NEW HAVEN, Conn. — It's remarkable that there has never before been a retrospective of the sculpture of Eva Hesse. Her untimely death in 1970 robbed us of an unusually gifted artist whose star was rapidly ascending, and since then her reputation has broadened in scope and deepened in resonance. Hesse is today commonly--and correctly--regarded as among the most significant sculptors of the late 1960s.
Nonetheless, the retrospective exhibition of 11 early paintings, 67 drawings and 35 sculptures and reliefs now at the Yale University Art Gallery is the first thorough examination of Hesse's work ever mounted. Beautifully organized by Helen A. Cooper, curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Yale gallery, and with an indispensable catalogue featuring excellent contributions from a variety of scholars, together with extensive excerpts from the artist's voluminous and illuminating diaries, the show is a knockout.
Hesse's career was brief. She was barely 34 when she lapsed into a coma and died, after a yearlong battle with a brain tumor, and her mature work dates from just the last four years of her grossly truncated life. Born in Hamburg, Germany, two years after voters gave Hitler the presidency, she and her Orthodox Jewish family fled the Nazi persecution and emigrated to New York when Eva was 3. Deciding to become an artist while still in high school, she studied at several local art schools and, finally, at the Yale School of Art and Architecture.
Throughout her education, it was painting, not sculpture, that Hesse pursued. This is crucial to remember, for one revelation of the retrospective is just how important painting is to an understanding of Hesse's extraordinary sculpture.
The pivot is a wall relief called "Hang-Up," which dates from January, 1966. A wood rectangle 6 feet high and 7 feet wide, its configuration is plainly reminiscent of a painting's stretcher bars. The bars have been wrapped with strips of cloth painted gray, in tones that gradually slide from off-white at the upper left corner to dark, smoky gray at the lower right. These opposing corners are further linked in a most unusual way: A thin, steel tube, tightly wrapped with gray-painted cord, loops wildly out from the frame a good six feet or more into the room.
Constructed from all the necessary parts, "Hang-Up" looks like a wounded, carefully bandaged painting that has been put on life-support. Hesse plainly sensed that painting, to which she had committed her first half-dozen years as an artist, was a suffering invalid. In the mid-1960s, the tide of Minimalist sculpture was newly cresting, while Pop art was simultaneously challenging the uniqueness of the traditional canvas by exalting camera images mass-produced for commercial culture. Abstract Expressionist painting had faltered. So, she gave the patient a bracing jolt.
Artists have long made paintings depicting sculptures, but sculptures of paintings are considerably rarer in the history of art. And what an odd contraption "Hang-Up" is! The traditionally fictive space between a painting's stretcher bars is transformed into real space, while a makeshift snare is sent out to entrap the world--including hapless passing viewers--into its enclosing precinct.
Again and again in Hesse's work of the next four years, terms aligned with painting are applied to sculpture. The 50 fiberglass and resin tubes of "Accretion" (1968) stand on the floor and lean against the wall, betwixt and between the discreet realms in which sculptures and paintings are usually found, their shapes recalling bolts of unstretched canvas casually lined up. Yards of cheesecloth are soaked in latex and draped over a dowel in "Contingent" (1969). In "Right After" (1969) and "Untitled" (1970), tangled webs of cord and wire coated with resin and latex are suspended by hooks from the ceiling, as if the dancing skeins of paint in a Jackson Pollock had been strung up by their ankles.
Hesse's sculpture acknowledges the fundamentals of gravity and mass, but unconventionally. Although sculpture traditionally tries to overcome its earthly bonds by climbing skyward, Hesse's articulates gravity by succumbing to it. More often than not her sculptures hang suspended--like paintings do.
In the show, "Hang-Up" announces a distinct dividing line between Hesse's mature sculpture and the increasingly eccentric but immature painting that came before. Between 1960 and 1966, the rapid evolution of four particular phases can be identified in Hesse's art.
The first consists of loose, brushy paintings, usually in dun-colored paints layered over more luminous under-painting, in which figures often merge with their surrounding space. The second is the arrival of abstract, mechanomorphic forms--a Surrealist fusion of machine-like and organic shapes, cavorting in an indeterminate space--typically rendered in lively colors. (Surprisingly, these somewhat recall the contemporaneous paintings of John Altoon.)