Art's tragic risk-taker

Eva Hesse had only a 10-year career as an artist, but she is one of the most important figures of the post-war era.

By Julia Weiner, December 17, 2009
Eva Hesse in her New York studio in 1966

Eva Hesse in her New York studio in 1966

When Eva Hesse died at the age of 34, she was a well-known and successful artist. In the 40 years since her death, she has become even more famous, recognised as a key figure in the history of post-war art.

Hesse wrote about her life that, “there isn’t a thing that hasn’t been extreme — personal health, family, economic situations”, and she was not exaggerating. Tragedy seemed to follow her about.

Born in Hamburg in 1936, she and her sister Helen were sent to a children’s home in Amsterdam in 1938 to escape the Nazis. A year later, the family were reunited and travelled first to London and then to New York where they settled. However, Hesse’s mother, Ruth, suffered from severe depression and, in 1946, a year after she was divorced from her husband, she committed suicide. Eva was aged just 10. She recovered from this trauma sufficiently to enjoy a career as an original and innovative sculptor, but her own life was cut short when she was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1969 and died a year later.

It is tempting to interpret Hesse’s work only in terms of the tragic events she experienced. It is a temptation that should be resisted, according to Briony Fer, co-curator of an exhibition of a new Hesse exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre in north London.

“Hesse had a very traumatic childhood as so many of her generation had. That experience as a young child without doubt shaped her own identity in a very fundamental way,” she says.

“But it is important to separate her work from the biography. Because of her own very early death, there is a tendency for her work to be viewed with deep pathos. There is a danger that she is put in the same category as someone like Sylvia Plath, as if Hesse too had committed suicide. But she did not. She died of a brain tumour. After her death the works we are showing were illustrated in an epitaph for her. They looked like tragic ruins of a tragic life. One of the things I wanted not to do was to present them in that way. They were made by a lively and very ambitious artist who wanted to carry on working.”

So why was Hesse such an important a figure in the post-war art world? “Art changed dramatically in the 1960s,” Fer says. “The idea that painting is an aesthetic experience completely broke down. An important aspect of being an artist is the ability to take risks. Hesse was working at that moment when things were so experimental and she had the ability to take risks.

“She was a relatively young artist who pushed to the limit. She did something that was both radical and very different with her sculpture. She used innovative materials and textures with peculiar consistencies to make sometimes very anthropomorphic and sometimes very abstract forms. She made her works into something very visceral, something of the body, not something for the eye.”

She produced small works in innovative materials such as latex, string, and discarded metal

She produced small works in innovative materials such as latex, string, and discarded metal

These innovative materials included, Fer says, “fibreglass, latex, mesh, plaster, string, and ready-made component parts such as discarded metallic elements”. The items on show at Camden are almost entirely small works that have been described as test pieces but which Fer prefers to call “studio work”. “They have always been known about and Hesse even showed them herself in a solo exhibition in 1968,” she says.

“They are almost always shown in major Hesse exhibitions but at the margins as so-called test pieces, as technical experiments. We wanted to put them centre stage to see what we could make of them because they are not easy to interpret. They may look throwaway but they were not things that she dashed off. Hesse spent a lot of time on them and they can be very intricate.”

In addition, there are works that have not been exhibited before. “One new area not been seen before is a series of works made out of paper,” says Fer “These were made late in her life. Some of them are extraordinarily beautiful.”

What makes the studio work particularly exciting is that it is all the artist’s own. While she had assistants to help her with her large-scale work, particularly once she became ill, she made the studio work herself by hand.

One problem with Hesse’s work is that much of it has not aged well. “Hesse’s works do age and they are fragile,” explains Fer. “Latex in particular degrades. The colour changes and becomes matt and opaque.”

It certainly seems clear that Hesse herself knew that her art might not last. Towards the end of her life she declared: “Life doesn’t last, art doesn’t last, it doesn’t matter.” Perhaps because of the fragility of the works, every effort should be made to see the exhibition.

As Fer says. “For those who don’t know Hesse, the studio works provide a good introduction. For those who do, they shed a different light on her work. They show Hesse at her most extreme.”

At the Camden Arts Centre, London NW3 until March 7.

Last updated: 11:18am, December 31 2009