Eva Hesse, Repetition Nineteen III (1968), latex and filler over canvas stuffed with polyethylene sheeting, rope and unidentified materials; courtesy The Jewish Museum
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It’s unfair to judge an artist, an ethos and a decade by an exhibition the scale of Eva Hesse: Sculpture, on display at the Jewish Museum. There have to be better ways to eulogize a “great American artist,” Minimalism and the 1960’s than an abruptly circumscribed overview of signature sculptures or pieces representative of important stylistic shifts.
Hesse is a hugely influential figure. Her investigations of industrial materials, repetitive forms and bodily dysfunction imbued the blunt severity of Minimalism with Surrealist-inspired psychological tension. They’re seen as forming a bridge between an impersonal machine-tooled art and something intimate and diaristic. Hesse’s early death—of a brain tumor in 1970, at the age of 34—imparts the awful force of prophecy to her fleshy skeins of rope and membranous “accretions” of fiberglass and polyester resin.
Yearning is her leitmotif: The sculptures strain under the dictates of anonymity and order. Imperfections resulting from material processes endow Hesse’s vessels and “skins” of latex with a wobbly fragility. The work’s plaintive character—its bathos, really—is genuine. So, too, is Hesse’s dogged search for art that “accedes to its non-logical self.” But mostly the sculptures are pretentious and inert.
In an interview, artist Mel Bochner stated that “there was something ‘haunted’ about [Hesse’s] work. Maybe it’s haunted by all those lost ‘contexts’ of the 1960s.” He’s right: The air of morbidity hanging over Eva Hesse: Sculpture is unrelated to her tragic death. Minimalism is the grim reaper here, and the 1960’s its partner in crime.
Minimalism’s disavowal of metaphor, of art’s ability to take on an independent life through illusion, has left a catastrophic mark on several generations of artists.
Hesse was fascinated by the brutal permanence of Minimalist art, but attempted to wriggle out from under its intractable weight. She failed. The chinks Hesse put into Minimalism’s façade—by allowing chance incident, say, to augment a work’s final shape—only underscore its deadening authority. The curse of “anti-form” (now there’s a quaint bit of 60’s cant) is that it squelches artistic potential. Nihilism is bad enough; coupled with know-nothing portentousness, it’s insufferable.
In tweaking the tenets of Minimalism, Hesse mistook molehills for mountains; her work feels overblown. Sculpture that thrives upon the vitality of form either held no interest for her or was beyond her talents. A healthy engagement with the transformative possibilities of material and metaphor can redeem almost anything. There’s nothing redemptive about Eva Hesse: Sculpture. It commemorates an artist, an ethos and a time whose import are vastly overrated.
© 2006 Mario Naves
Originally published in the June 4, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.