Eva Hesse: A Woman Ahead of Her Time (by Karen S. Musgrave)

Eva Hesse (1936-1970) had an impressive, although short career due to a brain tumor. Her work reflects her traumatic life. Born in Nazi Germany, at the age of 2 she was sent to the Netherlands with her older sister for safekeeping. In 1939, she was reunited with her parents for emigration to the United States. Her uncle and grandparents died in concentration camps. All before the age of 10, Hesse would experience her mother’s  mental breakdown, her parents’ separation and divorce, her father’s remarrying and her mother’s suicide.  At 16 years old, she graduated from the New York School of Industrial Arts. For a year, she studied at the Pratt Institute of Design. She studied figure drawing at the Art Student’s League while she worked for Seventeen magazine as a layout artist. She graduated from Cooper Union in 1957 and earned a BA at Yale University in 1959. At Yale, she studied color theory with Joseph Albers. During this period most of her work was paintings while being heavily influenced by the Abstract Expressionist movement.

Her work was highly personal due to the help of intense self-analysis. She began psychiatric therapy in 1954 and maintained it throughout her life. “I think art is a total thing. A total person giving a contribution. It is an essence, a soul…In my inner soul, art and life are inseparable.”

Hesse was also intrigued by the Dada notion of the absurd and this will later be seen in her sculptures. In 1965, after a lengthy stay studying abroad with her sculptor husband Tom Doyle (they would separate in 1966) in Germany, she began to explore three-dimensional forms, first in relief and then in sculpture. Hang Up, created in 1966, touches upon her desire to move away from drawing and painting and has been called “an ironic commentary on painting.” She considered this to be her first significant work of art. Repetition of forms, including grids and chaotic hanging, stacked, and spilling forms would be the focus for the remainder of her life.  In my readings, I learned that after separating from her husband, she would connect with other artists and for the first time truly consider herself to be an artist.

In 1982, an exhibition of just her drawings, Eva Hesse: A Retrospective of the Drawings, began at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlain, Ohio, and traveled to museums around the Untied States.  Hesse had a two day artist residency with the museum. Because of her liking for the museum, a major portion of her estate: sketches, notebooks, diaries, appointment calendars, correspondence, posters, and exhibition catalogues were donated by her sister in 1977. The museum would also acquire one of the last sculptures she created- Laocoön. Laocoön refers to the well-known Hellenistic sculpture of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons, their bodies trapped in the grip of pythons sent by the gods. It is also an example of her love of grids and showcases her use of unconventional materials.

In 1967, Hesse began to use unconventional materials like latex, fiberglass and plastics. She blurred the boundaries between sculpture and painting by combining painted materials with three-dimensional objects, which she hung from the ceiling. Hesse was always aware of the ironic interplay between two-dimensional and three-dimensional form. Contingent, which she made in 1969, is an example and one of my personal favorites. The piece is made of stretched cheesecloth covered with latex, and fiberglass. It was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, in 1973 and is part of their permanent collection.

Hesse died before the feminist movement of the 1970s and yet, she insisted that feminine themes were valid subjects for art. Her work emphasized the intuitive and self-reflective. We know from her diaries that she wanted her art to reflect her life. Conceptual artist Mel Bochner called Hesse a forerunner of feminism, nothing that the first big women’s march took place in August 1970, four months after her death. She took minimalism’s rigid logic to concepts of the self and its boundaries and created art in her own image.

Hesse continued to work until her death from brain cancer (ascribed to her use of fiberglass resins) in May 1970 at the age of 34.  Hesse called her cancer an autobiographical coincidence; hers occurred two years after her stepmother recovered from cancer. Untitled, completely shortly before her death, suggested a new direction in her work. Here knotted ropes were suspended from the ceiling. Rejecting the idea of a singular style, Hesse made her own definition: “… how to achieve by not achieving? How to make by not making? it’s all in that./it’s not new. it’s what is not yet known, thought seen touched—but really what is not, and that is.”

“I want to be surprised, to find something new. I don’t want to know the answer before but want an answer that can surprise.”

In revisiting the life and art of Eva Hesse, I have been asking myself the following questions:

1. How important is it that art reflect life?

2. How important is community (being around other artists) to creating art?

3. There is so much talk of having a singular style and yet Hesse rejected this notion and made her own definition of style. How important is style? What is your definition of style?

*Note: Because of the copyright, I have chosen to link to images. I hope this did not cause you not to read or visit the sites with the images and more information. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

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6 Responses to “Eva Hesse: A Woman Ahead of Her Time (by Karen S. Musgrave)”


  1. 1 olganorris October 28, 2013 at 2:53 am

    Eva Hesse’s work fascinates me because it is so enigmatic, and to me is almost other-worldly – not of my world. It certainly stays in the mind, and pops up to ask questions, very often when I wasn’t conscious of thinking about it.
    I believe that art does reflect the life of the artist, and the better the art the more this is true. I am now seeking out the artist’s own comments on their work and their ways of working as a truer view of their art than of commentators.

    The importance of a community of artists is probably dependent on the character of the artist. Aspects of fabrication or technique can be facilitated through discussion, as can philosophy, and approaches to solving problems can be sparked by talking with other artists and seeing their work. That very often seems to have been the case. But looking at others’ work can have the same effect – such as with art of previous generations.

    By style do you mean voice? An artist can have different styles but still sing with the same voice. Hesse certainly has her own distinctive voice. We can look at the work she produced and say that it is hers, or by someone copying her. I suspect that her voice is too distinctive for anyone to consider emulating her.
    I believe that the best artists do have a clearly distinctive voice because they have processed their input from the world along with their thoughts and feelings about that input, and then having discovered what they want to sing about and how, they compose their own tune.

    • 2 karenmusgrave2013 October 28, 2013 at 7:18 am

      I discovered Eva Hesse about 4 years after she died. Revisiting her nearly 40 years later, I am even more intrigued and could not agree with you more.

    • 3 Sheila Barnes October 28, 2013 at 4:04 pm

      A good distinction, Olga, between style & voice. With all the hubbub about creating original work, the two may start being used interchangeably yet as you point out, they are not the same. Then there’s also the emphasis to stick with one medium which can also be misinterpreted as style or voice. Journey on, I say, unless you are strictly interested in creating a market. Even then you may be leaving your best work behind worrying about style. Or as you so poetically put it, discover what you want to sing about & how…

      • 4 olganorris November 1, 2013 at 8:13 am

        It’s interesting what you say, Sheila, about sticking with one medium. I think that good artists will make whatever work they need to make in whatever medium, and it will be in their own voice. I have recently been to an exhibition that shows both drawings and sculptures of Henry Moore, and both are powerful.

  2. 5 Dena Dale Crain October 28, 2013 at 12:32 am

    Very nice write-up; thanks for the information!

    Two thoughts occurred to me as I read this. One is the connection between artistic talent (gift or curse?) and pain. Emotional or physical, pain seems to accompany much of the world’s great art. This has been well-documented and almost makes us want to suffer more so our work will be better. (Sick!)

    The other thought I had was about how many women artists must wait until later in life before granting themselves permission to BE artists. I was fifty before I could acknowledge that truth for myself, and I soon discovered that if I claimed being an artist, everyone else would accept that about me. What an ongoing tragedy that younger women find it so difficult to recognize and appreciate their passion for art and connect it to themselves at a much earlier age!

    In reply to your questions, though, I believe that all art reflects life, whether we will it to or not, because we are all caught in our own space/time and the making of art is merely our response to that world in which we exist.

    The importance of community has two faces: some artists need the intellectual stimulation and perhaps even the competition of close community, whereas others do better working in isolation. For me, it was rather the combination of maturity and isolation (working without comparing my results to anyone else’s) that allowed me to step outside my preconceptions of what it meant to be an artist.

    Style, I used to think, was something we could put on or take off at will, a bit like an overcoat. We could work in the style of one famous artist today and another tomorrow. I have since learned that style is innate; we are born with it. The task of an artist is to walk the path of discovery and development. This is the process known as “finding one’s voice.”

    Here’s a tip, though: It’s that process, not the end result, that makes the path worth walking . . .


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