An artist at a turning pointNineteen sixty-four was a challenging year for Eva Hesse, a minimalist painter who turned out to be one of the most original American sculptors.
That was the year the Jewish German-American Hesse took her first trip to her native country since fleeing the Nazis at age two with her sister, Helen. Her stay in Germany had other unpleasant associations for her; the family’s unsought exile had exacerbated the manic depression of the artist’s mother, Ruth Marcus Hesse, who committed suicide when Eva was 10.
In 1964, Hesse was also undergoing a familiar dilemma about her domestic role in her marriage; she felt pulled between her position as an independent artist and as the wife of an established sculptor, Tom Doyle, who was eight years her senior.
An Oct. 1964 entry in her diary expresses her frustration: “In his achievements I see my failures... Resentments enter most precisely if I need to be cooking, washing, or doing dishes, while he sits King of the Roost, reading.”
Hesse’s work from this period reflects these inner conflicts: the struggle to live, her memory of loss. There are sexual allusions, and themes of victimization, femininity and sickness. One of her paintings from this period is called “Horro Vacui,” or the fear of emptiness.
It was also around this time that Hesse’s art became three-dimensional.
She began to experiment with gravity as a metaphor for the mourning, darkness and loss she was feeling at the time. Almost all of her works from this period involve some form of hanging; often a weighty object is held up by a string. Her palettes recede into darker tones. One of her works from the German period has heavy metal balls shrouded in papier-mache, coated with black enamel paint and hung in a net.
During her career, which lasted less than 10 years ― she died of brain cancer at 33 ―Eva Hesse seemed to be constantly concerned with the meaning inherent in the materials she used. This idea comes across more clearly in her later works with cheesecloth and latex, which would become trademarks of feminist artworks dealing with domesticity.
“Transformations: The Sojourn in Germany 1964-65,” an exhibition at Kukje Gallery in northern Seoul, delves into Hesse’s work from her two years in Germany, the last major transition of her brief career.
The exhibition in Seoul, which represents part of the artist’s retrospective recently exhibited at Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, is a collection of drawings, collage, gouache paintings and her early sculptures, which were said to have “humanized” minimalism with their renderings of organic shapes and personal subjects.
Tina Kim, a curator for the Seoul exhibit, quotes Lucy Lippard, an art historian and a friend of Hesse, who described Hesse’s time in Germany as “a crucial apprenticeship,” a place where “the seeds of Hesse’s mature work emerged and could first be nurtured away from the New York scene, away from the pressure of [an] art world [that was] becoming increasingly incestuous and competitive, away from the advice and criticism of well-meaning friends, and away from the influence of new shows.”
Lippard said it was during the artist’s strife in Germany, which continued after she returned to New York, that she took the final steps toward sculpture.
The Seoul exhibition begins with the works from early in the artist’s stay in Germany, paintings and collages that use layering techniques. A few months later, Hesse has taken the next step, completely freeing herself from the spatial concerns that preoccupied the formalists of her time. She introduces the idea of “nonsense” drawings, which ignore the laws of perspective.
She moves on, giving way to structured spaces of cubes, lines and canals in her later paintings, eventually moving towards an airy lightness reminiscent of Kandinsky. A striking development emerges in her later paintings in Germany, in which she uses strings and found objects, such as a rectangle of Masonite board, to make them three-dimensional. In other works, she builds upon surfaces with plaster, papier-mache, machine parts, cords and wires.
In “Several,” whose black, sausage-shaped objects (actually papier-mache made from balloons) hang bound with painted string and rubber cords, Hesse plays around with the idea of kinetic sculpture.
Hesse’s overall work puts her in an odd place in the realm of contemporary art. The tactile beauty of her sculptures, the poignancy and fragility of her materials, is intensely moving; close up, it resists categorization. Her work was like “minimalism,” but not quite of it.
There is an intense air of tragedy and melancholy in her work that seems to come from the artist’s dark experiences. Yet there are forces in it that resonate with humor, eroticism and curiosity. The strange beauty in her work embraces a range of emotion, leaving viewers in a meditative state.
by Park Soo-mee
“Transformations: The Sojourn in Germany 1964-65” continues through Nov. 19. For more information, call (02) 735-8449.