Monday, January 24, 2011

Eva Hesse, opening at the Berkeley Art Museum on Wednesday

Eva Hesse: Studiowork, 1968; fiberglass, polyester resin, and plastic (clear) tubing; 3 7/8 x 5 3/4 x 5 3/8 in.; gift of Mrs. Helen Charash, 1979.

Often there is a romantic aura around artists who die young. Their work is over praised and when looked at in a more sober light, does not hold up well. But that's not true of Eva Hesse. Her death at an early age of 34 denies us the full trajectory of her career but what we have is amazing. 

 Born in Hamburg in 1936, Hesse and her family escaped Nazi Germany to the US in 1939. The rest of her story is well known - her parent's divorce, her mother's suicide when she was ten, Hesse's own divorce and struggles with being a woman artist in a male-dominated field. 

She studied art at the Cooper Union and Yale, before returning to New York to become a painter. In 1964 she and her husband, the sculptor Tom Doyle, moved to Kettwig an der Ruhr in Germany, working in an abandoned textile factory. Here, amid the scraps of material, cord and corroded machine parts, and against the cultural backdrop of cold war politics, Hesse created her first sculptures. They were witty and sexually suggestive, inspired by the erotic surrealism of Marcel Duchamp and Hans Bellmer.  She pursued her ambition to become a great artist with single-minded determination. Hesse readily absorbed the influences of Surrealism, Conceptualism and Minimalism, always filtering them though her own distinctive sensibility to produce a unique and highly individualistic body of work.

Her career spanned just ten years. The materials that she used were very fragile - something that she knew at the time. In a way, she built the fragility, transparency and unique nature of her materials into her creations. Their transitory being is part of their effect, an effect that is proof that you don't have to make huge sculptures of steel to make powerful works of art. In fact, her work is more powerful in that it whispers and entices you to come nearer to hear what she is saying. Hesse was aware that she was producing works that were ephemeral, but this problem was of less concern to her than the fact that she simply wanted to work with these particular materials. As she stated in an interview with Cindy Nemser in 1970, “Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last.”

Shortly before her death, Eva Hesse described her subject as ‘the total absurdity of life’. Indeed, one of the chief characteristics of her work is her sense of humor, sometimes pretty obscene as when she mocks her own fetishistic creations that dangle like fat, bizarre tubers from the gallery walls.

The pieces that are being shown at the Berkeley Art Museum are pieces from her studio practice. The objects, of all sizes, range from raw material experiments to works that are ready for public display. They are the equivalent of the sketches that a painter would make, prior to staring a large project - the experiments of making thought and ideas visible and visual (think mock ups in plaster by Rodin or Degas). The exhibition contains many works from BAM/PFA’s own collection, part of a major gift made in 1979 by Hesse’s sister, Helen Charash; the Berkeley presentation includes a special selection of works from the collection that are too fragile to travel. 

 In this exhibition, the first grouping of work that you encounter are "spirit boats," shaped and molded from a myriad of delicate materials. These were pieces that Hesse often gave to friends and which have never been shown publicly. They are displayed on a low table, similar to one shown for works-in-progress in photographs of Hesse's apartment, carefully lit and quite exquisite.

The second gallery displays work that is more familiar - braided latex strips and obscene fleshy globes hanging suspended in nets - even in sketchy form, they speak of fetishist fantasies and a comical, sardonic look at the male genitalia. Small molded pieces of latex are displayed in another case; they could be dug up from some prehistoric cave, or clumps of amber washed up from the Baltic or neolithic goddesses in forms that speak ambiguously of female genitalia. 

She struggled with being a woman in the art world, a decade away from feminism. In Lucy Lippard's book on Hesse, there are pages and pages from her journal and letters where she tries to deal with the slights, the insults and the discrimination. Yet, she never publicly complained. To do so would have made matter worse. In a letter to a friend, she is quoted as saying, 'The best way to beat discrimination in art is by art. Excellence has no sex.' Nevertheless, she was ambiguous about what a lot of her art meant and denied that being a woman had anything to do with her art making. The push-pull of these conflicts can be seen in many of the small objects on display.

These small but sensuous experiments created in her studio can be seen as “a collection-in-miniature of Hesse’s art”, says art historian Briony Fer, in a new book on the sculptor published to accompany the show. “I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to see their combined effect as a small bomb exploding the category of things called sculpture.”

The show bowled me over but then, I've been an ardent admirer since her large retrospective at SFMOMA some years ago. For those used to today's over sized sculptures, large enough to seat a party of 100 while beating you over the head with phallic steel rods, their smaller size, delicacy and fragility might take some getting used to. But get closer, listen more carefully to what she has to say. It's worth hearing.

The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) is the first of only two United States venues presenting Eva Hesse: Studiowork, on view from January 26, 2011 through April 10, 2011. The exhibition, which will have traveled to London, Barcelona, and Toronto before arriving in Berkeley, is the result of new research by renowned Hesse scholar Briony Fer and is curated by Fer and Barry Rosen, director of The Estate of Eva Hesse. The curator in charge for the BAM/PFA presentation is Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator Elizabeth Thomas. 
Images courtesy of the BAM/PFA

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