped Nazi persecution by fleeing on a children's train and were later reunited with their parents and moved to New York. She studied painting and drawing at Cooper Union and Yale University. In 1964, she and her husband the sculptor Tom Doyle, were invited to make art in a German factory by the textile manufacturer and collector F. Arnhard Scheidt.

While she and Doyle shared a floor of the factory, Hesse began creating her first sculptures. She began by making reliefs, inspired by the qualities of string and plaster. From reliefs she moved to objects, using papier mache, paint, tubing, dyed nets and dangling string. After creating these sculptures, she made a greater use of repetition and began to incorporate metal into her work.

In 1967, Hesse discovered latex (a material she knew would eventually deteriorate), fiberglass and polyester resin. Hesse loved the irregular shapes, surfaces and translucency that these materials produced. Hesse often created elaborate, handmade pieces involving obsessive repetition. However, she was not interested in certain technical aspects of sculpture. For many of her later pieces made of metal and fiberglass, she left the fabrication to outside companies. During the late 1960s, it was popular to remove the appearance of the artist's hand from the work. For Hesse, she did so more for practical reasons than intellectual ones. During this period, when she was creating some of her most well known pieces, she developed brain tumors and continued to work until she became too ill. She then directed assistants to create and install her work. Hesse died in 1970 at the age of thirty four.

Hesse created minimal sculptures that retain a relationship to the organic through shape and texture. The example here, Repetition Nineteen III from 1968, is made of fiberglass and polyester resin. The group of container shapes in Repetition Nineteen III stand attentively, both absurd and appealing. This piece shows the "non" aesthetic that Hesse wished to achieve with its thin-skinned translucence and emptiness. Hesse felt that this piece was too beautiful and responded with the another, "uglier" piece, Area, also from 1968.


Eva Hesse (January 11, 1936 – May 29, 1970), was a German-born American sculptor, known for her pioneering work in materials such as latex, fiberglass, and plastics.


Early life

Hesse was born into a family of observant Jews in Hamburg, Germany.[1] When Hesse was two years old, her parents, hoping to flee from Nazi Germany, sent Eva and her older sister to the Netherlands. After a few months of separation, the reunited family moved to England and then, in 1939, emigrated to New York City,[2] where they settled into Manhattan's Washington Heights.[3]


After graduating from New York's School of Industrial Art in 1952,[4] Hesse studied at New York's Pratt Institute (1952–1953) and Cooper Union (1954–1957), then at the Yale School of Art and Architecture (1957–1959), where she studied under Josef Albers and received a B.F.A.[5] Upon returning to New York she made friends with many young artists. In 1961, she met and married sculptor Tom Doyle. In August 1962 Eva Hesse and Tom Doyle participated in an Allan Kaprow Happening at the Art Students League of New York in Woodstock, New York. There Hesse made her first three dimensional piece: a costume for the Happening.[6] In 1963 Eva Hesse had a one-person show of works on paper at the Allan Stone Gallery on New York's Upper East Side.[7]

The couple—whose marriage was coming apart—lived and worked in an abandoned textile mill in the Ruhr region of Germany for about a year during 1964–1965. Hesse was not happy to be back in Germany, but began sculpting with materials that had been left behind in the abandoned factory: first relief sculptures made of cloth-covered cord, electrical wire, and masonite, with playful titles like Eighter from Decatur and Oomamaboomba. Returning to New York City in 1965 she began working in the materials that would become characteristic of her work: latex, fiberglass, and plastics.[8] Eva Hesse had also an interest in drawing as evinced by her numerous workbooks.

She was associated with the mid-1960s postminimal anti-form trend in sculpture, participating in New York exhibits such as "Eccentric Abstraction" and "Abstract Inflationism and Stuffed Expressionism" (both 1966).[3] In September 1968 Eva Hesse began teaching at the School of Visual Arts.[9] Her only one-person show of sculpture in her lifetime was "Chain Polymers" at the Fischbach Gallery on W. 57th Street in New York in November 1968;[10] her large piece Expanded Expansion showed at the Whitney Museum in the 1969 exhibit "Anti-Illusion: Process/Materials".[10] There have been dozens of major posthumous exhibitions in the United States and Europe, including at The Guggenheim Museum (1972,[11] the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2002),[5] The Drawing Center in New York (2006) and the Jewish Museum of New York (2006).[10]

Except for fiberglass, most of her favored materials age badly, so much of her work presents conservators with an enormous challenge. Arthur Danto, writing of the Jewish Museum's 2006 retrospective, refers to "the discolorations, the slackness in the membrane-like latex, the palpable aging of the material… Yet somehow the work does not feel tragic. Instead it is full of life, of eros, even of comedy… Each piece in the show vibrates with originality and mischief."[12]

In 1969 she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her death in 1970 ended a career spanning only ten years.


Her art is often viewed in light of all the painful struggles of her life including escaping the Nazis, her parents' divorce, the suicide of her mother when she was ten, her failed marriage and the death of her father. Danto describes her as "cop[ing] with emotional chaos by reinventing sculpture through aesthetic insubordination, playing with worthless material amid the industrial ruins of a defeated nation that, only two decades earlier, would have murdered her without a second thought."[8] She also always felt she was fighting for recognition in a male dominated art world.

Hesse is one of a few artists who led the move from Minimalism to Postminimalism. Danto distinguishes it from minimalism by its "mirth and jokiness" and "unmistakable whiff of eroticism", its "nonmechanical repetition".[8] She was influenced by, and in turn influenced, many famous artists of the 1960s through today. Eva Hesse was for many artists and friends who knew her so charismatic that her memory remains simply unforgettable to this day.


  1. SFMOMA exhibit notes, 2002 for Hamburg; Danto 2006, p.32 for family being observant Jews.
  2. Lippard 1992, p. 6 and in the Chronology: THE ARTIST'S LIFE, p. 218.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Danto 2006, p.32.
  4. Lippard 1992, p.218
  5. 5.0 5.1 SFMOMA exhibit notes, 2002.
  6. Lippard 1992, p. 21, 218.
  7. Lippard 1992, p. 219
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Danto, 2006, p.33.
  9. Lippard 1992, p.220
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Danto, 2006, p.30.
  11. Lippard 1992, p. 5, 128–129, 138, 180, 182.
  12. Danto, 2006, p.30–31.
Personal tools