‘I actually think that the erosion of the works, while not authentic to what they originally looked like, must be taken into account when considering their contemporary resonance. It is the contemporary appearance of these works, degraded or not, that has been important and influential for younger artists. This is Hesse’s legacy; this is what she means now.’
Briony Fer, art historian.
I had been looking at Hesse’s work when I came across this quote which some how stood out for me. It alludes to the fragile nature of the materials she chose to work with and the fact that although these pieces may not now look or behave as she had intended at the time of making, it is exactly these qualities that appeal to contemporary artists and give her work continued relevance. She is an artist who I have been aware of for some time in-terms of her influence on other artists, so it is this I wanted to explore further and also consider aspects that may resonate with my own current practice.
Rachel Whiteread was fascinated by the work of Eva Hesse. She admired the fragility and the use of delicate materials to make robust works that seemed to comment upon the nature of vulnerability. She liked how the works were experienced-‘spanned, spilled and suspended’, and despite influences by more minimal artists, like Donald Judd and Carl Andre, Hesse’s work continued to inform Whiteread’s practice. This is evident in Whiteread’s use of wax and plaster for casting and her interest in negative space. Many of Whiteread’s works hint at what has been. Many of her casts, as well as recording the physical space of objects, often also have traces of everyday materials left behind from that space; a kind of memory of what was there. In some ways I wonder if it is this ‘sense of memory’ that is the appealing thing about Hesse’s work? It is as if Hesse’s work as it is now is like a memory of what it was when it was first made. The original ideas and material are still there, but they have changed. This somehow challenges the idea of sculptures as monuments, which reflects what Hesse thought at the time of making; she wanted to make forms with a soul of their own, a sense of vulnerability.
Hesse claimed she wanted to make work that ‘changed and varied like human beings’. There is much written about her despite her early death at 34yrs from a brain tumour. Much of her work is often understood as a response to traumas in her life; escaping from Nazi’s in childhood, her mother’s suicide when she was 10yrs, a broken marriage and the early death of her father. This along with having to confront her own mortality perhaps gave her insights into the impermanence’s that we have to face in life, which was translated into her work. It seems that Hesse was aware that at the time of making many of these pieces, particularly those in latex, would not last, and even felt a sense of guilt towards anyone who may purchase them. She was intent, however, on making work that was her own. In a video, ‘Excerpt from- Four Artists’, she says, ‘I want to find solely my own way. I don’t mind being miles from everyone else. The best artists are those who have stood alone’.
There are many elements of Hesse’s work that resonate for me. So when I think about the work I have been making that is focused on willow as a material, I have considered the way she explored fully the nature of the materials she chose in both 2 and 3 dimensional forms. It has made me look at materials that come from the tree, like the leaves and the bark, and consider what I might make from them. So as well and drawings and photos, I have bowls and rope. I have found this process has moved my thoughts to exploring other areas that were also of interest to Hesse like the conflict between order and chaos. The rope I made I started to think of as a line of a certain length. When I dropped it, it would take on a shape. Each time I dropped it, it would be different. I found myself recording 24 photos of the same rope that had taken on a different form each time. Many of Hesse’s works feature repetition of pieces that are the same but different, normally because of the material she has chosen.
I feel there is much more I could take from exploring Hesse’s work further, perhaps it is the depth to her work that continues to make it relevant today. I am interested that her early career was dominated by drawing and painting. I am interested in her focused approach to her work in the face of adversity. And I am interested in her truth to herself- there is an honesty to her work; it is what it is.
Numerous articles relating to Hesse. Online at- http://www.hauserwirth.com/artists/34/eva-hesse/press/
Mullins, Charlotte (2004). Rachel Whiteread. Tate Publishing, London.
Sussman, Elisabeth and Wasserman, Fred (2006). Eva Hesse- Sculpture. Yale University Press, Connecticut.
Teachers guide to Eva Hesse’s work. Online at- http://www.tate.org.uk/download/file/fid/6384
Video- Excerpt from ‘Four Artists- Robert Ryman, Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, Susan Rothenberg’. Online at http://evahesseestate.com/