"Eva Hesse Spectres 1960"

By Naves, Mario | New Criterion, November 2011 | Go to article overview
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"Eva Hesse Spectres 1960"


Naves, Mario, New Criterion


"Eva Hesse Spectres 1960"

The Brooklyn Museum of Art.

September 16, 2011-January 8, 2012

In the catalogue accompanying "Eva Hesse Spectres 1960", which is currently on view at The Brooklyn Museum, Louise S. Milne, Lecnirer at the Edinburgh College of Art, wonders about the merits of die early paintings by Eva Hesse (1936-70). Milne does so obliquely, but the question is pointed all die same: "If we did not have Hesse's later achievements in sculpture with which to compare them, what would we make of these works?" Hesse's pictures, all painted during 1960 and centered on the female form, have rarely been exhibited and are relatively unknown. Of the fifty or so extant pieces, nineteen of them are on display in die Elizabeth E. Sadder Center for Feminist Art. Hesse devotees are likely to consider "Spectres 1960" an event.

And Hesse devotees are an impassioned bunch, a passion bred as much by the artist's biography as by die art. The daughter of German Jews, Hesse and her sister Helen were placed on die Kindertransport and sent to Holland after the events of Kristallnacht. The Hesse family reunited in London early in 1939 and immigrated to New York City a few months later. Hesse's parents separated in 1944; her mother committed suicide two years later. After attending Pratt Institute and Cooper Union, Hesse settled in at Yale, studying art with Josef Albers and Rico Le-Brun. "The hell with them all" wrote Hesse in response to the bruising critiques offered by die two opposing polemicists. "You must come to terms with your own work not with any other being."

After graduating, Hesse moved to New York City, establishing herself in the outre precincts of the art scene (she participated in an early "Happening" staged by Allen Kaprow), and took up sculpture. Many of Hesse's initial sculptural forays explicitly referenced painting or at least began as wallworks whose materiality increasingly took on a three-dimensional cast. Hesse subsequently gained renown for her innovative use of industrial materials, fiberglass predominant among them, and her melding of Minimalist rigor with a sickly strain of Surrealism. Flesh and its failings became her leitmotif--and her legacy. Hesse died of brain cancer in 1970 at the age of thirty-four. Mortality pervades die work in ways she couldn't have foreseen.

So does romance: few things guarantee cultural mythopoeia as thoroughly as early and tragic death.

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