Eva Hesse: “Pre-Sculpture”
Kirsten Swenson, a contributor to the new book, Eva Hesse 1965, edited by Barry Rosen, writes here on the artist’s important transitions beginning in the last five years of her short life, as Hesse changed media from drawing and painting to sculpting the works for which she is so widely known.
The sculptures made by Eva Hesse beginning in late 1965 up to the time of her death in May, 1970, are canonical works of postwar American art, yet the paintings and drawings made throughout her “pre-sculptural” career have just begun to receive sustained attention. Over the spring of 1965, Hesse transitioned from drawing and painting to sculpture by way of a series of reliefs that she created near the end of a fifteen-month German residency. The reliefs summon a complex set of issues ranging from Hesse’s personal history fleeing the Holocaust on the Kindertransport as a small child, to her ambitions as an Abstract Expressionist painter, and her meditations on femininity through a careful reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. The catalogue Eva Hesse 1965 explores these themes in depth, as did a panel at the BrooklynMuseum last month. So how did Hesse reach this point of transition? Who was she as an artist? What brought her to 1965, and the critical work that she made in Germany that year?
In 1962, Arnhard Scheidt, a German industrialist and art collector, saw an exhibition of bluestone sculptures by Hesse’s husband, Tom Doyle, whom she had married in 1960. In response he invited Doyle to live and work in his textiles factory on the RuhrRiver in the small industrial town of Kettwig not far from Düsseldorf. Hesse “was thrown in as lagniappe,” the couple’s friend Lucy Lippard noted. Hesse later described the situation as “an unusual kind of Renaissance patronage,” a remark that captures the cultural remove of these fifteen months from the New York art world of the mid 1960s. It was 1963, and both artists sensed that the New York art world was undergoing a change. It “was like halftime at the football game,” Doyle told me in an interview, with the fading of Abstract Expressionism and upsurge of Pop Art.
From the start, Hesse struggled to paint in Germany. This return was not neutral—belonging to a family of German Jews, in 1938 she had been evacuated from Hamburg on the Kindertransport at age 3, and both maternal grandparents were killed in the Holocaust. Over the summer and early fall of 1964, Hesse produced numerous works on paper that combined collage, watercolor, gouache and drawing. These compositions document her frustration with painting: many are cobbled together from discarded drawings and paintings, as if Hesse had mined a trove of rejected work for discrete successful elements that were cut out, traced, and reassembled.
In late 1964 and early 1965, she executed a series of dozens of machine drawings using black and colored inks on paper. Clean outlines describe organic forms, often sacs or tubes, or machine-derived devices comprised of interconnected parts. Some contain collage elements. The confident rendering of detail achieves an authoritative presentation, calling to mind medical diagrams of the body’s internal systems or technical drawings of mechanical systems.
Recasting the body’s reproductive and digestive systems in terms of the commodity-producing machinery of industry was a major Dadaist trope between the wars, associated with Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. Both Duchamp and Picabia famously imagined human reproductive organs as impotent, absurdist machines. Eroticized machines comprised a specific existentialist literary genre evolving from Duchamp and his friend the writer Raymond Roussel—autoerotic apparatuses fueled by desire, but for which the functioning biology of reproduction is denied. The absurdist iconography of Duchamp’s Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) includes a “bachelor apparatus” and “bride” assembled from machine/organs with specific functions (such as “sex cylinders”).
In the fall of 1964, as Hesse began her machine drawings, she and Doyle encountered dozens of Duchamp’s drawings, paintings and plans, including his 1913 plans for the “bachelor machine,” as he referred to the bottom half of the Large Glass, in an exhibition at the Bern Kunsthalle. At the invitation of director Harald Szeemann, Doyle’s sculpture was shown in conjunction with the Duchamp exhibition. Hesse would also have been aware of the Dadaist female and male-sexed dessins mécaniques from the Société Anonyme collection at Yale that featured Picabia’s Prostitution universelle. Machine systems spoof causality in human relationships in Picabia’s drawings. In fact, art historian Ellen Johnson was able to determine that Picabia’s drawing Prostitution universelle was on view at the Yale Art Gallery while Hesse was enrolled.
When Hesse made her first mechanical drawings in November of 1964, she was reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and descriptions of the new drawing series and quotes from Beauvoir run together in her journals “…if crazy forms do them outright. Strong, clear. No more haze.” Next sentence: “Simone DB writes woman is object—has been made to feel this from first experiences of awareness. She has always been made for this role. It must be a conscious determined act to change this.” A few days later, on November 22, Beauvoir came up again in Hesse’s journal’s:
Transcendence to arise above beyond into another space
immanence – inevitability
“In boldly setting out towards ends, one risks disappointments; but one also obtains unhoped for results; caution condemns to mediocrity.”
* (same as in my drawings)
What woman essentially lacks today for doing great things is forgetfulness of herself; but to forget oneself it is first of all necessary to be assured that now and for the future one has found oneself.
Beauvoir’s notions of immanence and transcendence were resonant for Hesse as concepts that could be enacted through her art. Hesse’s notes define transcendence as “forgetfulness” of oneself—the ability to focus on abstractions or “another space,” life beyond everyday self-consciousness of gender difference. The mechanical drawings, and their translation into relief sculpture, were boldly personal and incautious, conspicuously unconventional departures from the traditions of painting and sculpture. Could transcendence be symbolically enacted in drawings?
The drawings quickly lead to a series of reliefs (some even served as plans or studies) composed of string, found mechanical parts from disassembled looms in the Scheidt factory, or even pieces of Doyle’s sculptures. As you can see from this photograph, the reliefs also address gender—here, 2 in 1 cartoonishly substitutes for the artist’s breasts.
Hesse’s work was often funny—absurd was the term she used. This photograph was taken by her friend, Manfred Tischer, to be used in a brochure for her first solo show in Germany at the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle. The reliefs—and her pose here—are animated by humor mixed with ironic recognition of the complicated status of being a woman and an artist, a theme that Hesse grappled with in her private writings throughout the 1960s. They’re remarkable documents of one of the most influential artists of the second half of the twentieth century.
Kirsten Swenson is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art and Aesthetics in the Department of Cultural Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell and a contributor to Eva Hesse 1965.