Eva Hesse: The Jewish Museum/the Drawing Center

Article excerpt

Eva Hesse has (quite rightfully) long been established as one of the most significant artists of her generation, and aside from calling attention to, say, less canonical works or emphasizing previously unplumbed historical correspondences, most recent reviews have taken her "excellence" as a given, often focusing not on Hesse's oeuvre itself but on the methodologies used by curators and catalogue writers who take the artist's short, tragic (and thus mythic) career as their subject.

In this respect, "Eva Hesse" has become as much a signifier as a proper name, sparking ongoing debates around the (in)compatibility of formalism and biography; whether Hesse's guarded interests in issues of gender can be called protofeminist; and whether hers are sculptures that refer to painting, paintings that refer to sculpture, or a third variant altogether (Anne Wagner has called Hesse's "an art caught up in a negotional task"). These continue to be vital questions, but attempts to answer them tend to coalesce around stubborn binaries, rarely illuminating the stuff that is Hesse's beautiful, weird work.

A recent pair of exhibitions mounted simultaneously at the Jewish Museum and the Drawing Center provided in abundance what often goes missing in Hesse discourse: the work itself, from early barely-recognizable-as-Hesse to late couldn't-be-anyone-but. The Jewish Museum offered the first major New York museum showing of the artist's sculpture since 1972, while the Drawing Center mounted the only Hesse show in twenty years to focus on drawing. Elisabeth Sussman--cocurator of Hesse's 2002 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art retrospective--cocurated both shows, working alongside Fred Wasserman on the former and Catherine de Zegher on the latter. Sussman, well aware of the binaries applied to Hesse, had been characterized by Pamela M. Lee as mounting in the 2002 show a "medium is all" exhibition that downplayed the artist's oft-rehearsed traumatic history (a life story beginning with a childhood flight from Nazi Germany and culminating in death at thirty-four from a brain tumor). …