Eva Hesse

Eva Hesse
(b 1936-1970)

I’ve felt all at sea away from my studio, having returned to Australia from our home in Mumbai. Part of the struggle is having to re-imagine my painting practice in the absence of studio materials and, also, the absence of a weekly routine of time and a regular space for making art.

But there are upsides. Sometimes a great deal of freedom can be found in limitations. I’ve been drawing and making more works on paper, and using more provisional materials. Distinctive and unexpected ways of making work in response to shortage, displacement or disruption can be super interesting. Pausing my usual painting practice also means I’ve been able to step back and read more, research more and think more about my process.

The next bunch of artists I’m profiling are interesting from the point of view of process. They are artists who occupy their art in the sense that the making of the work is what speaks to the viewer. It can be seen and felt in the materials and the choices they make and when looking at their work it is impossible not to consider how the artist made it. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you identify a thread that connects you with the artist, a kind of secret access and understanding. 

This makes the work (and let’s call it Process Art, some refer to these types of artists as postminimal) incredibly humanistic – firstly because of that connection with the artist’s making, but also because the work is often so corporeal – the body’s physical limits, manual abilities, shape, gravity, create the work. This physicality is pushed up against other uncontrollable forces, so that chance, physics, material and time are thrust into a process that makes the art find its own form. The playful tension of all this makes Process Art so compelling but it also concerns itself completely with the fundamentals of what is means to be human – all of the frailties, anxieties, vulnerabilities, chaos and strength of human existence.

Eva Hesse is a notable Process Artist for many reasons, not least for her legacy – Hesse’s use of unorthodox and distinctive industrial and often household materials in her work broadened the field of sculpture tremendously. The way she used her materials at a time in the twentieth century, the deep dark cock-forest minimalist 1960s, when steel cubes were all the go, not to mention centuries of bronze sculpture tradition before that, gave way to experimentation and artists turning to whatever was at hand, and what was workable by hand, directly and immediately. 

In her series of works titled Accession, Hesse defaces minimalist steel cubes by weaving rubber tubing through them – the gridded steel outer sides have been infiltrated with wiggly soft appendages, that waggle and tangle. It is a defacement akin to burning the flag of minimalism. What I think it so lovely about them, and all of Hesse’s work is that instead of rejecting the fundamentals of modernism completely she has instead just turned them on their head. She toys with the fundamentals of minimalism – the grid, the cube and line – with such maturity and intelligence but above all playfulness.

Accession iv
Eva Hesse, Accession IV, 1968. Galvanized steel and rubber, 8 1/8 × 8 × 8 1/4 inches (20.6 × 20.3 × 21 cm). Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. © The Estate of Eva Hesse

Hesse’s Rope piece, was made from old rope dripped with latex, one of Hesse’s favourite materials, at the end of her very short career, when she was desperately unwell and physically compromised. She died aged 34, not long after completing the work, from a brain tumor – a tragedy many attribute to her work in the studio with fiberglass. It is an installation that hangs from the ceiling from 13 hanging points, the hardened, knotted rope is precarious, tangled and inextricable. Dana Miller, Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, explains in the video below how incredibly difficult it is to install the work now that the latex has become brittle. And many of her works have not aged gracefully, Youtube abounds with videos of perplexed curators at prestigious modern art museums grappling with the responsibility of restoring her pieces, carefully housing the latex structures that sag and drip in their bespoke archival crates. Hesse herself was uncertain about the temporary nature of her pieces saying well ‘Art doesn’t last, life doesn’t last’, and there’s something poetic about that – while her sculptures are created, live life and finally disintegrate and die her influence continues.


Untitled Sculpture Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse (1936-1970) Untitled (Bochner Compart) signed, inscribed and dated ‘FOR MEL B. E. HESSE 1966’ (on the reverse) acrylic and cord on papier-mâché and masonite 9 x 9 x 2 in. (22.9 x 22.9 x 5.1 cm.) Executed in 1966.


Eva Hesse, Study for Sculpture, 1970; Sculp-Metal, cord, Elmer’s glue, acrylic paint, and varnish on Masonite, 10 x 10 x 1 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © The Estate of Eva Hesse, Hauser & Wirth Zürich, London


Eva Hesse studio
Works from 1965-66 in Eva Hesse’s studio. From left to right: ‘No title’, 1965; ‘Ennead’, 1966; ‘Ingeminate’, 1965; ‘Several’, 1965; ‘Vertiginous Detour’, 1966; ‘No title’ 1966; ‘Total Zero’, 1966; ‘No title’, 1966; ‘Long Life’, 1965; ‘Untitled or not yet’, 1966


Eva Hesse, “Ennead” (1966), Acrylic, papier mâché, plastic, plywood, & string, 96 x 39 x 17 inches (Collection of Barbara Lee, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Photo by Abby Robinson, © The Estate of Eva Hesse, courtesy of Hauser & Wirth)


Abstract Watercolour, Eva Hesse, 14 x 20.5 inches, Mutualart.com

Published by Diana Ellinger

Independent creative – artist, illustrator and graphic designer.