Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

Vulnerable Visionary: Eva Hesse, A Film By Marcie Begleiter

Eva Hesse, World Theatrical Premiere at Film Forum, April 27 through May 10, 2016

Photo of Eva Hesse, 1963. Photo: Barbara Brown
Photo of Eva Hesse, 1963. Photo: Barbara Brown

Had Eva Hesse lived, she would now be 80. In Marcie Begleiter’s new documentary profile we are treated to the story of her life and a textured portrait of the New York art world in the 1960s. It was Hesse’s good fortune to be part of a supportive art community that included Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt, Carl Andre, Mel Bochner, Robert and Sylvia Mangold among others. Their focus was on art as self-discovery, rather than on art as commodity.

In order to tell Hesse’s story, the film moves back and forth among her past, present, and future. The film opens and closes with artists, critics, curators, and museum directors talking about her legacy and the widespread appeal of her poignant work. This contribution is evident at a recent opening of Hesse’s work in London at the Lisson Gallery where young artists were particularly drawn to the relevance of her accomplishment, which changed the landscape of what we mean by art, and, which continues to open up new options. Regrettably, Hesse could not exploit these options due to her premature death at the age of 34.

There is no omniscient narrator in the film.   Using a series of videotaped segments, we hear poignant stories about Eva’s struggles and successes from her closest friends, Rosie Goldman, Gioia Timpanelli and Sol Lewitt. We also learn how some of her masterpieces, conceptualized and designed by Hesse, were realized with the help of Doug Johns, a plastics expert, who was her assistant in the final two years of her life. Helen Hesse Charash, Eva’s sister, provides valuable insights on how Eva’s life was plagued by feelings of abandonment and how she courageously faced death in her last months.

The three key figures who are no longer alive—Eva, her father, and Sol Lewitt—speak to us through the voices of unseen actors against the backdrops of hundreds of photographs and silent video segments.   The script is entirely from primary sources, i.e., diaries, letters, and interviews.   These multiple vantage points allow us to observe the trajectory of Hesse’s development and gain insight into the intricacies of the generative art-world that surrounded her.

Photo of Eva Hesse in the Textile Factory Studio, Kettwig, Germany, 1964. Photographer unknown.
Photo of Eva Hesse in the Textile Factory Studio, Kettwig, Germany, 1964. Photographer unknown.

Begleiter and Shapiro faced two significant challenges in crafting this film: how to avoid making Eva’s life into a soap opera and how to introduce a mass audience to a body of work which eschews beauty while exploring a powerful but often twisted path to aesthetic truth. They successfully walk these tightropes by showing scores of Eva’s works, evolving from expressionist painting to quasi-minimalist sculpture to non-art which “let it all hang out.”

Particularly well handled is Eva’s visit to Germany, the place from which she fled in 1938 and to which she returned in 1964 for 15 months with her husband, Tom Doyle, who accepted an all expenses-paid residency to work on his sculpture. These segments effectively trace how the shadow of the Holocaust penetrated every phase of Hesse’s life and aesthetic practice. Faced with nightmares and her inability to work, she was inspired by the encouraging letters of Sol Lewitt who told her to “Just DO!” Heeding his advice, Hesse, during the next months, made a crucial switch from being a painter to being a proto-sculptor, by exploiting the discarded materials around her.   Eva’s correspondence with Sol Lewitt provided some of the most tender and personal aspects of the film. The close relationship between these two artists is movingly portrayed beyond Germany. Friends expressed their disappointment when Sol’s romantic feelings for Eva were not reciprocated.

In the film, several artists described how Eva liked to use unusual materials such as polyester resin, latex, fiberglass and rope as well as industrial materials like metal washers and shell casings. She often played with them for long periods before deciding what form they wanted to take. In one of Hesse’s greatest works, Rope Piece, order comports with disorder, as was true in her own life. Using the force of gravity, Eva lets the wet sections of rope determine their own structure. In the film, Elizabeth Sussman suggests that there is no one right way to hang this rope piece. Such openness was a trademark of the new genre Hesse was creating, one in which her sculpture vacillated between comic tragedies and tragic comedies.

Finally, it is hard not to be moved by Hesse’s tragic death, due to a series of brain tumors, which cut short her relentless desire to keep producing great art. The film is at its best when it allows us to see how her aesthetic accomplishment and her fearlessness in the face of death were interwoven. Hesse’s life and art are embodied in the aphorism of Samuel Beckett, whose absurdist humor Hesse readily acknowledged: “I can’t go on; I will go on”.

Eva Hesse (Dir. Marcie Begleiter, 2016; a Zeitgest Films release) at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street, (212) 727-8110. Screenings at 12:30  2:45  5:10  7:30  9:50