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.
“Paint yourself out, through and through … You must come to terms with your own work now, not with any other being,” she wrote in her journals, and the works evince a drive to paint out every possible anxiety about women and painting. One work is a big, quick, gestural wash of thin oil on canvas sketching out two faceless women who are all fleshy buttocks and breasts. Another, a vast, purple-faced blonde in heavily painted encaustic, presages the death-by-drowning baby-doll heads of South African artist Marlene Dumas.
Hesse is interested here in portraying herself as various feminine archetypes: the bride, the Venus of Willendorf, the doll-like girl. Hers are anxious paintings; ghostly, scratched and incised; voluptuous flesh is haunted by skeletal shadow figures. If the old psychoanalytic chestnut says that every figure in a dream represents some part of the dreamer, we might imagine that every figure in this show is some avatar of Hesse.
The challenge in the room is de Kooning. Abstract Expressionism haunts these “specters” more than Albers or any mothers. Hesse’s ambition here is huge. She wants to take on de Kooning, but can’t figure out how to enter into the drippy, gestural, masculine space his Women have made of painting. In refusing the monochrome and insisting on the figure, the dream and the idiosyncratic, Hesse runs up against a limit that is as much historical as it is personal. Her scribbled lines and dripped paint could have been the end of her road. She would have remained a second-rate, third-generation Ab Ex artist.
Her palette is good too. It’s a prescient, minimal palette, gray-on-gray or natural colors presiding, with moments of orange or red, muddy mustards, brown-yellow neutrals and silvery light purples. “Color is whatever comes out of the material and keeps it what it is,” Hesse said in an interview in 1970, and this show demonstrates that she had her mature palette long before she found her materials and subject. The least bad painting of the bunch is a gaunt grisaille self-portrait accented with burning, persimmon lips.
In 1964, Hesse traded her oils and brushes for industrial materials like rubberized canvas and fiberglass, wire, latex and resin. Working in an abandoned textile factory in Essen, she made the labyrinthine and bulbous works that would make her famous, full of “atrophied organs and private parts,” as artist Mel Bochner once put it.
Soon, she would produce her iconic work, Ringaround Arosie (1965), an enamel paint on papier-mâché relief resembling nothing so much as a breast, and Accession II (1968), a hairy box that, as Yves-Alain Bois and Maurice Berger have noted, simultaneously evokes Donald Judd’s slick Minimalism and Meret Oppenheim’s sexy Surrealism.
These sculptures are funny, awkward and erotic, and successful in a way her paintings never were. She rewrote the rules of the game: femininity was no longer a matter of failed 2-D representations, but rather a rich site of 3-D play. She lived at 134 Bowery and took part in Lucy Lippard’s “Eccentric Abstraction” show of 1966, in the famous Warehouse show at Leo Castelli in 1968, and in Allan Kaprow’s happenings.
As Mel Bochner notes in a 1992 interview, Hesse’s context is the women’s movement; the slogan “the personal is political,” Kate Millet and Germaine Greer were the backdrops to her emergence as an artist. The inheritors of these paintings might be Dana Schutz, Dumas or Joyce Pensato, except that, in her more influential work, Hesse’s lineage traces a line from Meret Oppenheim and Duchamp through Louise Bourgeois, and her real heirs are sculptors like Martha Friedman, Rachel Whiteread and Sarah Lucas.
Curated by E. Luanne McKinnon, the show demonstrates the value in making bad art. It gives us in painful fullness the moment just before everything clicks; it puts on display the considerable problems and meager successes of a flawed but ambitious project. For this it might be required viewing for young artists, who may recognize themselves in these convoluted self-portraits and find the wherewithal to push through.