Eva Hesse

When Clement Greenberg expressed the opinion that “the significant painting of the present was almost by definition abstract (and by this he meant completely non-referential)”, any working artist who spends a good part of her time in art galleries and museums, and who has friends who are serious about their art, and who with her friends they make it a part of their job to know everything that is happening in the art world; when she hears something like that, even from an art god like Greenberg, of course she’s not going to listen.

When Clement Greenberg expressed the opinion that “the significant painting of the present was almost by definition abstract (and by this he meant completely non-referential)”, any working artist who spends a good part of her time in art galleries and museums, and who has friends who are serious about their art, and who with her friends they make it a part of their job to know everything that is happening in the art world; when she hears something like that, even from an art god like Greenberg, of course she’s not going to listen.

Eva Hesse, was abreast of everything happening in the world of art in the 1960’s. She hung out in museums and galleries and she made art all the time.  Nothing came so easy as her art.  That’s not to say she didn’t have her moments of doubt.  Her life often shaded into her art.  When she moved to Germany, with her husband Tom Doyle in the mid-sixties, she felt anxious because of the stories she grew up with, and her own early memories, of having to flee from there when she was a small child.  She had doubts about the direction of her art too.  But she kept on working, and she worked through her uncertainties.

Eva loved to paint!  You could tell just by looking at her paintings prior to 1960.  But she couldn’t be satisfied painting like Kandinsky or any abstract painter from the past.  She was a part of a community of artists and she wanted to push our current ideas of what painting is, of what the visual arts can be.  She wanted to experiment and develop new processes and ways of making art.  She didn’t care if the result wasn’t pretty.  The process of making art was becoming more important than the end product.

When I first started reading about Eva I thought I might find some influence from Duchamp.  After all, they both made things with string, and she referred to some of her pieces as readymades.

 But that was as far as it went.  Duchamp’s art was more cerebral, and Eva’s much more personal.

The one who seemed most like Eva’s kindred spirit was Jasper Johns. They both persistently experimented with different processes and materials.  Johns did things like mixing wax into his paints so they would dry faster; Eva moved from cloth covered wire to vacuum cleaner hoses to fiberglass and latex.  They both wanted the final product to be unaffected by their personal tastes.  They wanted the process, procedures and materials to dictate the end result.  Johns put it like this, he wanted “to be removed from the work, neutral, involved in the making of it, not the judging”.

While in Germany Eva experimented with 3D paintings, constructed with wire covered with cloth on a papier-mache background. Her work sometimes felt, not only absurd, but extreme, and that made her like it and not like it.   Eva’s life sometimes felt extreme.  Being a child and having to flee from your home because you’re Jewish, and then your mother committing suicide, these were extreme things that happened.

Soon after she returned from Germany, Eva began to experiment with plastics, in particular fiberglass and latex.  Eva loved to play with her materials!  She soaked her ropes in latex, and let gravity work on the substance as it dried.  She painted latex on giant sheets of cheese cloth.  The thing about latex is, it doesn’t last forever.  With time these works will disintegrate.  That’s not good for someone who buys one of them.  But on the other hand, Eva thought, this made them seem more real.

In the 1967 movie The Graduate a friend of Ben (Dustin Hoffman)’s father pulls him aside and tells him, “One word.  Plastics”.  That same year Eva Hesse began experimenting with fiberglass.  Most people making money from plastics never see how it’s made.  And most people who make plastics, never played with it the way Eva Hesse did.  In the documentary film about her life they mention the possibility that she may have developed the brain tumor that killed her from her exposure to the chemicals she used to make her art.  But they don’t know that for sure.

What I love about Eva is her faith and her confidence.  When I first approached her art I didn’t know what to make of it.  But that faith, along with the skill and work she put into making it, make the absurdity of the images, their repetition and their extreme nature seem important.  Who plays with industrial materials like that?  They’re such a big part of our lives, someone should.  Eva Hesse experimented and played.  She was a great artist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *