A name to conjure with, Eva Hesse. An exemplary figure, a sculptor, German-American, who died in 1970 aged 34 from a brain tumour, famous for being highly original and influential and not very widely known. She made work with new materials - latex, fibreglass - which often turned out to be very perishable too. She pursued a kind of sculpture in the 1960s that wasn't abstract and wasn't poppy and wasn't minimalist, that obviously has something to do with bodies. Hesse became a great instance of a woman artist, a model for later women artists, and her work a leading exhibit for any critic with ideas about what women's art should be. A name to conjure with: the second e is silent.
I too have never seen very much of her work, and imagined perhaps that there was the danger, with an art that was both original and influential, that the originality would disappear among all the subsequent influence. But the show at Tate Modern, London is both strong and strange. And it seems important to say - with all the interpretations that have accrued to it, and also at a time like the present when current object-art is so gabby, packed with meanings and references and stories - that this work really is sculpture, concerned with the shape, substance and behaviour of things.
There's a surprising amount and variety of it. Mature Hesse is basically five years' work, but I don't know you'd realise that without the labels. The first works that are more than interesting and exploratory are some wall pieces from 1965 - rectangular, painted in bright jolly colours and simple wonky shapes, like small paintings, but not quite paintings because they break their surfaces with a relief of papier mache and collaged bits, and sometimes throw out a limb into space, a bit of thick wire wound tightly with coloured cord, assertive, casually flailing, a bit nutty. But looked back on, these prongs - jokey, phallic - become a crucial step, pointing not only to Hesse's next move, into sculpture, but to her elusive body metaphors and equally elusive sense of gesture.
The colours fade out, into browns and greys and blacks. The conspicuous, improvisatory hand-madeness moderates, too, though Hesse's work never pretends to be other than hand-made. But its forms, rough or regular, become more austere, impersonal. These works are hard to describe in a way that gets across their look, hard to illustrate in a way that gets across their presence and their feelings. Hang Up, from 1966 - well, it's a large, empty rectangular frame, fixed to the wall, bandaged with painted cloth, and extruding out of its top left-hand corner comes a great strand of thick cloth-bound wire that dips down, touches the floor in front of it, loops up again and plugs back into the frame's bottom right- hand corner.
Or Not Yet, same year - a cluster of nine netting bags hanging on strings, nailed to the wall, filled with something heavy wrapped in polythene, like multiple testicles, or sagging breasts, or spilled guts - or a bit like. One More than One, following year - a papier mache cuboid, on a wall, with two hemispherical concavities scooped from it, and out of each comes a long limp cord that dangles down, meets the ground limply and coils around on it - anti-breasts, extended droopy willy-nipples? I don't know if you're getting any kind of picture or sensation.
And another thing that makes communicating these pieces hard, and is also a very good thing about them, is the way they verge on various overt emotional languages, without being carried away by them. They are sober, controlled, very disciplined in their handling of the possibilities they open up.
There are many things they're not quite. For example, after 1965, they're not jokey, though they have a sort of blank daftness, like Constant, another wall piece, a black artexed surface plugged all over with dangling toggles. …