Eva Hesse remains a strangely undecidable figure. Since her death at a premature age thirty-two years ago, critics and historians have been unanimous in their acclaim for her art but with little consensus as to what makes it important. Much of the debate rests, no doubt, on the fact of Hesse's too brief life and the broken record narration of her biography: Hers is a career endlessly reduced to art-historical boilerplate, all morbid excess and spectacular tragedy. She has been variously treated as a protofeminist reckoning with the Art World Boys Club; a childhood survivor of the Shoah; a patron saint of female pathology; a Minimalist with guts, her work appearing to spill over with viscera. Too often the work itself is seen as little more than an epiphenomenon of the life--a life caricatured in terms of victimhood and neurosis, even as Hesse was achieving critical success with her art.
Organized by guest curator Elisabeth Sussman, Hesse's retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art provides a rare--and perhaps final--occasion to confront these and other controversies surrounding her work. Indeed, to hear any admirer of Hesse tell it, the significance of the show far exceeds the usual batch of claims attached to museum retrospectives. Ten years ago, the last major Hesse exhibition was mounted at the Yale University Art Gallery, and its catalogue set an infamously morose (some would say ghoulish) tone for Hesse scholarship by stressing the most excruciating details of the artist's biography in interpreting her work: her escape from Nazi Germany as a child and the resulting temporary separation from her parents; her mother's depression and suicide; her own lifelong struggle with illness. Sussman's show begs to be seen in the context of this earlier reading as well as in light of two additional factors that directly and indirectly figure in the artist's legacy: the tenuous physical condition of Hesse's work on the one hand and recent museum politics on the other. Hesse may have exploited the notoriously fugitive properties of latex and fiberglass to produce some of the most gorgeous objects of the postwar era, but the diminishing shelf life of her art now betrays that achievement. For months there have been whispers that this was the "last chance" to see a comprehensive survey of Hesse's work before the major sculpture disintegrated. Now the situation has become that much more desperate with the cancellation of the show's only East Coast stop (the Whitney, where Sussman was previously employed and where the idea for the exhibition originated), a casualty of the post-September II economy.
All this may seem like so much art world gossip when one is confronted with the presence of Hesse's work, but it is critical to understanding the motivation behind and significance of Sussman's exhibition. The scale of the retrospective inadvertently addresses its importance: 153 objects spanning the course of some dozen galleries, resulting in the largest Hesse show ever staged. Some might complain that editing is in order--that the galleries of early paintings and works on paper are little more than a long-winded preview before one finally gets to the good stuff. Yet if we take seriously the prospect that much of this work will never be shown together again, we should welcome the opportunity to trace both the dead ends of Hesse's output as well as the extraordinary richness, weirdness, and humor of her vocabulary. It's all here: the crude, early "self-portraits" rendered in gray murk; funky, coiled assemblages produced during her stay in Kettwig, Germany, the work that effectively began Hesse's sculptural p ractice; the arid, clean-lined schemata of the machine drawings of 1965; the mid-decade breakthrough of her eccentric abstraction. Beautifully installed in the awkward galleries of SF MOMA (with its curved walls, Mario Botta's museum has always proved challenging), it is a well-paced exhibition, from intimately scaled rooms of early work to larger galleries revealing the full-blown denouement of Hesse's late sculptural achievement. …