Eva Hesse

By Simic, Charles | Artforum International, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview
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Eva Hesse


Simic, Charles, Artforum International


In this ongoing series, writers are invited to discuss a contemporary work that has special significance for them.

There are works of art that can be confidently described as minor and of marginal importance, perhaps even to the artists who made them, that for reasons far from clear, one can't get enough of. In my own case, I have often been drawn to works, from Joseph Cornell to Agnes Martin, where the paucity or the almost complete absence of narrative, even of formal complexity, was an invitation to a kind of poetic reverie. I suppose this is like saying I prefer an empty room to the clutter of an overdesigned interior, that I prefer a space in which a single chair or an empty birdcage can do wonders for the imagination. Empty spaces make us discover our inwardness. In such rooms one has the feeling that time has stopped, that one's solitude and that of the remaining object are two actors in a metaphysical theater.

This work is one of the series of semiabstract, untitled ink washes on paper that Eva Hesse composed in 1960 and 1961. They are like symbolist poems. Instead of words and images, smudges, erasures, chance drippings, scribbles, tangled and incomplete forms, contrasts of shadow and light tease our imaginations. If the drawings had titles, of course, that would be another story. A title is like the caption to a news photo; it conditions our responses as it tells us what we are supposed to be seeing. Hesse's untitled drawings, on the contrary, give rise to the free play of associations and a delightful uncertainty as to what precisely is being represented, if anything.

At first glance the ink wash I'm enchanted with doesn't pose much of a problem in that regard. The silhouettes of two tall buildings and perhaps even a third one are visible through a small window across a stretch of what very likely could be Central Park in puddles of shadow. It's the brown darkness of an overcast evening with clouds racing and traces of dying light lingering on in the west. There is an air of decrepitude about the scene. Here is the laundry of sundown hung out to dry, as it were; the day's washing, wind-beaten and begrimed by the fumes of the city.

No sooner have I said that than I begin to have my doubts. The window does not really look like a window. It's more like a bamboo picture frame. I have seen such frames on mirrors in people's hallways and on photographs on side tables in a living room where someone once young and handsome is surrounded by souvenirs, knickknacks, memorabilia. How strange to find that sort of frame enclosing what presumably is an urban scene, unless what we are seeing here is a reflection in a mirror?

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