An early and key figure of post-Minimalism in the United States and one of the most influential artists of the postwar era, Eva Hesse (1936 –1970) created paintings, sculptures, and drawings that are striking in their poetic beauty and singularity. Filtering the influences of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualism, and Minimalism through her own distinctive sensibility, Hesse broke disciplinary boundaries by collapsing neatly distinguished categories of figuration and abstraction. Her work has come to be affiliated primarily with “process art,” a term originated in the 1960s that implies a focus on the physical properties of materials and the manner of applying them. This exhibition features some of the artist’s finest works on paper alongside a critical selection of sculptures that reflect her investigations into translating the line into three-dimensional space.
Eva Hesse Drawing highlights the crucial role drawing played in her artistic practice, which in turn gave way to an array of highly innovative techniques and styles that today still defy classification. As she commented in 1970: “I had a great deal of difficulty with painting but never with drawing… . The translation or transference to a large scale and in painting was always tedious… . So I started working in relief and with line—using the cords and ropes that are now so commonly used.” Hesse’s custom of introducing sculptural materials into drawing and painting continues to influence the multidisciplinary work so prevalent in contemporary art practice.
Hesse was born in Hamburg in 1936. Three years later, her family fled Nazi-occupied Germany and moved to New York. She earned her BFA in 1959 from Yale University, where she studied painting and drawing with Josef Albers and Rico Lebrun. In 1961 in New York, she participated in her first exhibition, Drawings: Three Young Americans, and formed friendships with peers in the art world such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Robert Smithson, Ruth Vollmer, and Robert Ryman. During her brief career, she produced a copious number of works on paper while experimenting with a seemingly inexhaustible range of media. The installation opens with collages, ink washes, and gouaches from 1960 to 1964 that range from biomorphic and geometric abstraction to a mix of organic and inorganic forms.
In June 1964, Hesse traveled to Germany for the first time since her childhood and for the next year, far removed from the New York art scene, she worked in isolation in an old textile factory near Essen, where she freely experimented with alternative ways of creating art. She produced a series of drawings in which she delineated contours of interconnected tubes and planes with a controlled and expressive line that was both gestural and mechanical. This new engagement with line in two and three dimensions signaled a period of growing confidence and independence for the artist.
Her creative leap complicated her relationship to Minimalism, however, and after she returned to New York in September 1965, her work challenged the prevailing artistic style of geometric regularity and rigidity. She explored ideas such as transience, chance, and difference in her “grid” as well as in her “circle” drawings, which she made with a compass and graded in shades of white, black, and gray. In sculptures such as Ingeminate, Hesse repeated the circular motion using cord, materializing the line to evoke the body but also to explore the physical qualities of the medium.
The exhibition also includes the artist’s “test pieces” (1967–1969): three-dimensional sketches in which she experimented with media such as latex, rubber, plaster, cheesecloth, aluminum screening, and unfired clay. These works, exhibited alongside numerous sketches and working notes, offer a unique behind-the-scenes look into the beginnings of some of her most well-known sculptures. The show closes with a series of “window” drawings, begun in 1968, which borrow a technique important in her latex and polyester-resin sculptures: the repeated application of subtle layers of translucent color. The semitransparent washes emphasize the subject’s ephemerality and reveal Hesse’s faith in chaotic process: “Its order could be called chaos. Chaos can be structured as non-chaos.”