‘Time’s Passage, Indexed in Rubber’: On Eva Hesse’s ‘Five Sculptures’

An exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, New York, assembles the late artist’s sculptural work marked by a slow-burning strangeness that resists the potentially dampening effects of art-historical discourse

BY Cassie Packard in Exhibition Reviews | 16 MAY 24

Judiciously spare and poetically paced, ‘Eva Hesse: Five Sculptures’ at Hauser & Wirth assembles a quintet of the German-born artist’s most historically significant sculptures from 1967 to 1969, made just before her premature death from cancer, aged 34, in May 1970. Exemplifying Hesse’s ability to coax absurdity and eroticism out of a minimalism-informed commitment to seriality and industrial materials, the works on view are marked by a slow-burning strangeness that resists the potentially dampening effects of art-historical discourse (discourse which, in Hesse’s case, exists in ample supply). The show highlights a celebrated period during which the artist grew adept with unorthodox materials associated with manufacturing and consumer goods, while articulating a sculptural vocabulary rooted in visual opposites and difference through repetition.

Mounted in the age of museum-to-mega-gallery lending, ‘Five Sculptures’ is entirely composed of major loans from institutional collections: the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in California, Glenstone in Maryland, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio. These works are rarely loaned out – and in some cases were formerly deemed unexhibitable – because of their frangibility, a quality attributable to Hesse’s use of decidedly non-archival materials. The exhibition offers a rare chance to see them together. While it doesn’t reframe Hesse’s practice (in the manner of the 2009 ‘Studiowork’ show mounted by ‘Five Sculptures’ co-curators Briony Fer and Barry Rosen) or illuminate its lesser-known corners (as with Luanne McKinnon’s ‘Spectres’ show of 2010), its thoughtful organization, built on intimate knowledge of the works’ histories of creation and display, emphasizes the way a shape, material or concept would often rematerialize in Hesse’s oeuvre in a slightly different form – refusing, in a sense, to end.

Eva Hesse, ‘Five Sculptures’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: © The Estate of Eva Hesse and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Matt Grubb

The artist, who escaped Nazi Germany as a child, before eventually settling with her family in New York, began her career as a painter. She first forayed into three dimensions during a 1964–65 stint in Kettwig, Germany, when she worked with detritus from the disused textile factory where she kept a studio. In 1967, back in Manhattan, Hesse began experimenting with liquid latex – an industrial material that evinced her touch – from Cementex on Canal Street; the following year, she collaborated with a fabricator at Aegis Reinforced Plastics to sculpt with fiberglass as well. As indicated by her experimental ‘test pieces’ and notes from lectures on polymers organized by Experiments in Art and Technology, she was passionate about learning how these media operated; she even titled her first sculpture-centric solo show, at New York’s Fischbach Gallery in 1968, after latex’s molecular structure (‘Chain Polymers’). She exerted and relinquished control to these industrial materials as her artworks took shape – anticipating, perhaps, work by artists who explore the animacy of matter, including toxic matter (like plastic) that alters bodies and ecosystems, in new materialist frameworks today.

Over the years, Hesse’s creations in these media have decayed – or, alternatively, continued to unfold – due to oxidation: they stiffen, embrittle, grow discoloured and even disintegrate. Four out of five sculptures in the exhibition prominently feature latex; time’s passage, indexed in rubber, is particularly evident in the case of Aught (1968) and Expanded Expansion (1969). Seeing these works together today increases the pitch of a question that has been dogging them for decades: is decay part of their conceptual makeup – evidence of an artist posthumously collaborating with or ceding to her materials – or an undesirable side effect to be expertly mitigated? During my visits, the security guards’ constant refrain of ‘Step back, please’ highlighted not only the works’ material precarity but also the desire for an intimate encounter that these pieces elicit, particularly in light of their allusions to bodies: ‘bodies’ being both the materiality of skin, which takes on additional resonances as the latex ages, and the bodily logic of repeating parts. (Yve-Alain Bois noted in a 2006 catalogue essay that a sculpture by Hesse was once damaged by people ‘climbing into it, in a somewhat grotesque mockery of a “return-to-the-womb fantasy”’.)

‘Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016’, 2016, exhibition view. Courtesy: © The Estate of Eva Hesse and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Brian Forrest

Hesse took latex – a pliable, soft and skin-like material – and built it up, layer by translucent layer, through painting; as she told art historian Cindy Nemser in a 1970 interview, she came to prefer processes that, unlike casting, offered a ‘direct’ relationship between artist and material. Her painterly approach is most pronounced in Aught and Augment, two closely related works from 1968. Augment, a floor piece, consists of a sequence of 17 overlapping canvas sheets painted with latex. Applied with thick, gestural strokes, the latex extends past the sheets’ edges to form irregular borders. Akin to Hang Up (1966), an earlier piece riffing on a picture frame, Augment maps painting and sculpture onto one another, collapsing their distinctions. On the wall directly behind Augment is Aught, a row of four latex-coated canvases made pillowy with a stuffing of polyethylene sheets – the same drop cloths that an artist might use (and discard) when working with latex. Hanging from metal grommets, each browned painting-sculpture has a unique pattern of soft creases. The presentation here references the staging of these two sculptures in ‘9’: a storied group show held at Leo Castelli’s warehouse in 1968 and organized by artist Robert Morris, whose ‘Anti-Form’ essay (1968) from earlier that year theorized an emergent strain of sculpture more concerned with ‘matter and gravity’ than ‘enduring forms’.

Expanded Expansion (1969), which was exhibited at the Guggenheim in 2022 after undergoing significant restoration, has become synonymous with the conservation debate around Hesse’s late sculpture. Overtaking an expanse of gallery wall, the environmentally scaled structure is composed of 13 panels made of cheesecloth rubberized with latex, held up by fiberglass and polyester resin poles. Now darkened from cream to ochre, its once-malleable drapes have stiffened, undoing the initial contrast between hard and soft materials. Hesse indicated that the ungainly sculpture, which is more than three metres tall and nine metres long when fully extended, can also be shown enfolding a corner or laid on the floor. Its variability – ‘expansiveness’ in the sense of flexibility rather than mere monumentality – recalls Morris’s assertion, in his ‘Anti-Form’ essay, that ‘chance is accepted and indeterminacy is implied, as replacing will result in another configuration’.

Eva Hesse, Augment, 1968, latex and canvas, 1.9 × 1 m. Courtesy: © The Estate of Eva Hesse and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Genevieve Hanson

Hesse’s sculptures, so often titled in reference to actions and gestures, exude the sense that another configuration is always possible. Take Repetition Nineteen I (1967), a grouping of 18 – one unit is missing – modestly sized, slightly dented buckets with raised bottoms, made from papier-caché (akin to papier-mâché) on aluminium screening and painted glossy white. Hesse expressed that the components could be arranged in any way that upheld the concepts underlying the work. As the bucket forms – functional objects rendered functionless – are repeated with variation, attuning viewers to minute differences between them, the work also repeats itself beyond the frame of the show: the piece is the first of three material variations, the second of which was never completed, while the third was cast in fiberglass and resin. Area (1968), which comprises crimped brown latex panels on wire mesh, sewn together with pieces of wire, is displayed near Repetition Nineteen I. Attached to the wall at its top end, the long sculpture slumps onto the floor as if dejectedly succumbing to gravity. These works’ engagement with repetition also manifests as recycling; Hesse reused the wire moulds from Repetition Nineteen III (1968), flattening them and coating them with latex, to make Area. Hesse’s logics of reconfiguration extend well beyond the variable installation of works to other kinds of scrambling: the cast-off and nonprecious become indispensable, paintings become sculptures, parts become wholes and what has been consigned to boundedness might, in fact, expand indefinitely.

Eva Hesse: Five Sculptures’ is on view at Hauser & Wirth, New York, until 26 July

Main Image: ‘Eva Hesse: Expanded Expansion’, 2022, exhibition view. Courtesy: © The Estate of Eva Hesse and Hauser & Wirth; photograph by Midge Wattles & Ariel Ione Williams

Cassie Packard is a writer and assistant editor of frieze based in New York.