Life and Work of Eva Hesse, Pioneer of Postmodern Sculpture

Photograph of Eva Hesse, ca. 1959.
Photograph of Eva Hesse, ca. 1959. Gelatin silver print from a 120 black and white negative, 60 x 60 mm.

Eva Hesse Archive, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Gift of Helen Hesse Charash, 1977.

Eva Hesse was a German-American artist known for her work as a postmodern sculptor and draughtswoman. Her work is characterized by a willingness to experiment with material and form, fashioning work from latex, string, fiber glass, and rope. Though she died at the age of thirty-four, Hesse has had a lasting impact on American art as a radical voice that pushed the New York art world into an era beyond Abstract Expressionism and stark Minimalism, the dominant art movements at the time she was working in the 1960s.

Fast Facts: Eva Hesse

  • Occupation: Artist, sculptor, draughtswoman
  • Known for: Experimenting with materials such as latex, string, fiber glass, and rope
  • Education: Pratt Institute of Design, Cooper Union, Yale University (B.A.)
  • Born: January 11, 1936 in Hamburg, Germany
  • Died: May 29, 1970 in New York, New York

Early Life

Eva Hesse was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1936 to a secular Jewish family. At the age of two, she and her older sister were put on a train to the Netherlands in order to escape the increasing threat of the Nazi party in Germany following Kristallnacht. For six months, they lived in a Catholic orphanage without their parents. As Hesse was a sickly child, she was in and out of the hospital, with not even her older sister for company.

Once reunited, the family escaped to England, where they lived for several months, before they were miraculously able to sail to the United States in 1939, on one of the last boats of refugees welcomed on American shores. Settling in New York did not spell peace for the Hesse family, however. Hesse’s father, a lawyer in Germany, trained and was able to work as an insurance broker, but her mother had trouble adjusting to life in the United States. As a manic depressive, she was frequently hospitalized and eventually left Hesse’s father for another man. Following the divorce, young Hesse never saw her mother again, and she later committed suicide in 1946, when Eva was ten years old. The chaos of her early life characterizes the trauma Hesse would endure throughout her life, with which she would wrestle in therapy for her entire adult life.

Eva’s father married a woman also named Eva, the strangeness of which was not lost on the young artist. The two women did not see eye to eye, and Hesse left for art school at the age of sixteen. She dropped out of the Pratt Institute less than a year later, fed up with its mindless traditional teaching style, where she was forced to paint uninspired still life after uninspired still life. Still a teenager, she was forced to move back home, where she got a part time job at Seventeen magazine and began taking classes at the Art Students’ League.

Hesse decided to take the entrance exam for the Cooper Union, passed, and attended the school for a year before moving on to get her BFA at Yale, where she studied under renowned painter and color theorist Josef Albers. Friends who knew Hesse at Yale remembered her to be his star student. Though she did not enjoy the program, she stayed until graduation in 1959.

Return to Germany

In 1961, Hesse married sculptor Tom Doyle. Described as equally “passionate” people, their marriage was not an easy one. Reluctantly, Hesse moved back to her native Germany with her husband in 1964, as he was awarded a fellowship there. While in Germany, Hesse's art practice matured into what would become her best known work. She began using string in her sculpture, a material which resonated with her, as it was the most practical way of translating the lines of drawing into three dimensions.

Critical Success

Upon returning to the United States in 1965, Hesse began to hit her stride as a critically successful artist. The year 1966 saw two landmark group shows in which she exhibited: “Stuffed Expressionism” at Graham Gallery, and “Eccentric Abstraction” curated by Lucy R. Lippard at Fischbach Gallery. Her work was singled out and critically praised in both shows. (1966 also saw the dissolution of her marriage to Doyle through separation.) The next year Hesse was given her first solo show at Fischbach, and was included in the Warehouse Show, “9 at Leo Castelli” along with fellow Yale alumnus Richard Serra. She was the only woman artist among the nine to be given the honor.

Artistic Milieu in New York City

Hesse worked in a milieu of similarly-minded artists in New York, many of whom she called her friends. Nearest and dearest to her, however, was sculptor Sol LeWitt, eight years her senior, who she called one of the two people “who really know and trust me.” The two artists equally exchanged influence and ideas, perhaps the most famous example of which is LeWitt’s letter to Hesse, encouraging her to quit distracting herself with insecurity and just “DO.” Months after her death, LeWitt dedicated the first of his famous wall drawings using “not straight” lines to his late friend.

Art

In her own words, the closest summation Hesse managed to come up with to describe her work was “chaos structured as non-chaos,” as in sculptures that contained within them randomness and confusion, presented within structured scaffolding.

“I want to extend my art into something that doesn’t exist,” she said, and though conceptualism was gaining popularity in the art world, critic Lucy Lippard says that Hesse was not interested in the movement as “material meant much too much to her.” The creation of “non-shapes,” as Hesse termed them, was one way to bridge the gap between her dedication to direct touch, investment in material, and abstract thinking. 

Her use of unconventional materials like latex has sometimes meant that her work is difficult to preserve. Hesse said that, just as “life doesn’t last, art doesn’t last.” Her art attempted to “dismantle the center” and destabilize the “life force” of existence, departing from the stability and predictability of minimalist sculpture. Her work was a deviation from the norm and as a result has had an indelible impact on sculpture today, which uses many of the looping and asymmetrical constructions that she pioneered. 

Legacy

Hesse developed a brain tumor at the age of thirty-three and died in May 1970 at the age of thirty-four. Though Hesse did not live to participate in it, the women’s movement of the 1970s championed her work as a female artist and ensured her lasting legacy as a pioneer in the American art world. In 1972, the Guggenheim in New York staged a posthumous retrospective of her work, and in 1976 feminist critic and essayist Lucy R. Lippard published Eva Hesse, a monograph on the artist’s work and the first full length book to be published on virtually any American artist of the 1960s. It was organized by LeWitt and Hesse’s sister, Helen Charash. Tate Modern staged a retrospective of her work from 2002-2003.

Sources

  • Blanton Museum of Art (2014). Lucy Lippard Lecture on Eva Hesse. [video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V50g8spJrp8&t=2511s. (2014).
  • Kort, C. and Sonneborn, L. (2002). A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts. New York: Facts on File, Inc. 93-95.
  • Lippard, L. (1976). Eva Hesse. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
  • Nixon, M. (2002). Eva Hesse. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.