In 1964, Eva Hesse returned to Europe for the first time since she was evacuated on the Kindertransport in 1938 at the age of two. At the invitation of industrialist Friedrich Arnhard Scheidt, Hesse and her husband Tom Doyle took up residency in an abandoned textile factory in Kettwig an der Ruhr. There, in a space littered with obsolete machine parts and abandoned tools, Hesse embarked on a creative period which set in train many of the key ideas which her mature sculptural process would explore and develop. Over the course of fifteen months, Hesse produced numerous drawings, paintings, painted reliefs and sculptures, and it is on this fervent, generative body of work that the Hauser and Wirth exhibition focuses.
It can be difficult to resist the pressure of biographical narrative when contemplating Hesse’s short working life, which was cut tragically short when she died of a brain tumour in 1970, at the age of 34. The knowledge that she died so young frequently inflects with melancholy the readings of work which so often seems to explore the territory between the ridiculousness of flesh – all those forlornly dangling, pendulous forms – and the absurdity of the malfunctioning mechanical. The feeling on entering the main gallery space, however, is one of irresistible vitality, exuberance and playful humor. This room focused on her painting and sculptural reliefs, and the impact of her enamel bright color is exhilarating – a panoply of bubble gum pinks, apple green and robin’s egg blue. The paintings recall strange cartoon strips populated by amoebic machines set in colored grids. In the relief panels, these forms begin to bloat and bulge from the flat surface, or to spring free into the viewer’s space, the brushstrokes now literalized as lengths of cord, carefully painted and either wound around or neatly curled and glued onto the picture surface. However, this gleeful morphing of flat shapes into bulbous protrusions and pertly sprung outcroppings remains determinedly ordered and controlled rather than chaotic.
The fantastically titled Oomamaboomba (May 1965), for example, is like strange aerial topography. A green, truncated crescent inset with a zebra striped arc of painted cord floats in a pale blue field and is held in place at the top of the canvas by three witchy-green manicured finger nails. Protruding from this like a redundant handle is a loop of wire, again fastidiously wrapped and painted with controlled gradation from indigo through madder rose, to palest pink. The shapes are alien in that they refuse to resolve as either bodily or mechanical – they are obdurately both and neither – part object, body part, machine part. However, the destabilizing uncertainty this might instill in the viewer is undercut by Hesse’s palette, which is jaunty rather than whimsical. Similarly playful is the gleeful punning of Eighter from Decatur (July 1965), the title of which takes pleasure in linking the visual conflation of rosy pink aureola and the curved yet empty blades of a windmill, the radiating cords as neat and orderly as a ploughed field seen from above.
As one moves through the gallery’s three rooms there is a distinct distillation of both idea and form. The second room is mostly hung with drawings that exhibit a progression from solid areas of color to colored lines against a neutral background.
Her ink line is supremely controlled and confident: unwavering, even in thickness, with colors blending as gradually and carefully as the wrapping of her pigment soaked cord. Strangely unfleshy, fleshy diagrams such as No Title (1965, Weatherspoon Art Museum) bring to mind botanical systems, vascular maps or neural circuit boards. Initially, these chameleon shapes are set in or against a loosely drawn grid, or, more accurately, a neat system of boxes, such as the No Title (1965) from the Museum Wiesbaden. In others, the shapes expand to fill the page as if in cropped close-up, and her fluid, assured line is fringed with villi. In others, these hair-like additions become precisely ordered, equidistant and uniform in length as if designed for an obscure but definite purpose. Although the drawings seem to reference teeth, nails, penises, chambers that could be uterine or gastric, all are drained of their viscerality. Lines delimit empty spaces, marking out clean, hollow shapes that are devoid of threat or meaty density. One is left instead with a sense of obscure but absurd purpose.
Amongst the drawings are some early examples of her sculptural work. Taking advantage of the machinery that littered her new studio space, these works recall Duchamp’s assisted readymades and are informed by a sly playfulness. Cool Zone (July 1965), for example, is one of the least ‘worked’ of these pieces, but contains within it many aspects of what would become her signature sculptural concerns. A circular metal plate with three spokes that converge at the centre like a spindle is fixed high on the gallery wall; threaded through it is a length of rope that hangs limply, its ends precisely trimmed. The sculpture marks a further literalization of the drawn line – if in the painted reliefs Hesse’s line evolved to painted cord, here the line moves completely free of the support to take melancholy, pendulous form. The extension of the line away from the page and into three dimensional space was a formal device explored more widely in the 1960s by artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark and Fred Sandback, but whereas Matta-Clark and Sandback used line to change our perception of space, Hesse’s concern here seems different – it is the quality of helpless ludicrousness that seems most pressing.
In the show’s final gallery space, an anteroom off the main gallery, are housed some small sculptural works along with an example of her later mature work in fibreglass, Sans II (October 1968), a translucent honeycomb of gently irregular hollow rectangles. However, there is also one very large work on paper, No Title (1964), almost a metre high, which seems to contain all of the ideas that she would work through in her time in Germany. The upper half of the sheet is filled with cubes, colored a pale blue or rose; some of these are filled with busy networks of intersecting forms, hatches and striations, but in a blurring liquid density of color. The bottom half of the sheet is filled with an unintelligible circuit diagram, replete with obscure numerical notations and a busy network of arrows. Such works may recall Picabia’s drawings or Dada’s malfunctioning machines, but Hesse’s drawings do not seem to allude to a broken mechanism, only one whose purpose is utterly unfathomable.
The layout of the gallery dictates the hanging of the show – an obvious point perhaps, but it also explains the exhibition’s (arguable) flaw. The viewer enters the exhibition by drawing back a heavy curtain to the largest room, in which are hung both the paintings and relief works. Depending on which direction the viewer chooses to circulate, she enters either the little anteroom containing small sculptures, as well as Sans II – or a gallery liberally hung with her drawings, most of which preceded the relief panels.(Hesse would describe the reliefs as “contraptions” that grew out of the drawings.) So there is a sense that the viewer follows Hesse’s train of thought in a rather distorted way, reinforcing the conventional – and in this case not very accurate – view of drawing as merely preparatory or subsidiary to her exuberant painted reliefs. However, witnessing the evolution or distillation of her concerns through her changing drawing style is, arguably, one of the most illuminating aspects of the exhibition. This is, admittedly, a minor quibble in reference to a truly thrilling show – one that allowed the viewer a privileged glimpse into the thought process of an artist poised on the brink of monumental aesthetic breakthrough.
Eva Hesse 1965 was on view 30 January – 9 March 2013.