MORE OR LESS HUMAN, BUT ALIVE: THE WORK OF EVA HESSE AND HANNAH WILKE
MORE OR LESS HUMAN, BUT ALIVE: THE WORK OF EVA HESSE AND HANNAH WILKE
“I think art is a total thing,” Eva Hesse told the feminist art critic Cindy Nemser, “in my inner soul, art and life are inseparable.”2 It was a wintry morning in January 1970 and they were sitting in the painter Al Held’s loft at 435 West Broadway, where Hesse was recuperating from treatment for a brain tumor; she had just turned 34 and Nemser was about to be 33.3 The artist was curled up in an armchair with her bare feet tucked beneath her; she was nervous about being taped for the interview and asked for the cassette recorder to be hidden out of sight; “Could I talk about myself and my background before we start talking about the work?” she suggested.4 It was a simple warm-up exercise: to tell the heart-rending story of her upbringing, known to her like the skin on the back of her hand, in order to free up her tongue (and perhaps her head too, which must have felt clouded from the chemotherapy earlier that morning).
It was also a way of allowing her thoughts on the one to bleed into the other: “This is where art and life come together... I have confidence in my understanding of the formal. . . Those problems are solvable, I solve them, can solve them beautifully. In fact, my idea now is to discount everything I’ve ever learned or been taught about those things and to find something else. So it is inevitable that it is my life, my feelings, my thoughts. And there I’m very complex.”5
Five years later, on February 18, 1975, Nemser would interview fellow New York artist Hannah Wilke, for an article that she was writing for Arts Magazine on “Four Artists of Sensuality.”6 In her responses, Wilke likewise spoke of her desire to articulate her most intimate experiences of self: “I don’t want to deny who I am finally, although I was taught as a child never to look in mirrors, maybe that made me more aware of the pain that people have being human beings.”7 Wilke’s recourse to the personal, like Hesse’s, might sometimes have been because it was familiar ground. But that should not belie its significance to her conception of her work and indeed the two could sometimes come together: she incorporated a “bio” from a grant application to the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation into the performance-lecture Intercourse with. . . (1977): “Since 1960, I have been concerned with . . . a new language . . . Its content has always related to my own body and feelings, reflecting pleasure as well as pain, the ambiguity and complexity of emotions.”8
We do not know if the two artists ever met, although from 1965 to 1970 they both lived and worked in Manhattan: Hesse in her loft at 134 Bowery and Wilke up on East 88th Street and then in the West Village.9 They were just four years apart in age (Wilke the younger) and had both grown up in New York: Hesse made a traumatic escape from Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport when she was two and settled with her observant Jewish family in Washington Heights, while Wilke (originally Arlene Hannah Butter) was born into a Jewish family who lived on the Lower East Side, in Queens and then in Great Neck, Long Island, her grandparents having emigrated from Hungary and Poland around the turn of the century. There was profound loss in both families: Hesse’s mother committed suicide when she was ten and Wilke’s father died suddenly when she was twenty. In an interview Wilke described how “immediacy is very important to me, I guess I’ve experienced so much death that I’m interested in life, and affirming life... A lot of people who haven’t experienced death don’t really know what it is to live. . . we had a very large family and so once I started counting, I think there were about twenty-two people I knew that died.”10 Both women also married and divorced young: Wilke to the industrial designer Barry Wilke from 1960 to 1965 and Hesse to the artist Tom Doyle from 1961 to 1966, separating the same year her father died.
They were each clear that their experiences of grief were deeply embedded in their artistic sensibility. The predominantly abstract work that they made shares a bristling, visceral sense of aliveness, which has forced critics to anthropomorphize in order to find descriptors for the objects that hang and sit and sag before them.11 They were drawn to unusual materials (latex, fiberglass, cheesecloth, laundry lint, erasers) and created forms that seem to relate to a binary system: “it has to do with contradictions and oppositions,” Hesse explained to Nemser, “I was always aware that I should take order versus chaos, stringy versus mass, huge versus small.”12 Situating their work in this slippery in-between allowed them to resist (and laugh at) the notion of easy signifiers, while acknowledging the urgent need to express exactly those innermost spaces that are the most fugitive from description. This can present something of a challenge, in turn, to writing about their work. But as Maggie Nelson describes on the first page of The Argonauts (2015), we must take comfort in “Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed... For it doesn’t feed or exalt any angst one may feel about the incapacity to express, in words, that which eludes them. It doesn’t punish what can be said for what, by definition, it cannot be. Nor does it ham it up by miming a constricted throat: Lo, what I would say, were words good enough. Words are good enough.”13 And they are all that I have to thread together some simple points of connection between Wilke, Hesse, and their remarkable work.
Although Hesse and Wilke both painted and drew (and in Wilke’s case, made performance and film), it was sculpture for which they would become primarily known—and which they would teach in their respective periods on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts.15 Hesse dropped out of an advertising design course at Pratt Institute at the end of 1953, went to Cooper Union and then on to the Yale School of Art and Architecture from 1957–59. She studied with Josef Albers but felt emotionally drawn to more expressive forms of painting. In a “Philosophy of Art” paper, she described how “the Abstract Expressionist attempts to define a deeply-rooted bond between himself and nature. . . He does this by suggesting the forces that shape things.”16 Her first sculptures were made in December 1964 in the abandoned factory in Kettwig an der Ruhr that the German industrialist Friedrich Arnhard Scheidt had offered “the Doyles” for a year, along with support and materials, in exchange for some of their work.
She wrote excitedly in her diary about “Plaster! I have always loved the material. It is flexible, pliable, easy to handle in that it is light, fast-working. Its whiteness is right.”17 She began to make reliefs using papier-mâché and cord on Masonite, the first of which was Ringaround Arosie (1965) [PLATE 1], a sexually ambiguous composition with two protruding circular forms, one atop the other. “Actually looks like breast and penis—but that’s ok and I should go on with it maybe,” she wrote to her friend the artist Sol LeWitt, prompting his famous encouragement to “Do more. More nonsensical, more crazy, more machines, more breasts, penises, cunts whatever—make them abound with nonsense [FIG. 3].”18
Wilke was also inspired by the Abstract Expressionists—Willem de Kooning feels particularly present in both her and Hesse’s early works on paper [FIGS. 4 and 5]—and took art history classes at New York University with tutors including Irving Sandler.19 She began experimenting with sculpture in 1960, when she was in the third year of her BFA at the Stella Elkins Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia: “I started making fiberglass pieces. . . because its plasticity allowed me to create curvilinear and architectonic form simultaneously.”20 For most of the 1960s she taught in high schools by day (which was common for women artists of her generation, and which Hesse also did sporadically) but at night she would create what Nancy Princenthal has memorably described as “gnarly, polymorphously funky objects of conflicting expressive purposes [FIG. 6].”21 These box-like forms have ambivalently-gendered orifices and protuberances and were often made from clay left unglazed to give a sense of raw materiality; Princenthal’s Freudian terminology is apt given that Wilke’s books included a heavily annotated copy of Norman O’Brown’s Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History (1959).22 Her sculptures were first exhibited in two group shows in New York in 1966: at Castagno Gallery in March and in Hetero Is at New York City Arts Theater Association (NYCATA) Gallery in December [FIG. 7].23 Between the two, art historian Lucy R. Lippard curated her first exhibition: Eccentric Abstraction at Fischbach Gallery [FIG. 8], which featured three sculptures by Hesse and set out to “indicate that there were emotive or ‘eccentric’ or erotic alternatives to a solemn and deadpan Minimalism which still retained the clarity of that notion.”24
Hesse and Wilke shared in the desire to adopt and subvert the strict geometries of Minimalism; softening the language of cool detachment with a sense of physical touch. The dialogue was explicit in Hesse’s Washer Table (1967) [PLATE 9], a white coffee table with a grey grid that LeWitt had made for her, which she decided to paint black and cover with neat rows of rubber washers, an industrially produced component with suggestions of the body since they are used to seal against leaks (fellow artist Mel Bochner called this Hesse’s allusions “to the body as a sewer system”).25 The work relates to her circle drawings from 1966–68, which feature concentric rings, washed in modulating shades of grey, mostly contained by a grid, although in some a single “target” presses up against both edges of the page [PLATE 2]. She made a series on graph paper with a mass of tiny circles meticulously drawn into the middle of each square. They smack of the laboriousness of their making and imply the history of artists demonstrating their prowess by free-handing a perfect circle (a gesture doubly exaggerated by the compressed size and the obsessive repetition). Wilke also used the grid to structure works such as her Needed-Erase-Her pieces [PLATES 12-14]—groups of soft rubber erasers that she worked into small labial forms and then glued onto painted boards (again, the self-imposed labor). In both instances, repetition highlights the slight disparities between forms, which carry a sense of organic rather than mechanical reproduction. “Repetition does enlarge or increase or exaggerate an idea or purpose in a statement” explained Hesse; while Wilke reflected that “the most subtle differences are very important to me... it’s those variances, those subtle differences that human beings are about.”26
The availability of liquid latex in the late 1960s was a critical development for them both [FIG. 2]; its sensual qualities, as Lippard put it, offered “expressive vestiges shunned by Minimalism.”27 Hesse experienced such a surge of energy that her first solo exhibition at Fischbach Gallery had to be postponed by six months to accommodate new ideas and experiments. She used LeWitt’s table to cast the sheet for Schema (1967) (“it’s a long process, painted on with brush and having to wait ½ hr. to one hr. between coats” she wrote in September 1967) and a muffin tin for the 144 individual components, which she placed but did not fix on top [FIG. 9].28 Later, she would coat wire mesh and cheesecloth with latex, dip rope and canvas into it, mold with it and sew it and suspend it, but a central problem remained: it was falling apart. Wilke faced the same trouble and the correspondence in her archives with chemists at the latex manufacturers shows her efforts to arrive at a medium that would last (eventually she found that adding Liquitex helped durability).29 Her early latex works were tear-shaped forms that she hung in clusters or pinned to the wall, each unit made by pouring the liquid onto a Plaster of Paris floor so that the moisture would be absorbed and the edges of “the pour” arrested in solid form. She must have felt pleased with these new works because she selected In Memory of My Feelings (an homage to the great New York School poet Frank O’Hara, as well as a reference to the tender, skin-like finish of dried latex) for the Whitney Biennial in 1973.30
For her second solo exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in 1974, Wilke laid on the dark wooden ﬂoor 176 “one-fold gestural sculptures”—a carpet of light-pink terracotta forms, each shaped from a single circle of clay [fig. 10]. Edit DeAk echoed LeWitt’s letter in her review: “I cherish Wilke’s expressive potential. I hope she can hold on to it by being hysterical, loud, cheap, silly, funny, formalist, sarcastic, full of sorrow” (make them abound with nonsense).32 By this point, Wilke had become synonymous with what Lowery Sims called her “signature cunt / scar forms”: from the peachy labial shapes drawn in graphite and stained with watercolor in her works on paper [PLATE 17] to the pieces of gum that she chewed and twisted into little vulvic adornments for her face and body in S.O.S. Starification Object Series [FIG. 11].33 These forms were washed with subtly shifting meanings: the act of mastication in S.O.S. suggests oral pleasure (accentuated by the near-rhyme to masturbation), while the word “starification” relates to the ritual scarification endured by African women as well as concentration camp tattoos—a razor’s edge between gratification and pain. Wilke developed her sculptural vocabulary against the backdrop of “women’s lib” and was explicit about her commitment to feminism. In a letter to The New York Times, she wrote that “vaginal imagery represents the only universal symbol of creation and the most important function of human existence [so] the unique possibilities of a new women’s art within the formalist context of a female iconography are infinite.”34
Hesse felt more conflicted about bodily imagery. When Nemser suggested that “your works... seem, to me, to be filled with sexual impulses or organic feeling. I feel there are anthropomorphic inferences,” she replied, “it’s not a simple question for me” and went on to speak about the “total image.”35 Later Nemser returned to the question of motifs—“I notice that you use the circle quite frequently. What does it mean to you?”—and Hesse took the opportunity to clarify that “I think the circle is very abstract. I could make up stories of what the circle means to men, but I don’t know if it is that conscious. I think it was a form, a vehicle. I don’t think I had a sexual, anthropomorphic, or geometric meaning. It wasn’t a breast and it wasn’t a circle representing life and eternity. I think that would be fake—maybe on an unconscious level.”36 There are gentle vacillations in her reply; an acknowledgement of what Nemser is finding in her forms, conflicting with an understandable reluctance for them to be reduced to any singular meaning, especially if it has been imposed onto the work rather than emerging from within. Yet in grappling with why she felt Hang Up (1966) [FIG. 12] was one of her most important works to date, she could not resist the anthropomorphic: “It has a kind of depth I don’t always achieve—a depth and soul and absurdity and life and meaning or feeling or intellect that I want to get.”37
Hesse was not immune to the nascent feminist movement: in November 1964, she had read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949, first translated into English in 1953), and had copied into her diary passages that particularly resonated with her, such as “what woman essentially lacks today for doing great things is forgetfulness of herself; but to forget oneself it is first of all necessary to be firmly assured that now and for the future one has found oneself.”38 It was only when asked for an explicit statement on the topic that she demurred; when Nemser wrote to a number of women artists about their experiences of sexual prejudice, Hesse hand-wrote on the bottom of the letter “excellence has no sex” and “the way to beat discrimination is by art” and curtly sent it back.39 Her ambivalence was shared by many critics at the time—Mignon Nixon points to Lippard’s use of scare quotes around “breasts” in her influential 1976 monograph on Hesse as a reflection of “the anxiety precipitated by a turn to the body in the work of a (woman) artist of the Minimalist generation.”40 In her collection of essays, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (1976), Lippard generously acknowledged this reluctance, recalling an occasion of being walked around a feminist exhibition by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro and finding herself staring “astounded” at the recurrent “central-core” imagery that they pointed to and that she had “vehemently resisted” seeing previously.41
The danger was that an artwork could get caught in this yonic honey trap; stripped of any subtlety or imminence of meaning. Wilke was conscious of this too and because she often appeared naked within her performances, she faced the added risk that her beauty would blind any acknowledgement of the formal qualities of her work. When in 1974 Art-Rite asked a number of women artists whether they believed in a “shared female artistic sensibility,” she playfully replied: “Since sexual issues still frighten, and male superiority complexes still flourish, leaving cunt queens quite lonely . . . could we possibly find a better name for my kittens? . . . If I am going to become Pubic Princess of a new movement, I sincerely hope it will also include the awareness of its being innovative sculptural form and not merely new subject matter.”42 Ultimately, when Hesse and Wilke felt driven to make forms that feel of the body, when they experimented with visceral materials like latex, when they spoke of their work in anthropomorphic terms, they did so because they strove (consciously and otherwise) to touch upon something human. In this respect, their work teems with the erotic as described by the poet Audre Lorde: “those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us.”43
[BANNER] Photo of Hannah Wilke in her studio with latex and twine piece from Three Sisters, 1972 (no longer extant).
Image courtesy Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.
Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer 1976), p. 889.
Cindy Nemser, “An Interview with Eva Hesse,” Artforum, May 1970, p. 59. This interview has been edited differently over the years so I quote from it from different sources throughout this essay in order to give the fullest impression of their conversations, which took place over the course of three meetings.
Cindy Nemser, “My Memories of Eva Hesse,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 2007), pp. 26-28. Their respective ages may seem like an extraneous detail but I think could be one reason why these two women were able to strike up such an intimate exchange of ideas despite knowing each other very little prior to this interview.
Ibid., p. 27.
Cindy Nemser, “A Conversation with Eva Hesse” (1970) in Mignon Nixon, ed., Eva Hesse (Cambridge, MA: October Files,
The MIT Press, 2002), p. 6.
Cindy Nemser, “Four Artists of Sensuality,” Arts Magazine 49, no. 7 (March 1975), pp. 73–75.
Interview with Hannah Wilke, February 18, 1975, Cindy Nemser papers, 1966-2012, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no.2013.M.21.
“Intercourse with…” text reproduced in Hannah Wilke: A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue, Gallery 210, University of Missouri–St. Louis, 1989), p. 139.
In her interview with Nemser, Wilke spoke about the connection to Hesse, whom she recognized as being a very significant artist, although she also stressed that “people should be much more careful that they don’t link other women with her being the deification figure, because she was our contemporary.” Interview with Wilke, February 18, 1975, Cindy Nemser papers, 1966–2012, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no.2013.M.21
“Artist Hannah Wilke Talks with Ernst,” Oasis d’Neon 1, no. 3 (1978). Copy in Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive,Los Angeles.
John Perrault wrote in his review of Hesse’s first solo exhibition that the works, “because of their harsh illegibility… provoke bizarre anthropomorphisms. The kind of queasy uneasiness they evoke makes one want to stroke them gently, to soothe and smooth them down.” John Perrault, “The Materiality of Matter,” Village Voice, November 28, 1968, p. 19.
Nemser, “An Interview with Eva Hesse,” p. 60.
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (London: Melville House, 2015), p. 3.
Cixous, p. 887.
Hesse taught at the School of Visual Arts from 1968 to 1970; Wilke founded the ceramics department and taught there from 1972–91. It is interesting to note that Hesse spoke about the possibility of working with film in her interview with Nemser: “I had just seen [Jean-Luc Godard’s] Weekend and I wasn’t that moved. But I saw it a second time and I was as moved as I could be by anything... I had never tried to make a film. I don’t know what made me think that was physically easier... I have so little content in my work in terms of reality. For me it is very much that but it is not visible. It is abstractly that way, and in film, although my film would be very abstract, there is some closer connection. I mean you have to use some kind of imagery to do it through connectedness of people or whatever I would choose. And it would give me another vehicle, a vehicle of content. Chances are it would be sparse, but I am sure in the first one I would use people.” Quoted in Lucy R. Lippard, Eva Hesse (New York: New York University Press, 1976; reprinted, New York: Da Capo Press, 1992), p. 155.
Lippard, p. 12.
Eva Hesse diary entry, December 10, 1964, in Barry Rosen, ed., Eva Hesse: Diaries (Hauser & Wirth in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2016), p. 412.
Eva Hesse letter quoted in Lippard,
p. 34; LeWitt letter, https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/
Hesse told Nemser that “I loved most de Kooning and Gorky but I knew that was for me personally. You know, for what I could take from them,” Nemser, “A Conversation with Eva Hesse” in Nixon, p. 23.
Hannah Wilke in Conversation with Ruth Iskin, Visual Dialog 2, no. 4 (1978), p. 20. Copy in the Hannah Wilke Collection and Archive, Los Angeles.
Wilke taught at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School in Pennsylvania from 1962-65 and White Plains High School in New York from 1965-70. Nancy Princenthal, Hannah Wilke (Munich: Prestel, 2010), p. 11.
Norman O’Brown’s Life Against Death was a gift from Wilke’s sister Marsie Scharlatt and remains in the Wilke Collection and Archive, Los Angeles.
For more information about Hetero Is, see Rachel Middleman, Radical Eroticism: Women, Art, and Sex in the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), pp. 117–126.
Lippard, p. 83. Lippard also mentioned Wilke’s work in her review of the NYCATA exhibition... “Artists like Sonnier, or Gary Kuehn with his inactive contrast of a box-like structure and a ‘melted’ fiberglass puddle forming a separate but related section of the same piece, confront opposing aspects of the same form or surface and systemize the resulting concept of change. Facts before and after action are presented unemphatically. As in the classic Indian yoni and lingam sculptures, momentary excitement is omitted in favor of a double-edged experience; opposites are witnesses to the ultimate union or the neutralization of their own opposing characteristics. Hannah Wilke’s androgynous terra cotta at the NYCATA show, though conceptually less advanced than other works mentioned here, might also serve to illustrate this principle.” Lucy R. Lippard, “Eros Presumptive,” The Hudson Review, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring 1967), pp. 91–99.
“About Eva Hesse: Mel Bochner interviewed by Joan Simon” (1992) in Nixon, p. 42.
Nemser, “An Interview with Eva Hesse”; “Artist Hannah Wilke Talks with Ernst.” Copy in Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.
Hesse began working with liquid latex in the autumn of 1967 and Wilke sometime around 1970. It is suspected that their respective use of new materials—particularly latex and fiberglass—may have contributed to their untimely deaths. Lippard, Eva Hesse, p. 110.
Hesse quoted in Ibid., p. 112.
In a letter to the “General Latex & Chemical Corp,” Wilke wrote that “I am interested in the imperfect quality of the surface... I do need a material that flows easily, so it does not become thick, and retains its strength and ‘memory’ when hung.” Letter to Mr. David Gast, Chief Chemist for General Latex & Chemical Corp, September 11, 1973, Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.
The critic Jeanne Siegel noted that in the Whitney Biennial: “there was a scarcity in the post-Minimal, Surrealist-influenced work deriving from Eva Hesse... Hannah Wilke’s common-colored rubbery hanging piece was the only example worth mentioning.” Jeanne Siegel, “The Whitney Biennial,” ARTnews, March 1973, pp. 68–69. Clipping in Hannah Wilke Collection and Archive, Los Angeles.
Cixous, p. 889.
Edit DeAk, “Hannah Wilke,” Art in America, May-June 1974, p. 110.
Lowery Sims, “Hannah Wilke: The Body Politic or The Adventures of a Good-Looking Feminist” in Art & Ideology (exhibition catalogue, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1984), p. 48.
Hannah Wilke letter to the Editor of The New York Times, June 20, 1979. Copy in Hannah Wilke Collection and Archive.
Nemser, “A Conversation with Eva Hesse,” p. 6.
Ibid., p. 9.
Ibid., p. 7.
Eva Hesse diary entry, November 22, 1964, in Rosen, p. 411.
Nemser, “My Memories of Eva Hesse,” pp. 26–28.
Mignon Nixon, “Ringaround Arosie: 2 in 1” in Nixon, ed., Eva Hesse, p. 196.
Lucy R. Lippard, “Prefaces to Catalogues of Women’s Exhibitions,” in From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (New York: Dutton, 1976), p. 31.
“Un-Skirting the Issue,” Art-Rite, Spring 1974, pp. 6–7. Clipping in Hannah Wilke Collection and Archive.
Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg, New York: Crossing Press, 1988), p. 56.