The Influence of Eva Hesse

by Haley Bice 6 months ago in art


The Influence of Eva Hesse

Eva Hesse is widely known for anti-form sculptures, but her other works are hardly known at all. In fact, she did not title many of her earlier works and most of them are sketches for works she never completed. The work she is best known for, the string sculptures and other anti-form works, were a direct result three-dimensional representation of her earlier untitled paintings and drawings. This connection was not purely on a formal level, but also on an ideological one. These drawings were influenced by her teachers, many of whom taught and made abstract expressionist work, and it was that expressionism which influenced the movement and creation of her work as much as, if not more than, the minimalist artwork that was also common at the time. This is continued further to explain how she took ideas from both movements, as well as neo-surrealism, to create her own style of artwork.

When immediately confronted with Eva Hesse’s string sculptures, one could write them off as minimalist due to the nature of the materials used. However, her artwork has more of a sense of movement and certainly more structural connection to the flowing lines of her abstract paintings than to the harsh lines of the minimalist cube. One of her paintings in particular, an untitled work using wash and pencil (Lippard, bottom of page 11, fig. 8), begins to have some of the same anti-formal elements that her more famous sculptures have.

[This work] suggests her later work in its technical ease combined with clear underlying structure and a couple of hanging, jutting forms (Lippard, 11).

It can be suggested, too, that during the time of making this painting, while she was at Yale, she was more widely interested in the abstract expressionist ideals that not only influenced this one painting, but also influenced her later works). Fer notes this influence of abstract expressionism as well,

…I think the more tenacious and immediate problem that Hesse was still working through in the reliefs was the legacy of Willem de Kooning, along with Arshile Gorky, the Abstract Expressionist painter who had always meant most to her (Fer 26).

This influence can be noted in that she is less concerned with industrial materials and strict design elements and more concerned with shape and space. Rosalind Krauss also notes this idea of expressionism in Hesse’s work,

The human voice makes sounds. These sounds, we could say, are mere acoustical matter…. What the image of Contingent [one of Hesse’s works] was delivering to the art world was a declaration about the expressive power of matter itself, of matter held down to a level of the sub-articulate. In art-historical terms, we could say that Contingent was countering the formalist dialogue of the 1960s with the message of expressionism (Krauss, 28).

This commentary on formalist dialogue continues throughout her works, especially with her ‘anti-form’ sculptures, which are, as the name suggests, sculptures against or without form. Her string sculptures suggest form, but in the negative space between strings rather than with the string itself.

The one element in Eva Hesse’s string sculptures that perhaps does come from minimalism is the use of physical space. Minimalist works are often about their site specificity, and while Hesse’s string sculptures could theoretically be hung anywhere, her move from flat canvas to physical sculptural space was probably due to the minimalist environment rather than the expressionist one. In other words, if she had wanted to create works that were strictly abstract expressionist, she would have stuck to flat paintings and drawings rather than sculpture.

[Hesse’s] drawings from 1960-61 are among the most beautiful in Hesse’s oeuvre, and in retrospect it seems that, had circumstances been different, they might well have led her directly into the mature sculpture which they so often resemble…. Though Hesse had yet to make her first sculpture… she seemed to be forming a vocabulary of shapes that longed to be independent from the page. The origins of her own sculpture, again with hindsight, easily discovered (Lippard 15).

Lucy Lippard notes here that Hesse’s early work with painting seems almost intuitively linked to her sculpture, although her teachers were skeptical of her variation from typical abstract ideas of the time. This skepticism could also have been a reason for moving to sculpture, in attempting to please her teachers and be more confident in her own artwork, perhaps it was easier to render her anti-form artwork in the physical world.

Another element of minimalism that actually appears in her early paintings, which does not continue into her sculptures surprisingly, is her use of color. Fer Briony, in an essay on Hesse’s color usage adds,

Her use of commercial, synthetic colors could be compared, for example, to the way Pop and Minimalist artists were working with readymade color… Hesse seems to have liked contemporary-looking colors, but rather than find them readymade, she preferred to make her colors…(Fer 25).

In moving from painting to sculpture, Hesse also moved further and further away from the use of bright color that was so typical of the minimalists (along with their industrial materials). This break comes along at around the same time as her move to sculpture, so it can be suggested that her move away from color is more of a move away from minimalism.

While the use of physical space might have been influenced by minimalism, the way in which she used the imagined space seems to resonate with neo-surrealist ideas more than minimalist ones. Mignon Nixon notes that the way in which she used the space was shocking to viewers- even those that were used to minimalist exhibitions.

Hesse altered the gallery situation of the late 60s through her particular use of materials [within a space], and by situating works in a contingent relation to the body of the viewer, these techniques ran counter to the expectations of an audience formed by the viewing conventions of late modernism, and by the phenomenology of minimalism… (Nixon 151).

This use of space is unique to her work because it shows that she was not only thinking about and influenced by one art movement or ideology of the time. Her artwork was not created in a vacuum, in other words, because she was interested in other artists’ work at the time she was creating and how they created a message.

Continuing the differentiation between Hesse’s work and the minimalist artwork at the time, Yve-Alain Bois determines her work to be in a similar vein as that of the “neo-surrealist” movement that competed with the minimalists during the 60s, but he also noted that Hesse’s sculpture work, while somewhat visually similar to neo-surrealism, was not placed in the same context or environment as the surrealist works. (Bois et al, 17) In other words, it was not attempting to become a different reality, it was simply about the way in which the string was hung in order to create or go against form. This resonates more with the minimalist movement as well, but the lack of form could go back as far as her abstract expressionist style drawings and paintings.

It could be that the combination of both surrealist techniques and minimalist techniques were what made her artwork popular at the time, however the work is still more similar to that of the abstract expressionists because of its free flowing quality and its roots in her earlier, very expressionist paintings. Hesse was quoted herself as saying,

When I work, it’s only the abstract qualities that I’m really working with… However, I don’t value the totality of the image on these abstract or aesthetic points (Bois et al, 19).

To add to this point, it is not only the abstract forms she plays with in her work that are based in abstract expressionism, but also the idea that expressionism is a utopian dream. Hesse does not necessarily believe in that dream, but she does make it clear that her art is more than just a combination of images- it is a relation to a more complex idea than that. In other words, she wants to talk about that utopian dream in the context of criticism, even if she does not subscribe to its’ ideals.

Because her artwork is filled with juxtapositions, opposites, and complex ideas, it could be argued that her work takes elements of all three movements I have talked about- minimalism, expressionism, and neo-surrealism. It is also true that actually within Hesse’s work before 1966 are often contrasting ideas.

The first strategy, adopted by Rosalind Krauss in 1979 when dealing with the vexing issue of the painting-sculpture relationship in Hesse’s work was that of the sideways move, the anamorphosis… Briony Fer in her various essays successfully advanced the figures of presymbolic ‘blank space,’ …which runs counter to Lippard’s emphasis on the sensual, organic, even visceral elements (Bois et al 19).

However, when looking at her later artwork, like her string sculptures, it is important to distance the artwork from these complex ideas.

Obviously, Hesse is still concerned with these contrasts, but on a much different level than the literal one of her drawings of anthropomorphic figures. Bois notes this as well,

I am not quite so certain that Klein’s part-object [a commonly talked about theory that Hesse’s opposites are a combination of minimalist ideas and surrealist ideas] is of great use for most of the works done by Hesse after 1966, except to make us understand how she could, as Wagner noted, so quickly and ‘effortlessly possess’ the codes and tropes of Minimalism (‘machine, grid, cube, repetition, industrial processes’) and ‘reconfigure them immediately’ (Bois et al 19).

The contrasting ideas in her later work are still present, but not on the literal face of the work. She uses complex ideas out of expressionism, formal aspects of minimalism, and surrealist structure to create her work, but the work itself is less about the putting together of these pieces into one work and more about the breaking of traditional art rules.

Against Hesse’s repeated anxiety about her lack of ideas, a slightly irritated Bochner protests that ‘she did have ‘ideas,’ and quite remarkable ideas.… Ideas that could, in some cases, only be expressed visually…. What she didn’t have was an ideology’ (Bois et al 27)

Here, this means that Hesse did not follow the rules of one specific movement or ‘art school’ and in fact, Bois states later that she uses ideologies in her earlier works as a “crutch”– one that she no longer needs later on. (Bois et al 27) I would disagree with Bois on this point because her “crutch” of using ideology seems just as apparent to me in her later works as in her earlier works. She may not subscribe to one specific ideology, but the ideologies of others influenced her artwork as much in her early years as it did in her later ones. The aspects of minimalism, neo-surrealism, and expressionism are still of some influence on her anti-form sculptures. Whether or not they were direct influences is up for debate, but they were definitely a part of all of her works. She was very interested in looking at other exhibitions and experimenting with different styles of creating artwork, so while Hesse herself may not have subscribed to one ideology she was interested in the ideologies of others and how to create new works based on the conversations the other artists were discussing at the time.

It could also be argued that the use of various ideologies is not a crutch and is in fact something Hesse was trying to point out in her works. Her work can often be seen as commentary or dialogue towards other artwork at the time. If that dialogue is accurate, it will have to talk about the art schools or ideologies of the artwork it is criticizing on some level. Yet, it was this criticism of multiple ideologies at once that differentiated her artwork. Lippard states that,

“One aspect of her work these artists [contemporaries involved in minimalism at the time] liked so much was that it was so different from their own…” (Lippard 84).

Thus, this writer is not certain that her criticism got across or was taken seriously by all of her contemporaries. However, her artwork was taken seriously by critics in that it was unique from ideologies of the 60’s, so at least in that aspect she was successful.

The conversations artists at the time were having was definitely an important aspect of her works. Mark Godfrey adds,

Perhaps it [the way in which Hesse’s artwork hangs, but also Hesse’s style of artwork] was because she was so genuinely interested in all of the artists of the 1960s… and not just those with whom she is usually grouped (Godfrey et al 48).

This argument also leads back into the aspect of her work that takes up physical and imagined space. Because one of the major formal elements of her work are that the work hangs in space, one could argue that this element of hanging is also a commentary on the minimalist and neo-surrealist ideas of art in space as well as ‘the art space’. ‘The art space’ meaning here the architectural construct that houses her hanging works, typically the modernist white walled museum, which is something many artists of this time were concerned with.

Looking at specific works and comparing them to each other is easier once the viewer knows the ideological aspects that influenced her and thus her works. It is simple to compare any number of her string sculptures to her earlier paintings from 1961 or her drawings from even earlier, not on just a formal level of using line and color. It is less simple, but also evident, that these works are comparable also because of the artists' hand in making them and the influence that her contemporaries had on her as an individual. Her artwork was unique at the time because of the ideologies it mimicked and conversed with and thus [it] would be impossible to note the artwork without first knowing the artist. In this way, it is easy to see how some historians may lump her in as purely a survivor or as a feminist artist without looking at her artwork, because her individuality is part of what makes her artwork important. The historians get hung up on the individual personality of the artist and do not look deeper into the art. Rather than depict the artist as a “tragic female stereotype”(Lippard 5), one must look into her artwork and see the impact her art had on conversation at the time and why her art was important, not simply why the artist was important. Lippard says that there is no separation between Hesse and her artwork (Lippard 5). This may not necessarily be true, but it is possible that Hesse’s artwork [had to do with] listening to the conversations artists were having at the time and her response to that. In that way, Hesse probably involved a lot of herself and her own opinions in her artwork, so that she was very much a part of her works in a way that the minimalists were not.

Hesse’s earlier artwork has a direct connection to her later works in both formal elements and ideological content. This connection is made through the various [ideological art] movements at the time that she was influenced by, if not necessarily involved in. The minimalists had an impact on the physical space she used as well as some of the materials. The expressionists had an impact on the ideals she portrayed and the brushwork she used in earlier works that directly correlate with her later sculptural works. Finally, the neo-surrealists impacted the imagined space of her works and the idea of anti-form. In this way, Hesse rose above other artists at the time by not subscribing to one ideology and thus created her own method of creating art.

Works Cited

Fer, Briony. "Eva Hesse and Color." October Winter 119 (2007): 21-36. JSTOR. The MIT Press. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

Krauss, Rosalind. "Eva Hesse: Contingent." Eva Hesse. Ed. Mignon Nixon. By Cindy Nemser. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002. 27-33. Print.

Lippard, Lucy R. Eva Hesse. New York: Da Capo, 1992. Print.

Nixon, Mignon. "Eva Hesse Retrospective: A Note on Milieu." October 104 (2003): 149-156. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

Sussman, Elisabeth, Fred Wasserman, Yve-Alain Bois, and Mark Godfrey. Eva Hesse: Sculpture. New York: Jewish Museum, 2006. Print.

Works Consulted

Barger, Michelle E. "A Delicate Balance: Packing, Handling, and Installation of Ephemeral Works by Eva Hesse." Journal of the American Institute for Conservation Summer 47.1 (2008): 27-40. JSTOR. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.

Haley Bice
Haley Bice
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Haley Bice

Haley received her MA in Business Design and Arts Leadership from SCAD eLearning in 2018. She also has a BA in Art History with a Fine Art minor from SCSU and an ASc in Graphic Design from RCTC, both located in Minnesota.

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