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Sculpture Eva Hesse


Eva Hesse

The exhibition tells the story of Hesse groping towards individuality as an artist, and becoming fully herself. She switched from painting to relief works, from these reliefs into a territory between painting and sculpture, and from sculpture into some other, uncategorisable realm, which was like "minimal art" but not quite of it. From here she moved into a physical and conceptual space that was entirely her own. Her influence, especially on subsequent women artists, has been great. What Hesse never did, however, was turn her work into a style. It was, instead, an inquiry.

Shortly before her death, Eva Hesse described her subject as ‘the total absurdity of life’. Indeed, one of the chief characteristics of her work is a vein of subtle humour that runs from the self-deprecating, abject quality of her early self-portraits to the quirky fetishism and playful repetitions of her later sculpture. Yet in other ways her achievement could not be more serious. Working in what was then very much a man’s world, she pursued her ambition to become a great artist with single-minded determination. Hesse grew more and more interested in what usually didn't pertain to sculpture. Backing away from its 'male' rigidity, which included the high-style rhetoric of Minimalism, she allowed her fascination with the 'female' and the inward, including what was grotesque and pathetic, to enlarge. The phallic mockery in Hesse's work can be comically obscene: black salamis wound with string, slumping cylinders of fiberglass. Even when it looks entirely abstract, her work refers to bodily functions.
Hesse readily absorbed the influences of Surrealism, Conceptualism and Minimalism, always filtering them though her own distinctive sensibility to produce a unique and highly individualistic body of work. Hesse forever disconcerted her viewers, and herself. She was neither a minimalist nor a postminimalist, nor a displaced arte povera artist, nor a process nor a serial artist. Her art became what LeWitt told her it could be: itself. But, Hesse still leaves us asking, what is it? It is at once elusive, specific, filled with contradiction. It keeps us looking, asking questions.
She continually experimented with new processes and materials, which included the use of string, resin and latex, in order to push the boundaries of art, moving beyond definitions of figuration or abstraction. Combining both rigidity and pliability, the machine-made and the hand-crafted, hard geometric abstraction and soft organic curves, her work refuses to be categorised. As Hesse herself commented: ‘The drawings could be called paintings legitimately, and a lot of my sculpture could be called paintings, and a lot of it could be called nothing - a thing or any object or any new word that you want to give it.’

In a mature career spanning just ten years, Hesse created a considerable legacy of work that was respected as much by fellow artists and critics during her lifetime, as it continues to influence artists to this day. Sadly, much of her later work is too friable, decayed and fragile to travel or to be shown any more. It can't stand the light. That certain of her works have achieved this indeterminate state - somewhere between intention and degradation, order and chaos - is in keeping with the artist's own relation to the things in the world, the substances and forms that her art sought to transform through her working process. That her work goes on changing, and degrading, might almost be taken as a posthumous trace of her thought itself. The works assembled for this exhibition include her early drawings and paintings, the painted reliefs, and many of the astonishing sculptures for which she is best known. A number of these have never been seen in the UK, allowing visitors a unique opportunity to explore the work of one of the most important sculptors of the late twentieth century.

Dying of brain cancer at thirty-four, an age at which most artist's careers are barely under way, she left a truncated body of work but one of remarkable power: an instrument of feeling that spoke of an inner life, sometimes fraught with anxiety... We are watching the story of false starts, self-doubts and a faltering progression unfold, just as we recognise that it will soon be undone by death. The poignancy of Hesse's art comes through in the darkening, brittle resin and the nicotine pallor and frangibility of the latex and fibreglass pieces. But it is even stronger in the startling freshness of much of what she made, its playfulness and "weird humour", and its toughness, curiosity, repleteness and individuality. Her mother's depression and suicide when Eva was only 10, and then her own terminal illness when she was only 33, led to an unsentimental attitude to art and life, 'Life doesn't last, art doesn't last, it doesn't matter'. 'I can't stand gushy movies, pretty pictures and pretty sculptures, decoration on the walls, pretty colours, red, yellow, blue, nice parallel lines make me sick.'



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