Magazine article The Spectator

Iconic Rebel

Magazine article The Spectator

Iconic Rebel

Article excerpt


Eva Hesse

(Tate Modern, till 9 March)

Many consider Eva Hesse to be one of the most important sculptors of the second half of the 20th century, but on the evidence of the current Tate show - the largest ever of her work - she appears to be less of a real sculptor and more of an all-pervading influence. To put it another way, Hesse only lived to be 34, and was just beginning to produce relatively mature work in the last four or five years of her life.

The facts that she experimented widely with informal materials such as latex and fibreglass, that her work was often sexually suggestive in subject matter, that she died young and that she was a woman working successfully in a hitherto male-dominated preserve, all helped to make her a cult figure with art students. Her appeal is still largely to the young and, since her tragically early death in 1970 from a brain tumour, Hesse the iconic rebel has been virtually canonised, with her merest scribble elevated to the status of holy relic. The lavish Tate catalogue duly attests to this reverence, which is seemingly propagated by art historians. The trouble is that only a small percentage of Hesse's work deserves such attention. However, no doubt reassured by the blanket acceptance of her oeuvre by those who should know better, the young people flocking to this exhibition showed no signs of being able to distinguish the good from the weak and derivative.

In 1936, Eva Hesse was born in Hamburg of Jewish parents. Escaping the Nazis, her family came to London and then emigrated to New York. She graduated from the (high) School of Industrial Arts in 1945 before entering the Pratt Institute of Design to study advertising design. In 1954, she enrolled at the Cooper Union, graduated in 1957 and entered the Yale School of Art and Architecture to study painting under Josef Albers. In 1960, she worked part-time as a textile designer, and in 1964, when she returned to Germany for a year at the invitation of a rich patron, Hesse had a studio in an abandoned textile factory. This history of design experience in particular relation to textiles was to exert a lasting influence over her thought. In the old German factory she drew machine parts and pieces of cord, and moved definitively away from her early Expressionist self-portraits with heads like golf clubs. …

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