BY Anne Michaels in Features | 04 APR 03
Featured in
Issue 74

Body of Work

Eva Hesse

BY Anne Michaels in Features | 04 APR 03

He kept a diary for her, and one for her sister.

All during Eva Hesse's childhood her father wrote to her, so she would have a record of those early years. In December 1938 he documented his daughters' flight from Germany to Holland, when Hesse was two years old. 'Then came the sad farewell ... at the railway station at Altona. Will there be a reunion? Will we be murdered first? We were not allowed on the platform. Helen and Eva held hands and marched off to the train, accompanied by criminals, certified as customs officials and Gestapo.'

Much has been written relating Hesse's work and her life, a psychoanalytical reading of her art. She has been described by one critic as a hypochondriac, a depressive, feigning illness for sympathy. Her work has been viewed in a biographical context again and again, analysed with a presumed intimacy that - to be frank - is rarely considered appropriate to the work of male artists. Partly this is to due to the sorrows of Hesse's life: her childhood in Nazi Germany - the traumatic, temporary separation from her parents, her mother's suicide when Hesse was ten years old - and her early death at the age of 34, just as she was beginning to be recognized as a major artist. Partly it is because she was a woman who spoke a psychological language and who left behind diaries and journals in which she endeavoured to sort out both emotional and technical questions regarding her art. But the journals were only a small part of her process and intended only for her own use.

For months I looked at images of Hesse's work; thought about it, was moved by it, knowing almost nothing about her life. Then, as I learned a little of her biography, I set these details next to her art; not with the presumption of solving a mystery, but of letting another mystery be placed, side by side, next to the art: one mystery next to another. Not as paradox, not reductive.

Kettwig, Germany, June 1964 to September 1965; 15 months ... Hesse returned to Germany for the first time at the age of 28. She was not long married, yet already closer to the end of her marriage than the beginning. She was fluent in German, and for the first time in her life she was talking and thinking about her art in her mother tongue, her mother's tongue. I cannot help but imagine that it was within this transformation of language that the change occurred, that her voice truly entered her work. Looking at her drawings from those months, the release is palpable, enormous. Whatever she found in that language and in that place, no one will ever know, but it brought her into the third dimension; her language suddenly became visceral. By the time she returned to New York she had, in a deeply internal way, changed media and her work had become her own.

Looking at the work Hesse did during these months, and during the years in New York that followed, one begins to think about courage - that is to say, about fear. There is a certain kind of fear, so deep it forces us to act courageously. Hesse's work became courageous. Large, anatomical, corruptible, taking its chances.

Looking into the body we look into vulnerability, into forces beyond our control. This is the most common response to Hesse's art, the references we find to the body. Textures, shapes, mass, arrangements that can change from exhibition to exhibition, depending on the gallery space and the predilections of the curator ('positioning can be varied ...'), shapes that look as though they might breathe, that trail, slither, hang with weight or weightlessness - imagined or real - all dripping with the effects of gravity. Objects, organs that look as though they were once saturated with wetness now exposed to the air, beginning to alter before our eyes, drying out, turning stiff, of indeterminate texture. Cilia of rubber tubing, and synapses of string. Latex and fibreglass - skin and bone. Knots, knobs, crystallizing textures, rattling or rubbery; each component looks as though it had been hidden somewhere - underground or under skin - and now brought into the air. Glistening, growing dull, sinewy, muscle-fibrous, once viscous now hardening, different weights resting against and with each other.

There has been much discussion about the mutability of her materials (especially the disintegration of latex) and the preservation responsibilities of those who own her work. Whether the works should continue to be exhibited, whether they should be restored, how to document their decomposition, their recomposition ... intervention or non-intervention. Discussion of how Hesse would have thought about this, what action she would have approved of now, if she were alive to decide.

Eerily, Hesse's work seems to be decomposing at a mortal rate. One particular piece was left in storage for years, as the best way to preserve it. When the packing case was eventually opened, like an ancient tomb, it was found that despite being kept away from light and heat, the piece had decayed none the less. It is as if her work has a human span, lasting only as long as it is naturally meant to; it seems to insist on defying our contrived expectation that real art is meant to outlive us.

She was faithful to the truth of her materials; she could not adapt them for the sake of posterity; her materials were the flesh of her vision. It is partly this human time-scale as well as the quiet, accumulative process of the actual rendering of her work that is so moving. A sense of time not as a given but as a gift.

Hesse loved latex. I imagine her pleasure talking shop with Mr Niccio at Cementex on Canal Street, where she bought her supply. The pleasure of exploring latex's properties and listing them later in her journal: liquid rubber that could be applied by brush, that remained flexible while conforming to a shape, that immediately took the imprint of any surface it came into contact with. A neutral colour unless pigment was introduced, translucent or opaque depending on how many layers applied. Sets after 24 hours. Chemical additions can make it go rigid, crack and turn yellow. Responsive, malleable and unstable; a life of its own. At some moment Hesse knew her work would have a chance to grow old, to age, as she would not.

When I think about the conservation issues surrounding Hesse's work, it seems that her real material was memory, which is corruptible, changes colour, takes on the impression of what it touches, sets after a certain time, grows rigid ... translucent or opaque depending on how many layers ... latex as liquid
memory ...

Her work was deeply of her hands, body work, whether she was threading - over months, from autumn into early winter of the following year - the 30,670 holes of Accession II with plastic tubing, or fitting together her 'washer pieces', whether she was wrapping or binding, or slowly layering latex.

Some critics have labelled her process 'frantic', 'obsessive' and even - absurdly - as 'avoidance behaviour', a way to avoid confronting strong emotion. Her handwork, her process, seems not obsessive, but devotional - a long, slow way of saying goodbye to a piece. With each knot one is closer to finishing, abandoning the piece, at the same time as one is declaring one's relationship to it. There is nothing 'frantic' in a process that takes months to complete - rather, it is the opposite; it is labour that requires great patience. All her later sculpture required this intensity; binding, winding, knotting, the considered layering of latex, each layer having to dry slowly before the next could be added.

She approved of beauty only when it was not hiding anything, only when it was organic, when the materials could achieve nothing else but beauty; almost against her will.

Let it not be too beautiful, she kept saying, as if the beauty would only be skin deep. As if longing to be sure of love when youth is gone.

The decay of materials is a long, slow, quiet goodbye.
After two operations for a brain tumour, and radiation and chemotherapy during the second half of 1969, Hesse wrote: 'I have learned anything is possible. I know that, that vision or concept will come through total risk, freedom,
discipline ...'

And a few months later - in the last months of her life - Hesse wrote: 'The lack of energy I have is contrasted by a psychic energy of rebirth. A will to start to live again, work again, be seen, love ...'

Before she died Hesse asked that three pieces be destroyed: the impossibly heavy-looking, black weight of the uterus and umbilicus of Long Life; Total Zero; the life-saving ring that looks as though it would sink; and the Untitled (Spoke Piece) that stands alone and doesn't spin.Perhaps it is taking a liberty to ask of art not that we understand it, but that it understand us, a liberty the living too often take with the dead.

But on a midwinter's day, in a year of having lost almost everyone beloved, walking amid the natural and industrial detritus of the lane, Hesse's shapes and weights, their human randomness, her very materials, seem a kind of tenderness - both caring and sore.Contrary relationships, extremes of compassion and cruelty, of horror and mercy that exist side by side on this earth, have become so commonplace that perhaps the word paradox is no longer useful.

In Hesse's last piece, which she referred to as the 'rope piece', the knots are places of disconnection, of made connections; one could say these joinings are places of weakness. But that depends, I suppose, on whether they are joining for the first time, or are a kind of repair. Perhaps Hesse's knots can only be both.