In 1969, the 33-year-old sculptor Eva Hesse destroyed many of her artworks. She had just been diagnosed with the brain tumor that would kill her the following year, and presumably the pieces she destroyed were not ones she wanted to remain as part of her legacy. Because she so brutally edited herself, it is all the more remarkable to see her early paintings, on view for the first time as a group.
Hesse was a very good artist, and her influence has been considerable, but these paintings—quick, gestural oil studies of voluptuous women’s bodies and doll-like visages—are remarkably bad. One shows a figure in a monstrous wedding gown with pendulous breasts, a piss-yellow veil and a bouquet of bruiselike purple flowers. Next to her, a greenish, hollow-eyed primitive figure turns away. These are nightmare paintings: thick tangles of brushstrokes that resolve into masklike, zombie faces.
Disappointing as they may be as paintings, however, they are fascinating in what they tell us about Hesse’s development as an artist.
Of the four dozen paintings on canvas or masonite that Hesse made in 1960, 19 are on view. Four of these are large—four feet square—and 12 are comparatively small. The remaining three hover somewhere in-between. Many feel provisional, more sketches than statements, and, as if to support this suspicion, all are called “No Title” (1960), a modest appellation compared to the premeditated precision of later Hesse titles: “Metronomic Irregularity,” “Chain Polymers” or “Ingeminate.”
There are reasons why these paintings are less successful than the rest of her output. Hesse was only 24 years old, and a year out of a B.A. at Yale when she made them. Although she’d studied with Joseph Albers, whose other students included Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Serra, the influence she is likely trying to shake off here is Rico Lebrun’s, an Italian painter who also taught at Yale. His 1959 Two Figures, with its pendulous-breasted, tandem cropped forms, is a dead ringer for Hesse’s work from this period.
But Hesse also had personal demons that, as of 1959, she attempted to grapple with through psychotherapy. Her family had escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 to live in Washington Heights. Her mother committed suicide in New York. It would be safe to call Hesse’s relationship with her stepmother, also named Eva, difficult; “Big Eva” was “a thorough, unadulterated bitch,” according to the artist.