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January 11, 1936
Eva Hesse is born in Hamburg, Germany.

March 7, 1940
Hannah Wilke (Arlene Hannah Butter) is born in New York City.

Hesse is two years old when she moves from Hamburg with her sister via the Kindertransport in 1938, fleeing Nazi persecution. By 1939, the Hesse family immigrates to New York, where Hesse lives for most of the rest of her life. Wilke’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. Her mother’s family is Hungarian and her father’s Russian-Polish. Their experiences, direct and indirect, of the Holocaust profoundly mark both artists; Wilke comments,

“My consciousness came from being a Jew in World War II. I was born in 1940 and I was a Jew. I realized what it would be to be annihilated just for a word.”1 As Anne Wagner argues, the escape from Germany has a profound impact on Hesse, shaping the ambition of her work, so much so that when Hesse’s husband, Tom Doyle, is asked which artist most influenced his wife, he starkly answers “Adolf Hitler.”2 Hesse herself speaks of the impact of the Holocaust in her first published feature, which appears in Seventeen magazine.3 For both Hesse and Wilke, the specter of World War II and the violence of the Nazi regime make them attentive to how they, and others, are different. If both are aware of the specificity of their Jewish identity, they are also aware of how their class positions and their gender affects their lives and their artwork.

Text / Image 1

Eva Hesse
Sailing, 1953
Oil on board, mounted on museum board
8 3/4 × 11 3/4 inches (22.2 × 29.9 cm)
Image courtesy The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

Hesse graduates from the School of Industrial Art in New York in 1952 and enrolls at The School of Design at Pratt Institute to study advertising design. The course at Pratt, specifically the focus on representation, frustrates Hesse and she works on her abstract painting under her own steam. As if to under-score her rebellion, she inscribes an oil painting from 1953, “Not Under Instruction.”

In 1953 she quits Pratt and begins evening classes at the Art Students League before beginning a new course at Cooper Union in September 1954. At Cooper Union, Hesse has freedom to explore her abstraction. Of an untitled work from 1956, her painting tutor, Nicholas Marsicano, notes that “Eva worked on this painting for a period of time then she turned it on its side and worked on it then she turned it upside down and worked on it and continued turning and working on the painting until she finished. I do not know which side, if any, is up.”4

Text / Image 2

Eva Hesse and Professor Josef Albers at the Yale School of Art and Architecture, c. 1958
Image courtesy The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

Wilke graduates from high school in Great Neck, New York, and after suffering a bout of illness and being bedridden, she begins to use her own body as a subject for life drawing. Not so much self-portraits as studies, these drawings are Wilke’s first extended explorations of bodily representation.

Following high school, Wilke goes on to study at the Stella Elkins Tyler School of Fine Arts in Philadelphia (now Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University). The course allows Wilke to experiment, and over this period she produces drawings of abstracted forms in charcoal, pastel, and pencil. These works are alien assemblages of bodily or organic forms, compacted as if seen through a microscope. The hazy colors of the pastels stand in for the mobility of absorption across mem-branes, while forms overlap and meld together along blotted lines in her pen and ink drawings.

While still at college Wilke also begins working in sculpture and experiments with different materials including ceramic, rubber, and fiberglass.


Hannah Wilke
Untitled, c. 1960
Charcoal and pastel on paper
24 3/8 × 32 1/4 inches (61.9 × 81.9 cm)
Collection François Odermatt, Montréal, Canada.
Image courtesy Alison Jacques, London. Photo by Michael Brzezinski.


Hannah Wilke
Untitled, c. 1962
Pastel on board
15 × 20 inches (38.1 × 50.8 cm)
Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles. Courtesy Alison Jacques, London.

After graduating from Cooper Union, Hesse wins a scholarship to Yale University Summer School of Music and Art in Norfolk, Connecticut and then continues on to graduate school at Yale School of Art and Architecture, where she studies with Josef Albers, Rico Lebrun, and Bernard Chaet.

The time at Yale is formative for Hesse. She gets on well in Albers’ class and later calls herself “Albers’ little color studyist,” although she is also skeptical about the value of his lessons, adding, “I loved these problems but I didn’t do them out of need or necessity.”5 Hesse’s diaries reveal her restlessness over this period, particularly her frustration over her tutors’ competitiveness and mixed messages. In June 1959, after graduating from Yale, she gladly moves back to New York where she shares an apartment with Phyllis Yablonsky and works in a small shop in Greenwich Village.

By 1960 Hesse finds more secure employment at the studio of the textile designer Boris Kroll. She hates the job, writing in her diary, “Just home from work. It’s all insanity! The rat race business is insane! The satisfaction is so small.”6 Despite the conflict that paid employment presents to Hesse’s artmaking, she has a series of jobs to support herself, including, later in the 1960s, visiting teaching positions at Oberlin College, Boston Museum School, and the School of Visual Arts (SVA), New York, where four years later Wilke will take up a teaching position. Apart from a brief period in Germany from 1964-65, Hesse lives in New York for the rest of her life. Eva Hesse dies in 1970.

In 1962, Wilke graduates from the Stella Elkins Tyler School of Art at Temple University with degrees in fine art and education. She begins teaching art at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, in 1962 and continues teaching at the school until 1965, when she moves with her husband, the industrial designer Barry Wilke, to Riverdale, New York. There she finds another job teaching art at White Plains High School—a job she holds until 1970. During this time, she continues making her erotic sculptures, despite the fear that her radical content could lead to the termination of her job. After her divorce in 1965, Wilke moves to Manhattan where she studies with art historian Irving Sandler at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.

Text / Image 3

Hannah Wilke
Having a talent isn’t worth much…, 1976
Photograph with text
Proposed subway ad for The School of Visual Arts
Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.
Courtesy Alison Jacques, London.

Wilke takes satisfaction from teaching. After leaving White Plains in 1970, she is employed by the SVA, at a moment when, in the midst of the women’s art movement, sexist hiring practices are under close scrutiny and the predomi-nantly female student body demands women teachers. While at SVA, Wilke founds the ceramics program. She teaches sculpture there until 1991. Like Hesse, Wilke is based in New York for most of her career until she dies in 1993.

[BANNER, LEFT] Photo of Eva Hesse in her studio, 1968, by Fred W. McDarrah / Getty Images. [BANNER, RIGHT] Photo of Hannah Wilke in her Broome Street studio, 1973. Image courtesy Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.

Wilke quoted in Nancy Princenthal, Hannah Wilke (Berlin, London and New York: Prestel, 2010), p. 8.

Anne M. Wagner, Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 273.

Eva Hesse, “It’s all yours,” Seventeen magazine, (September 1954), pp. 140– 141.

Renate Petzinger, Barry Rosen and Annette Spohn eds, Eva Hesse: Catalogue Raisonné Volume 1: Paintings (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and Museum Wiesbaden, 2006), p. 38.

Cindy Nemser, “A Conversation with Eva Hesse,” in October Files: Eva Hesse, ed. Mignon Nixon (Cambridge; The MIT Press, 2002), p. 5.

Eva Hesse, “Feb 1960,” in Eva Hesse: Diaries, ed. Barry Rosen (New Haven and New York: Yale University Press and Hauser and Wirth, 2016), p. 217.