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EVA HESSE: MATERIALBILDER

Anne Wagner

[TEXT IMAGE]

I do not recognize the limits where painting ends and sculpture begins. 

—David Smith (1906–1965)1

In the course of her brief career as an artist, Eva Hesse worked in two different studios. The first occupied a corner in an abandoned textile factory in Kettwig an der Ruhr, a factory owned by the German manufacturer and art patron Friedrich Arnhard Scheidt [FIG. 1]. He and his wife Isabel had offered Hesse’s then-husband, the sculptor Tom Doyle (1928–2016), a twelve-month residency, at the same time providing Hesse with a year in Europe. For Hesse, the experience culminated in her first museum show.

Staged at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, the exhibition’s apparently contradictory title, Materialbilder—Material Picture—invokes two of the questions this essay explores.1 What is a “material picture,” and what does such an object depict? But more than this, I also suggest that the materiality of the works Hesse made in Kettwig was not only a product of the post-industrial context of their production, or at least not in a straightforward way. The same complexity is characteristic of the pieces she would go on to make in New York. 

Finally, this essay broaches a further question: is it possible to clarify what the contexts of her work’s production meant for the bodily concerns of Hesse’s art? Although historians and critics have often discussed Hesse’s material experiments, the art historian Briony Fer goes further. She maintains that the artist’s interest in a range of media, whether readymade or modified, recycled or remaindered, increasingly became a matter of juxtaposition, even accumulation; in any case, a way “to join things without joints.”2 What sorts of embodiment do such additive alignments evoke? 

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[FIG. 1]

Eva Hesse at work in her studio in Kettwig an der Ruhr, Germany, c. 1964–65

Image courtesy The Estate of Eva Hesse.

Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

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[FIG. 2]

Page from a letter from Eva Hesse to Rosie Goldman, December 14, 1965

Kettwig comes first. By Hesse’s own account, finding her feet there was painful, until she began to deploy materials—lengths of cord, machine parts—scattered about in the abandoned textile factory where she and Doyle had been given space to work. “What really got her going,” he remembered, “was the string.”3 Hesse began to explore its possibilities on December 4, 1964, as reported in a diary entry that includes this cryptic note: “Started sculpture, lead wire through a huge screen, shortage of wire forces change to plaster.”4 Ten days later, she was prepared to describe the new work, as she did in a letter to Rosie Goldman, a friend back home in New York.

I want to explain what I have been doing. And although I already question validity, worth, meaning, antecedent etc. I have been enjoying the newness and the work. In the abandoned factory where we work there is lots of junk around. . . I have all these months looked over and at much of the junk. I finally took a screen, heavy mesh which is stretched on a frame like so and taken cord which I cut into smaller pieces. I soak them in plaster and knot each piece through a hole and around wire. It is compulsive work which I enjoy. If it were really a new idea it would be terrific. But it is not. However I have plans with other structures and working more with plaster. It might work its way to something special. I will try to draw what it looks like. On the other side it’s the knots that are seen. It is all white.5

True to her word, Hesse did try to convey “what it looks like.” Alongside her description are two rough-and ready sketches [FIG. 2] that taken together just about manage to suggest not only how the work was put together, but also how it was meant to be seen. First, she drew an upright mesh screen. Then came a close-up of its diagonal grid, with “before” and “after” views presented cheek by jowl. The contrast is stark. The functional order of the screen yields to its opposite, in the form of a bristling thicket of short white cilia, each made from a length of plaster-soaked cord both knotted and stiffened with wire: the “compulsive work” Hesse became known for, and which she said she enjoyed.

Why did such processes seem pleasurable? Was it because tasks like these are clear cut? Keep at it, and sooner or later, you come to an end. So much is obvious. Perhaps less so is the possibility that while casting around for a way of working, Hesse discovered that a merely material process—the “one thing after another” so fundamental to minimalist practice—meant immersing, even losing herself in her work. Aren’t such techniques famous for freeing the mind? In any event, everything that is so unexpectedly bodily, so animate, in Hesse’s sculpture starts here. As others of her contemporaries were discovering, simple repetition has the capacity to produce unpredictable results. Perhaps this is the minimalist’s way of chanting “Om.”6

A second report of the lost screen sculpture returns us from these heights. It comes from a description Doyle provided to Hesse’s great friend and first biographer Lucy R. Lippard. “Doyle recalls,” she wrote, that this lost relief “was based on a green screen-like machine guard that ‘stood by itself like sculpture, was three-dimensional but also a two-dimensional surface, which was familiar to her and easier to begin with.’”

[TEXT IMAGE]

[FIG. 3]

Eva Hesse

Accession II, 1968 (1969)

Galvanized steel, vinyl

30 × 30 × 30 inches (78.1 × 78.1 × 78.1 cm)

Detroit Institute of Arts; Founders Society Purchase, Friends of Modern Art Fund, and Miscellaneous Gifts Fund, 1979.

Image courtesy The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

It seems telling that after Hesse’s death, Doyle remembered the machine guard both as a particular object—a “green screen-like machine guard”—and a fairly generic surface of a sort “familiar to her and easier to begin with.” Why? The idea seems to be that the green guard provided a planarity helpful to a young painter bent on transforming her work. It is as if the screen wore a label reading “New Path Starts Here.”

The issue is not which of these accounts, the artist’s description or Doyle’s, is more accurate. Given that the machine guard sculpture is no longer extant (it was probably left unfinished) the question is moot. Hesse soon turned from the screen (finished or not) to a rapidly expanding set of Masonite reliefs, fourteen in all. The group was completed in only five months, March through July 1965, and then exhibited, along with some fifty drawings at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, in her first museum show. Yet despite this landmark status, the cost of shipping meant that the whole group was left behind in Kettwig when she and Doyle returned to New York. And although the reliefs were later recovered—the first and most wildly erotic of the group, Ringaround Arosie [PLATE 1], 1965, among them—the upright green grid with its stiff white protrusions was not.7

Does its absence really matter? It might simply speak to the fact that pace Doyle, Hesse doesn’t seem to have been drawn to the screen guard project because it was ...what? Money for old rope? On the contrary, everything suggests that Hesse brought to this, her first gridded work, an unprecedented and utterly deliberate approach.8 Through each gap in the grill’s surface, she first threaded short lengths of cord, then stiffened them with wire and white plaster. The grill’s original green surface, in other words, was beside the point. What mattered were the dead-white strands of cord, and the deliciously compulsive drive to bring them to life.9 She would indulge it again in what is one of her most uncannily animate sculptural formats, the series of open ciliated cubes to which she gave the collective title Accession [FIG. 3]. In 1967 and 1968, she made five in all, each of them a realization of the screen-guard idea. Its stakes were high. Apparently Hesse’s first sculpture to use a grid, it is also the first to qualify as an assisted readymade, as well as the first she described in terms of the pleasure she found in “compulsive,” i.e. repetitive, techniques. More such pleasure lay ahead.

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[FIG. 4]

Eva Hesse

Oomamaboomba, 1965

Enamel, rope, cord, metal, modeling compound, particle board, wood, paint, saw particles, and glue

22 × 25 5/8 × 5 1/8 inches (56 × 65 × 13 cm)

Ursula Hauser Collection, Switzerland

Yet it bears insisting that to grasp the sculptural implications of compulsion might well be difficult without the help of Hesse’s rough sketch. Its main purpose—certainly its main message—lies in the contrast it draws between the clarity and system of the grid and the dark chaos of penetrating cord.10 In Hesse’s hands, the move from order to disorder came from an impulse to hyperbolize the routine of minimalist reiteration—its gospel of “one thing after another”—in favor of a repetitive excess that jostles for life.

Sculpture understood in this way was not only after new metaphors for the body; it also needed new materials. All of the fourteen surviving Masonite reliefs made in Kettwig are “built-up paintings,” in Lippard’s hybrid phrase.11 The phrase points not merely to their reliance on colored cord patterns, all precisely aligned, but also to surfaces thickened by ad hoc additives: glue, plaster, wood shavings, papier-mâché, masking tape, modelling compound, plus found objects galore.12 All but one, the first of the group, Ringaround Arosie, makes use of the acid palette—lime green, for example, as well as pink and purple—that even now, so many decades later, still say “The Sixties” [FIG. 4].13 Its shapes are fleshy and protruding, as if to evoke a bisexual body, in which a swollen nipple and engorged penis are, if not identical, then hard to tell apart.14

In a subtly layered essay about Ringaround Arosie, Mignon Nixon has pointed to the fact that when Hesse’s Kettwig reliefs were exhibited in Düsseldorf, the brochure accompanying the show used a photograph which locates Ringaround Arosie front and center, between the artist’s knees [FIG. 5].15 That placement alone suggests its special status, while underscoring its difference from the rest of the group. Ringaround Arosie not only looks forward to the great cord Comparts of 1966 [see PLATES 3 and 4], but also shows compulsive pleasure in a sexy new light. Finally, like the screen piece, Ringaround Arosie mines the unruly implications of systematic repetition. Any child knows that even the most ordinary word, when repeated, sounds increasingly strange. I can hear my brother’s voice even now, insisting I say “parrot” really fast seven times. This way lies if not madness, then certainly difference, even defamiliarization. This is one lesson Hesse learned from sculpting with cord. Perhaps she also learned, after years spent painting, that repetition allowed her to evoke the body—its order, its chaos—with a quasi-mechanical eroticism that elides female and male.

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[FIG. 5]

Eva Hesse in 1965, photo by Manfred Tischer

In August 1965, Doyle and Hesse returned to New York. Five months later, by January 1966, their marriage had come to an end. Doyle moved out, though not far: to Hesse’s dismay, he set up a studio in a loft across the street, while she took sole possession of the space they once shared. A nondescript structure at 134 Bowery in Lower Manhattan, the building still stands. Ironically, these days it houses a gallery.16 When Hesse lived there, its 19th century industrial fabric was only beginning to be colonized by studios and lofts.

As in Kettwig, the nature of Hesse’s work and living space had immediate implications for her sculpture. When Hang Up was first installed there, in January 1966, she gave a coat of white paint to the dingy rectangle framed within it, the better to insist on the blank expanse its borders reveal [FIG. 6].17 A few years later, in 1969, Right After, with its delicate skeins of fiberglass and polyester resin, floated from the loft’s beams and corners, only to be replaced a year later by the tangled ganglia of Rope Piece. Remember too that the square latex mat made as the basis of Schema, 1967, was cast on the surface of the table Sol LeWitt made to help equip the loft. In other words, here, as in Kettwig, context matters. Canal Street was just a block to the south, a short walk to the hardware and plumbing stores that displayed their wares for blocks along its north side [FIG. 7]. Such places sold a bit of everything—brooms, beach umbrellas, trash cans, shovels—with many of their wares priced by weight, not by unit. Nails, grommets, washers, staples—all were unceremoniously scooped into a brown paper bag, then put on the scale. Then, back in the studio, the purchaser sorted them out. True to form, Hesse opted for the gridded order of a clear lucite box [FIG. 8].

Image / Text

[FIG. 6]
Eva Hesse’s Hang Up on view in her studio at 134 Bowery,
New York, 1966
Image courtesy The Estate of Eva Hesse.
Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

All this, the grommets and washers, rope and latex, played their part in Hesse’s final rethinking of her work. Also important was the expansion of her circle of friends to include most of the artists whose work now has a major place in histories of sculpture and Minimalist art.18 Her diaries for 1966 are peppered with wide-ranging thoughts about sculpture: interesting processes; exotic titles (dyadic, dithyletic, bigeminate); and crucially, supplies needed for her work. One note saw her listing “stack ruler, wide tape (plastic), balsa wood, picture wire, glass, mat boards, thick (sic) cardboard, staple gun,”she knows the Canal Street shops will provide.19 In January 1967, she jotted: “2 wires/+ weights/+ tape/thin foam rubber.” Only a few days before is a reminder “to try clear wire or one of other slightly mottled kind I saw on Canal Street. If I ever again find the store.”

These are not media Hesse had a use for in Kettwig. There her supplies were mostly found, not purchased, and do not seem to have led her to deep reflection on the nature of sculptural practice. The big questions lay ahead. In New York, they began to take shape. How do surface, space and sculpture go together? Is illusionism still worth pursuing? What does sculpture still have to say about touch? And all these questions circle around one perennial modernist conundrum: How can the human body survive as an object for sculpture? And if that body is female, what then?

Hesse’s work of the mid-1960s is nothing if not a response to these fundamental questions. Consider the new range of her approaches to the surface: for the first time, tactility is not only a resource, but also a theme. Wood shavings flesh out acrylic and Sculp-Metal, while knotted cords dangle provocatively, as if asking to be touched. Even drawings make tangibility their theme. Here Hesse rings the changes on the multiple implications of the circle. Among them are orifice (mouth and navel, anus and vagina); planet (sun, moon and stars). And lastly, emblem of artistic authority: the legendary proof to pope or potentate of preeminent skill.20

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[FIG. 7]

Bernice Abbott, Hardware Store, 316-318 Bowery, Manhattan, January 26, 1938

Photo by Bernice Abbott / Getty Images.

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[FIG. 8]

Table in Eva Hesse's studio, c. 1968–69, photo by Mel Bochner

Photo © Mel Bochner 2021. 

As the sheer range of these categories suggests, Hesse’s circle works concern much more than the straightforward mastery of form. For the first time in her brief career, she engaged in a systematic deconstruction of tactile illusion, using drawing as her principle tool [see PLATE 2]. In the circle works, not only was the subtle salience of the Kettwig panels summarily flattened, but their Kool-Aid colors were also a thing of the past. Instead the artist opts for a diagrammatic clarity, a dark/light opposition, that meticulously disarticulates the traditional means of figuring fullness. Hesse’s circle drawings take chiaroscuro apart. Yet once dismantled, light and dark do not lose their signature force. On the contrary, as the circle drawings declare, fullness and flatness look remarkably the same.

In retrospect, it is clear that the play of illusion and materiality guided this new phase of Hesse’s work. But neither preempted her concern with surface and touch. This is where the Canal Street washers come in. Their steel and rubber circles, aligned edge to edge, row on row, both insulate and violate the integrity of the surfaces they cover. Panel or table, vertical or horizontal, the washer implies some further place or dimension, but allows access to it only through a contained enclosure—a hole [see FIG. 9, PLATE 9].

Text / Image

[FIG. 9]
Eva Hesse
Compass, 1967
Sculp-metal, steel, wood
10 × 10 × 1 inches (25.4 × 25.4 × 2.5 cm)
Private Collection, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Image courtesy The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

The erotic dimension of Hesse’s washer works is no secret. In her hands, these prosaic mediating circlets, whose function is to lock out leakage, become unlikely protagonists in dramas of surface and depth. For example: when steel pegs bristle from within a grid of washers, they evoke menace or threat. Hang strings from them, and they ask to be touched. Align them to cover a table, and its original social functions are promptly obscured.21

Works like these, with their rows of washers, are material in ways that the Kettwig reliefs never dreamed of. In lieu of pastel protrusions, the later works figure the body as an unseen system, distilling and dissecting operations otherwise well-hidden from view. Hesse depicts none of these intimate investigations, but few among us will fail to bring them to mind. Where there are washers, there is plumbing, and with plumbing come valves and openings, fluids and flows.22 Yet by 1966, Hesse’s sculpture had banished everything but the washers, that unlikely Canal Street trove. How better to grasp hold of one’s materials than by meticulously gridding them, row after row. In hindsight it is evident that for Hesse such efforts to take control of her sculpture made possible those innovative moments when chance had its say.

[BANNER] Eva Hesse in 1965, photo by Manfred Tischer

1
The full title of the Düsseldorf show was Eva Hesse: Materialbilder und Zeichnungen (August 6–October 17, 1965). It was preceded by a smaller exhibition of work by both Doyle and Hesse installed at the Scheidts’ Kettwig residence. This show lasted only a day.

2
Briony Fer, “The Sculpture as Leftover,” in Helen Molesworth, Part Object, Part Sculpture (exhibition catalogue, Pennsylvania State University and Wexner Center for the Arts, 2005), p. 227.

3
Doyle in Lucy R. Lippard, Eva Hesse (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1976), p. 29. 

4
Hesse in her diary, December 4, 1964, published in Barry Rosen, ed., Eva Hesse: Diaries (Hayser & Wirth in association with Yale University Press, New Haven, and London, 2016). This diary, like others, is in the collection of Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio. 

5
Hesse to Rosie Goldman, December 14, 1964, reproduced in Lippard, Eva Hesse, p. 36, fig. 44.

6
Lippard on machine guard sculpture. 

7
Lippard reproduces Hesse's thumbnail sketch of the lost work as fig. 44. See above, n. 5. 

8
A guard made in this manner would allow the dispersal of heat. 

9
Hesse reflected further on the screen piece in a well-known diary note of December 10, 1964, which begins, "Plaster! I have always loved the material!" and continues with a slightly different description of her process in which she speaks of using dipped fabric, not cord. See Rosen, p. 412. 

10
Others of the sculptor's works drew on similar contrasts, summoning order and chaos sequentially, as if in counterpoint. Remember the oppositional aesthetic that lead from Schema to Sequel and from Right After to Untitled (Rope Piece), a strategy that yielded some of the strongest pieces she made. 

11
See Lippard, p. 40. 

12
This list of materials has been gleanded from the media listed for the 1965 reliefs in Eva Hesse, Catalogue Raisonné II, Sculpture. Eds B. Rosen and R. Petzinger (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006). 

13
Some may remember the title chosen by the journalist Tom Wolfe for his 1968 book about the counter-cultural novelist Ken Kesey (1935-2001): The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

14
See Eva Hesse, Catalogue Raisonné II, Sculpture, no. 56. This entry includes the important information that at its point of greatest projection, the relief is 4 1/2 inches (11.4 cm) in depth. 

15
In a remarkable essay about Ringaround Arosie, Mignon Nixon has pointed to the fact that when Hesse’s Kettwig reliefs were exhibited in Düsseldorf, the brochure accompanying the show used a photograph that shows the artist with the relief propped between her knees. Ultimately the observation is not particularly germane to her argument; here, by contrast, I wish to stress that it was this relief that was given pride of place.

16
Doyle too had initially been in the building—the two shared an apartment and maintained separate studios, but after the breakdown of their marriage, in the winter of 1966–67, he moved to a loft across the street. Today, both the street and the building are once again changing. For many years embedded in a commercial neighborhood that centered on lighting fixtures, today 134 Bowery houses the Lomex Gallery. Well aware that Hesse was a former tenant, it has left untouched the hooks she placed in the ceiling to hang her work.
See https://hyperallergic.com/306895/a-guide-to-new-york-citys-historicartist-studios/

17
The effect is easily visible in the uncredited photograph reproduced in Eva Hesse, Catalogue Raisonné II, p. 76

18
On her return, thanks in part to Sol LeWitt, her artistic circle expanded to include Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Mel Bochner, and Richard Serra. 

19
Notebooks, 667. Punctuation added. 

20
Legend has it that both Apelles and Giotto proved their distinction by drawing a perfect circle freehand. 

21
Other associations are doubtless more idiosyncratic. In discussions with other viewers, mention has been made of the burlesque artist's pasties and the tampon's string. 

22
In a 1965 series of drawings that initially preceded and then overlapped with Kettwig sculptures, such bodily hardware is considered in depth. For a multilayered and liberally illustrated study of these drawings, see Barry Rosen, ed., Eva Hesse 1965 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, on behalf of the Estate of Eva Hesse and Hauser & Wirth, 2003).