Saturday, January 7th, 2012

The Faceless Bride: Eva Hesse’s Early Paintings at the Brooklyn Museum

Eva Hesse: Spectres 1960 at the Brooklyn Museum

September 16, 2011 to January 8, 2012
200 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, (718) 638-5000

During the past decade, Eva Hesse (1936-1970) has finally begun to find the institutional attention she deserves. This resurgence was sparked by the traveling retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Art in 2002, whose success soon prompted several specialized exhibitions such as those focused on Hesse’s drawings (Drawing Center and Menil Collection, 2006) and even her improvisational studioworks (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2010, and Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, 2011). It seemed like most chapters of Hesse’s brief career had been tackled, but  for a few early paintings the artist made in her mid-twenties. By featuring nineteen of these, Eva Hesse: Spectres 1960 manages to examine yet another nuance of this stunning oeuvre.

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1960. Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches.  Collection of Barbara Bluhm-Kaul and Don Kaul, Chicago

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1960. Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Collection of Barbara Bluhm-Kaul and Don Kaul, Chicago

While the spectres do not compare in sophistication or innovation to Hesse’s mature work, they still reveal the searching spirit of an exceptional talent. Hesse had originally set out to become a painter, studying at Cooper Union and Yale University. It was not until after her graduation in 1964, when she and her husband at the time, the sculptor Tom Doyle, were invited by the textile manufacturer and collector F. Arnhard Scheidt to create works in his German factory, that her focus shifted towards wall-constructions and sculpture. While she continued to work on paper until the end of her life, she promptly turned away from traditional oil painting.

Keeping this in mind, one has to view the spectres as what they are: experimentations of a young artist. While not studies as such, they reflect Hesse’s struggles to formulate a language of her own. And yet, the paintings reveal an intriguing sensibility for composition. Though abstraction was favored during the time of their origin (Hesse studied with Josef Albers at Yale), the spectres are somewhat radical in that they incorporate figurative elements. By fusing representational with abstract forms, Hesse signals an aim to break with both the past and the currently fashionable. In the years to come, even her most minimal, truly abstract works would retain associations with the human body and its rhythms.

Despite their stylistic and material dissimilarities, the spectres’ use of palette already hints at Hesse’s most mature work. Overall de-saturation with occasional accentuation of primary color allows these paintings to seem subdued and yet to also glow. Their radiance emerges from the subtle contrasts of grays, creams and red, for example, in CITE WORK AND DATE, and provides them with a mysterious aura. At the Brooklyn Museum, the installation consciously enhances this attribute by veiling the works in dimmed, warm light.

E. Luanne McKinnon, director of the University of New Mexico Art Museum in Albuquerque, who organized the exhibition, is responsible for the term “spectre” , referring to an “image or apparition” in this body of work. While these paintings are far from minimalist, they are reductive. The suggestions of figures and human outlines partially dissolve into oceans of color. Overall, one can distinguish two general tendencies within this body of work: intimately scaled and loosely brushed paintings and larger canvases that feature a sole subject . In the first group, despite their spatial relationships the figures appear disconnected from each other. One of these compositions depicts a faceless bride in the background while a grey ghostlike creature hovers in the foreground to the left. Is this a Munchian rendition of the same individual, depicted through various stages of time? These compositions are dreamlike, half here and also nowhere. They do not render concrete scenarios, but capture a psychologically charged undercurrent.

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1960. Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches.  The Rachofsky Collection

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1960. Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. The Rachofsky Collection

In contrast, the larger paintings might be self-portraits or perhaps renditions of the interior life of fictitious female protagonists. As the shape of a sole figure dominates the plane our perception shifts towards the individual. Anonymous and yet with a clear sense of presence, they seem to embody Hesse’s attempt to turn the inward outward and to give shape to something as ethereal and abstract as human emotions. It is this inherent notion of humanity that makes Hesse’s work, no matter how abstract, deeply personal. Hesse was not simply a minimalist; she was a distiller, able to filter out anything unnecessary that could distract from the essence of form, movement and spatial relatonship. In her early and later works alike, there is nothing too much or too loud. Her abiding ambition to achieve self-contained harmony can be traced to the spectres. Here, she is beginning to articulate the concerns that would characterize gestures to come.

  • Diane Thodos

    I am not surprised that the writing here misses much of the point and power of these rather profound expressive works – which are quite revealing of Hesse’s historical and personal trauma (her family’s escape from the
    Nazi Persecution, her mother’s suicide, and her own complex history) stand in somewhat stark contrast to her “minimalist” works to follow.
    But this point is missed because of the need to posthumously support the minimalist paradigm of her sculptural work as the superior, or out of the exigencies of needing to stick to the narrative of how minimalist art history has been written.

    The writing avoids the confrontation with the painting’s expressionist and traumatic importance. It is in fact rather alarming that the desperate morbidity and hysteria of these works come down to the rather detached descriptions such as how they “capture a psychologically charged undercurrent.” The writing “technique” behind these formally detached descriptions – a somewhat academic verbiage that denys the rupture that these works express – is rather chilling. Are these howls of paint really seen as tamely inferior and politely formal as they are described? Words like the “attempt to achieve self contained harmony” couldn’t be more inaccurate. There is deep emotional disturbance at the heart of these paintings, which is what makes them radical – socially and culturally radical- and unable to fit neatly into the accepted stream of art world doxia within the accepted mainstream power structure – its assumed place in art history as it has been written, or rather rewritten.

    In fact the paintings point to a powerful and brutal expressionist impulse that Hesse could have continued. They are evidence that she could have chosen the expressionist over the minimalist path in her art. Abstract Expressionism was still a strong movement in the early 60?s. This makes me conjecture whether her need to conform to the art world exigencies of that time overshadowed this option – that she chose one path over the other for this reason.

    I could not have guessed the true depth of this upheaval, of real inner turbulence, from her minimalist works- or when when Danto describes her as coping “with emotional chaos by reinventing sculpture through aesthetic insubordination, playing with worthless material amid the industrial ruins of a defeated nation that, only two decades earlier, would have murdered her without a second thought.” But these paintings do make me think of that terror described- and the terrible psychological cost which she and her family paid and how it made her feel inside. Where is the mention of this? It seems the power of academia and the market driven imperatives of the art world have indeed trained it’s “technique” of what art’s narrative is supposed to be on its writers. Where is the individual intuition on the part of writers that is needed to break through this kind of control? What does it mean when the meaning is right on the surface of the art- and yet it is not seen?