Marcel Duchamp marked a historical rupture when he spoke of wanting to make works that are not "of art"; on the other hand, artists have always produced (or can I say "by-produced"?) art that does not quite amount to works. Painters used to call such things sketches, and rigorously distinguished them from finished works. For example, the ravishing plein air oil sketches that Corot produced in Italy in the 1830s, now so highly valued in part because they seem to point the way to Impressionism and beyond, would never have been exhibited or openly sold in the artist's lifetime, even if they circulated extensively among artists. They were exercises intended, as scholar Jeremy Strick says, to "capture the experience of a specific and contingent moment rather than the precise details of a determined form," but they were also part of a practice premised on the overriding importance of finished works.
In part because Eva Hesse's career was so painfully short and her mature canon so small, there has always been a lively interest in those manifestations of the tentative, the exploratory, and the unfinished in her work that I would call three-dimensional sketches but which art historian Briony Fer prefers to call "Studiowork." The current traveling exhibition, which originated at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh last year (and of which Fer is cocurator, along with Barry Rosen, director of the Estate of Eva Hesse), is, however, the first to focus on this aspect of her production. (The show will travel to the Fundacio Antoni Tapies, Barcelona; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.) Fer's accompanying book is a signal contribution to the burgeoning literature on the artist--perhaps the most important single contribution since Lucy Lippard's pioneering monograph of 1976. Yet in the face of the mutely expressive, itchily inert objects themselves, Fer's scrupulously tentative ruminations leave me in doubt. …