Initially, the artists featured in this double show seem an unlikely couple: whereas the work of Eva Hesse (1936–70) is firmly anchored in the Western canon of post-minimalism and ‘anti-form’, the art of Gertrud Goldschmidt (1912–94), who worked in Venezuela under the name Gego, barely registers on the radar of most art historians. Gego, who studied architecture and engineering under Paul Bonatz in Stuttgart before emigrating to South America, and who began making art aged 41, trod a solitary path, in spite of being acquainted with the Venezuelan kinetic artists Jesús Rafael Soto and Alejandro Otero.
Twinning Hesse and Gego made sense on account of biographical parallels: both women were born into Jewish families in Hamburg, both managed to escape Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, and both returned to Germany to work for periods after the war. Hesse left Hamburg at the age of three on a Kindertransport with her elder sister, reaching New York via London in 1939. Goldschmidt fled in 1939, also via the UK, to Venezuela. Beyond these commonalities, curators Brigitte Kölle and Petra Roettig did not try to interweave the two parts of the show, which took place on separate floors. The differences between the artists’ aesthetics are too pronounced: Hesse’s wrinkled, amber-coloured objects that aim for the beauty of the serial have little in common with Gego’s metallic, mathematical-geodesic networks that seem to have floated across from the cybernetic age. It was thus left to the visitor to speculate on analogies and distinctions between these artistic approaches, which reflected an anti traditionalist definition of sculpture.
This was something Gego addressed in her journals: ‘Sculpture: a physical structure made of solid materials. I never do anything like that!’ Instead, she systematically explored what she called ‘the independent life of the line’ – including the space that opens up between two lines or the distorted shadow generated by a complex network sculpture. In the exhibition, the drawings, small sculptures on plinths, and net-like spheres hanging in the space elicited competing responses. On the one hand, Gego’s vocabulary of forms in space in ‘Line as Object’ is echoed in current work by artists like Chiharu Shiota, Tomás Saraceno or even Olafur Eliasson, and thus appears familiar. (This impression was reinforced by a documentary screened as part of the show with footage of various public art projects realized by Gego in Caracas, such as Cuadriláteros, Quadrilaterals, 1983, an installation of aluminium tubing at a metro station, or a facade design for the main building of the Instituto Nacional de Cooperación Educativa.) On the other hand, it may be precisely this explicitly architectural current in contemporary art that makes us wary of Gego’s unspectacular later work: the fragile, model-like, small-format assemblages of wires, tapes, ropes, fabric and metal off-cuts, which the artist called ‘Bichitos’ (Small Bugs), as well as tiny pieces of paper and cardboard woven into collages.
Despite the fragility of the ‘Bichitos’, none of Gego’s works appeared as timeworn as those in ‘Eva Hesse: One More than One’. Although Lucy Lippard once wrote that Hesse’s involvement with materials has been ‘overemphasized’, it was the material (or, to be more precise, its fragility) rather than Hesse’s use of repetition (as suggested by the exhibition title) that dominated the show. Hesse experimented with new and, in some cases, perishable materials such as papier-mâché, string, plastics, polyester, fibreglass and latex. She was clearly not interested in working against decay over time. Paradoxically, this very fact has now created an aura around her oeuvre, which almost goes against her original concept of the experimental, the anti-monumental, the modular – see, for example, Repetition Nineteen, III or Accretion (both 1968). In this regard, Hesse’s works always seem to contradict what the critic Stuart Morgan once called the ‘Hesse legend’: an artist’s life shaped by the experience of exile, life in a Lower East Side artists’ colony, and an early death just as she was making her breakthrough, almost like a dramatic script. Many reviews of the show in the German press were eager to point out that this might be the last major Hesse show in Germany, because the objects will probably no longer be authorized for loan on conservational grounds.
Looking at many of the 40 or so works on show, brought together from private and public collections around the world, this seemed plausible. The organic forms and yellowish waxy surfaces of certain pieces recall dead plants. In the last five years of her life (the period focused on here), Hesse avoided using more than one colour. The installation Sans II (1968) even revealed differences in the aging process. The work is a five-part relief extending over ten metres, with two superimposed rows of box-like elements made of fibreglass and polyester resin, originally shown in 1968 at Hesse’s first major solo show at Fischbach Gallery in New York. Because the five parts were later sold separately, ending up in a number of museums and private collections in America and Europe, they aged differently, resulting, for example, in various discolorations of the wax-like box elements caused by exposure to light. The topicality of ‘One More than One’ lies not in demonstrating transport logistics or the art of conservation and restoration, however, but rendering visible these rarely questioned art-world processes through the works themselves.