You must begin by making small things as that starts [the] cycle going. Doing begins things and it continues. It is always that way. As one piece leads into the next. As it was I never remember working on one thing it always is in at least pairs and further ahead… doing perpetuates doing, and thinking.1
Eva Hesse’s small sculptures and test pieces, recently named studioworks by art historian and curator Briony Fer2, are central to her practice and an important key to understanding how she worked. Even after forty or more years the studioworks carry with them a lingering atmosphere of the workplace. For me, these objects hold and reveal Hesse’s means of thinking through making; their intimacy makes them feel close to her mind and not far from her touch.
There are many fascinating images of Hesse’s Bowery loft space which give an idea of how closely she lived together with her raw materials and works in progress. She often said that her art and life were inseparable; there are photographs showing her casting and arranging objects amongst domestic clutter and others where she poses with her sculptures, wearing them like clothing or bed covers. It appears too that Hesse often used the large upper floor of her loft as a space to appraise the work, arranging pieces as they might be in an exhibition, testing how they would be when out in the world.
Throughout art history there has been plenty of mystique, speculation and myth surrounding the idea of the artist’s studio. While social and economic factors have often shaped the function of the studio (work space – shop space – meeting space – private space – performance space – factory space), we now think mostly of a studio as a place for creativity, inspiration and experimentation. I have heard artists talk about the studio as a space within a space; a head space to think and a physical space to work, and a place where they push their resources to the limit in order to provoke a piece of work into being.
Eva Hesse was very much part of the 1960s lively New York studio scene. She was friends with, amongst many others, Sol Le Witt, Carl Andre, Mel Bochner, Keith Sonnier, Nancy Holt, Robert Ryman, Ruth Volmer and Lucas Samaras (who famously re-assembled his studio-bedroom to exhibit in a New York art gallery). Lucy Lippard, in her wonderful book on Eva Hesse, published in 19763, describes vividly the creative culture they were both a part of. Living near to Hesse and married to Robert Ryman at the time, Lippard recalls how these artists regularly visited each others’ studios to discuss works in progress, exchange ideas, swap pieces of work, share things they had read or seen and generally criticise and argue. Hesse herself wrote in her notebooks of the importance of these studio visits, in seeing how other artists worked and by having something to compare.
It is easy to romanticise the studio as being a very particular and special place, especially when so many have been preserved as museums after the artist has died, for example Brancusi, Barbara Hepworth and Monet. And artists themselves have immortalised their own or others’ studios as artworks; Courbet, Delacroix, Vermeer, Matisse, Velázquez and many, many more. But I think it is more likely true that, if they need to, artists will create a space anywhere to produce something, and that even their most familiar workspace will become a daunting and fearful place if they are finding it difficult to make anything.
Although sometimes expressing a fear of her large upstairs studio, Hesse was an obsessive maker and seems to have been able to work anywhere, as long as there was stuff around her. She was very aware that what she produced wasn’t always great art, but knew she had to keep making in order to get to where she wanted to be.
Like Nauman, Bochner and others of their generation, Hesse started out as a painter. Having graduated from Cooper Union in 1957 she went on to study at Yale, leaving there in 1959 and finding her first studio space on Ninth Avenue, New York in 1960. She had been married to sculptor Tom Doyle for three years when he was invited in 1964 to take up a year-long residency in Kettwig-am-Ruhr, Germany. Here she at first had a small, intimate work space constructed within the vast former textile factory they had been given as a studio, but she became increasingly frustrated with painting and needed to find her own voice by making work that felt closer to her self. At a time when definitions of sculpture and painting were being challenged and tested by many of her peers, Hesse moved out into the larger work space and began experimenting with discarded bits of machinery and materials that had been left lying around the building.
She writes in a letter to a friend:
I have all these months looked over and at much of the junk. I finally took a screen, heavy mesh which is stretched on a frame like so and taken cord which I cut into smaller pieces. I soak them in plaster and knot each piece through a hole and around wire. It is compulsive work which I enjoy. If it were really a new idea it would be terrific. But it is not. However I have plans with other structures and working more with plaster. It might work its way to something special.4
While this piece of work was never fully resolved or exhibited, it laid the groundwork for her future practice and certain of its elements, such as the grid, repetition, wrapping, binding and poking through, that came to typify her mature works. Although Hesse and Doyle separated soon after they moved back to New York at the end of 1965, she continued to live and work alone in their Bowery loft. It was there that she really started to push and work her materials beyond their known properties, experimenting with paper, latex, cheesecloth, fibreglass, rope, plastic, rubber, wax, wood and pigments, at the same time always drawing, playing and working things out.
In photographs the small works, or studioworks, are very evident, you can see them amongst the objects on her coffee table, on her studio floor, on her drawing desk, in her hands. Hesse writes in her notebooks of pieces she has given to friends, of how much she liked the way Sol Le Witt had displayed her gifts in a glass pastry case5, and how on occasions she had asked for works back because she needed to have them around her in the studio. These sensuous, visceral and oddly absurd works were ongoing until the end of her life, made in-between as well as during the making of her larger pieces. They tune you into her working processes of how she used the thinking and the working space of her studio. As the scale and ambition of Hesse’s work grew and she began out of necessity to work with studio assistants, the studiowork remained closest to her hand, revealing the most about how she mixed, dipped, stretched, layered, coiled, wrapped, folded, threaded, punctured and moulded her objects into being.
1 Eva Hesse, undated notebook entry
2 Briony Fer is Professor of History of Art at University College London and author of Eva Hesse Studiowork, The Fruitmarket Gallery and Yale University Press (2009)
3 Lucy Lippard, Eva Hesse, New York University Press (1976)
4 From a letter to Rosie Goldman dated December 14, 1964
5 Refers to a note made by Hesse in August 1967
Texts and films mentioned by Eva Hesse in her 1964 and 1965 diaries
Kingsley Amis Lucky Jim Penguin Modern Classics (2001)
Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex Vintage Books (1973)
Bernard Borderie (Dir.) Angelique (1964)
F. Scott Fitzgerald Tender is the Night, Penguin Modern Classics (2001)
Michael Gill (Dir.) The Peaches (1965)
Jean-Luc Godard (Dir.) Week End (1968)
Michael Kabahidze (Dir.) Svadba (Wedding) (1964)
Carson McCullers Clock Without Hands Penguin Modern Classics (2008)
Édouard Molinaro (Dir.) Une Idiote Ravissante (A Ravishing Idiot) (1964)
Katherine Anne Porter Ship of Fools HarperCollins (1985)
Katherine Anne Porter Pale Horse, Pale Rider HBJ Modern Classic (1990)
Philip Roth Goodbye, Columbus Vintage (2006)
Mark Twain The Autobiography of Mark Twain Perennial Classics (2000)
Mark Twain The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson Bibliobazaar (2007)
Billy Wilder (Dir.) Some Like it Hot (1959)
‘I would like the work to be a non–work... It is the unknown quantity from which and where I want to go. As a thing, an object, it accedes to its non–logical self. It is something, it is nothing.’ Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse was born in Hamburg in 1936, and moved with her family to New York in 1939. After graduating from New York’s School of Industrial Art in 1952, Hesse studied at New York’s Pratt Institute (1952–53) and Cooper Union (1954–57), then at the Yale School of Art and Architecture (1957–59), where she studied under Josef Albers. Her first solo exhibition was at Allan Stone Gallery in New York in 1963. Hesse considered herself a painter until 1965, when, during a year in Germany, she constructed and exhibited 14 papier-mâché reliefs, with cord-wrapped wires embedded, projecting or dangling from them, at the Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf. She participated in the important group shows ‘Eccentric Abstraction’ (1966), ‘Nine’ at Leo Castelli, New York (1967) and the groundbreaking touring exhibition, ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ (1969). Her only major solo show of sculpture in her lifetime was ‘Chain Polymers’ at the Fischbach Gallery, New York, in November 1968. She was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1969, and died in 1970. After her death, a major exhibition ‘Eva Hesse: A Memorial Exhibition’ toured the United States and in 1976 a monograph by Lucy Lippard on Hesse’s life and work was published. Ever since, Hesse’s work has been widely exhibited and continues to be relevant and important to art today.
Jenni Lomax is Director of Camden Arts Centre.
The exhibition is supported by the Foyle Foundation, Columbia Foundation Fund of the Capital Community Foundation, Mike Davies Charitable Settlement, Brian Boylan and Cathy Wills.