Talking to a tutor on a Study Visit about where I was in my courses and my thinking, she suggested I look at the work of Eva Hesse. I found an instant connection with her work in its use of simple materials and organic shapes.
Tomorrow’s Apples uses a white planar surface with two contrasting textures shapes joined by wires wrapped in different coloured threads. Although most of the materials aren’t organic in nature, the effect is suggestive of fertility and growth. The way she has linked and contrasted the shapes creates great interest out of simple materials. The plain white background gives the coloured threads purpose and power. The Tate comments that she used relief works to translate her linear drawings when she was struggling to do so in paint. In my sketchbook, I have been searching for shapes for sculpture by sketching possible sculptures, when perhaps I should have been working the other way about, drawing shapes that interest me and then thinking how I can develop them as sculpture. This is a slight, 90 degree, shift in thinking which could be very useful, although I can see it would lead more directly to relief works than 3D sculptures in space.
Addendum is constructed from wood, papier-mache and string, again, very simple materials and few of them. The wood acts as a baton attached to the gallery wall and has hemispheres placed along it at increasing intervals dictated mathematically. The wood, and the maths, are hard but the hemispheres and the strings which hang from them to coil on the floor, are soft and feminine. The work breaches the difference between the wall, where art is hung, and the floor on which the observer stands. This creates an extra connection between the viewer and the work. Hesse’s use of hemispheres or circles in this and other pieces evoke breasts but she denied this intention in her interview with Cindi Nemser in 1970 (Nixon & Nemser, 2002), ‘I don’t think I had a sexual, anthropomorphic or geometrical meaning. It wasn’t a breast and it wasn’t a circle representing life or eternity. I think that would be fake….’
The Guggenheim has Expanded Expansion, a frieze reminiscent of a wind-break, made from fibreglass, cheesecloth, latex and polyester resin. Presumably the resin and latex were used to transform the mounted cheesecloth into a semi-hard, semi-permanent surface. The use of soft, draped material again renders the work feminine compared to traditional hard materials.
All three of these works utilise repeated forms creating harmony and calm. Repetition Nineteen III, in the MoMa collection, again uses repeated forms which are not mathematically placed, or rigidly lined up, but appear gently scattered and melted. She used translucent fibreglass here but in other pieces she used the same soft, melted, jar shapes constructed out of unfired clay. This idea of soft, almost decayed shapes, sagging under their own weight, is something to think about when I come to use clay.
Hesse’s work is undeniably feminine, and she struggled as a female artist in a male dominated arena, but I don’t know that her works were Feminist. In her interview with Nemser, when she talks at length about her motivations and feelings when developing work, she never mentions political themes. Hesse said that she was ‘seeking the absurdity of life’ in her sculptures. ‘First, when I work, it is only the abstract qualities that I am really working with which it to say, the material, the form…the size, the scale….'(Nixon & Nemser, 2002). However, the fact that she was a woman working in the late 60s has seen her adopted as a Feminist icon which is recognised by the Centre for Feminist Art in Brooklyn.
Her career in sculpture spanned only 1965 to 1970 when she died, tragically young at 34.
The Guggenheim held a memorial exhibition in 1972 and the catalog can be read online here.
Hesse’s estate is represented by Hauser & Wirth who show the greatest range of images of her work available on the web.
Nixon, M and Nemser, C. (2002) October Files:Eva Hesse. Volume 3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Massachusetts.