“Eva Hesse; Spectres 1960” at The Brooklyn Museum

Eva Hesse: No TitleEva Hesse, No Title (1960), oil on canvas, 49-1/4″ x 49-1/4″; courtesy The Brooklyn Museum and the Ursula Hauser Collection, Switzerland

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In the catalogue accompanying Eva Hesse Spectres 1960, which is currently on view at The Brooklyn Museum, Louise S. Milne, Lecturer at the Edinburgh College of Art, wonders about the merits of the early paintings by Eva Hesse (1936–70). Milne does so obliquely, but the question is pointed all the same: “If we did not have Hesse’s later achievements in sculpture with which to compare them, what would we make of these works?” Hesse’s pictures, all painted during 1960 and centered on the female form, have rarely been exhibited and are relatively unknown. Of the fifty or so extant pieces, nineteen of them are on display in the Elizabeth E. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Hesse devotees are likely to consider Spectres 1960 an event.

And Hesse devotees are an impassioned bunch, a passion bred as much by the artist’s biography as by the art. The daughter of German Jews, Hesse and her sister Helen were placed on the Kindertransport and sent to Holland after the events of Kristallnacht. The Hesse family reunited in London early in 1939 and immigrated to New York City a few months later. Hesse’s parents separated in 1944; her mother committed suicide two years later. After attending Pratt Institute and Cooper Union, Hesse settled in at Yale, studying art with Josef Albers and Rico Le-Brun. “The hell with them all” wrote Hesse in response to the bruising critiques offered by the two opposing polemicists. “You must come to terms with your own work not with any other being.”

After graduating, Hesse moved to New York City, establishing herself in the outré precincts of the art scene (she participated in an early “Happening” staged by Allen Kaprow), and took up sculpture. Many of Hesse’s initial sculptural forays explicitly referenced painting or at least began as wallworks whose materiality increasingly took on a three-dimensional cast. Hesse subsequently gained renown for her innovative use of industrial materials, fiberglass predominant among them, and her melding of Minimalist rigor with a sickly strain of Surrealism. Flesh and its failings became her leitmotif—and her legacy. Hesse died of brain cancer in 1970 at the age of thirty-four. Mortality pervades the work in ways she couldn’t have foreseen.

So does romance: few things guarantee cultural mythopoeia as thoroughly as early and tragic death. And few things are more likely to cloud a sober appraisal of an artist’s achievement. Vincent van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Francesca Woodman, and Hesse: each has become a titanic figure for reasons independent of art. That Hesse came of age during the advent of Feminism increased her “groundbreaking” stature and allure. Writing about the Spectre paintings, E. Luanne McKinnon, Director of the University of New Mexico Art Museum, frets over the “retardataire” nature of Hesse’s figurative work, but ultimately forgives it as a “rupture . . . not [as] a formal solution but rather as a psychological denouement.” The paintings, then, are more important as signposts of personality than as fully formed works of art.

It is a damning, because accurate, appraisal of Hesse’s Spectre pictures. (The exhibition’s organizers coined the series; Hesse left the paintings untitled.) Their dour and scrabbled images, with frazzled surfaces and muddied palettes, wouldn’t merit attention or huzzahs if they weren’t by a Famous Artist. Hesse’s pictures of women, isolated both in amorphous fields of color and from each other, are marked less by the verities of Abstract Expressionism than by frustration. Is it relying too much on hindsight to divine a frustrated sculptor within these impatient rehashes of de Kooning and Dubuffet? Whatever you think of Hesse’s mature work, the sculptures are informed by material concentration and aesthetic purpose. The Spectre paintings? Hesse couldn’t get them over with quickly enough.

It’s telling that the best pictures are barely touched by the artist’s hand. One canvas is bookended by traceries of dirtied turpentine and delineated with a swift, lilting line. A picture of a “spectral bride” is relatively light in approach and benefits from the symbolic specificity of its imagery. Otherwise, these are the efforts of a twenty-four-year-old artist with neither the gift nor the inclination to bring oils to life. Burdened by their means, the Spectres are a chore to look at. If you buy into the belief that they embody “profound meditations on doubleness”, you’ll glean something worthwhile from them. But viewers who take pleasure in aesthetic fact are likely to consider Spectres 1960 a joyless curiosity and not much else.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 2011 edition of The New Criterion.

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