Eva Hesse Drawing
Through July 15, 2006
The Drawing Center
35 Wooster Street, New York
Eva Hesse: Sculpture
Through September 17, 2006
The Jewish Museum
1109 5th Ave. (at 92nd St.), New York
Throughout her career, German Jewish artist Eva Hesse (1936-1970) was obsessed with the motif of the circle. In her diaries, Hesse connected her circular images with her own life. “I go in circles. Maybe therefore my drawings” she wrote. Indeed, her life followed a circular path, punctuated by pain and tragedy on both ends. At age three, Eva’s parents put her and her sister Helen aboard a children’s train from their native Hamburg to escape the Nazis. Eva and Helen successfully circumvented the war, and later were reunited with their Holocaust surviving parents.
The Hesse family moved to Manhattan and lived in Washington Heights. When Eva was 10, her mother committed suicide shortly after divorcing Eva’s father. Eva would graduate from Yale in 1959, and she married Tom Doyle, also a sculptor. In 1969, Eva was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and died the following year at age 34.
Much of Eva’s work – currently on view at both the Jewish Museum and the Drawing Center – has the feel of commemorative monuments. “Repetition Nineteen III” (1968), on view at the Jewish Museum, reminds me of yahrzeit candles. The installation shows 19 oval forms made of fiberglass and polyester in a sickly orange that look like collapsed slinkies. Much of Hesse’s sculpture has the same feel as Matthew Barney’s work (which was shown in the “Cremaster Cycle” at the Guggenheim recently), grim, dark and dangerous. “Aught” (1968) is an installation that includes hanging “curtains” of latex and filler over canvas stuffed with polyethylene sheeting, rope and “unidentified materials.” The canvases have borders and look from a distance (if viewers can overlook the creases) like faceted gemstones. To more cynical viewers, the canvases could be dangerous, like Samurai war flags.
Eva Hesse, Repetition Nineteen III, 1968, latex and filler over canvas stuffed with polyethylene sheeting, rope and unidentified materials. The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Charles and Anita Blatt, 1969. © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Hauser & Wirth Zürich London. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.
But Hesse refused to be pigeonholed, and she would surely take issue with the yahrzeit interpretation and the gemstones or war flags interpretations. Most art history textbooks refer to Hesse as a post-minimalist, or at the very least as a transitional figure between the minimalist and post-minimalist periods.
As the name implies, minimalism refers to the “breaking down” of art to its bare necessities. Hesse spoke and wrote of wanting “to get to non-art, non-connotive, non-anthropomorphic, non-geometric, non-nothing; everything.” Hesse wrote this in a 1969 catalog. “It’s not the new, it is what is yet not known, thought, seen, touched; but really what is not and that is.” In a sense, then, Hesse is the ultimate minimalist by expressing her desire to reduce art to not only the smallest components; but to none at all. In fact, this attempt to create nothingness sounds remarkably similar to Kabbalistic notions of meditation, in which the mystic would try to erase everything from his mind before focusing on Hebrew letters or various symbols to launch the meditative process.
But Hesse did not really make art that was empty and nothingness. Her work pursued notions of wholeness and completeness, especially through her circles. The audio guide to the Jewish Museum show includes a quote of Hesse’s: “I think the circle – it was very abstract. I could make up stories of what the circle means to man but I don’t know if it was that conscious. I think it was a form, a vehicle it wasn’t a circle representing life and eternity. I think that’swould be fake.”
Circles were simply too normal and regular to Hesse, so she had to do mischief to them. She once bore a hole in a circle and inserted a flexible surgical hose. “It was the most flexible rubber I could get,” she said. “And I would make it very, very long. I mean that was the extreme you could get from that perfect, perfect circle!” This time of damage done to the perfect circular form recalls the work (although clearly Hesse did it first) of Aliza Olmert (reviewed in these pages under the title “Repairing Tikkun Olam” on 6/29/05). Olmert took eggshells and subjected them to all sorts of makeovers from sticking them with safety pins to tying them with wires to smashing the shells to tiny pieces. Olmert then photographed them with dark black backgrounds, lending the photographs a feeling of renaissance paintings, which also used dark backgrounds to highlight the depicted objects or people. Just as Olmert’s shells carried feminist symbolism (such as birth), Hesse’s circles also seem deeply feminine.
Hesse’s “No Title” (1966), a black ink wash and pencil drawing, is one of many drawings on exhibit in the Drawing Center show. The image shows three circles – one large and two small. Each circle contains many circles that are increasingly smaller, which makes the work appear like tree bark rings. The forms seem to interact and play off each other, although they don’t touch, strictly speaking. Hesse writes of the absurdity of her circles, which seem to go on forever. “If something is absurd, it’s more absurd to repeat it.”
Circles, surprisingly, do not bear tremendous significance in Jewish symbolism. They appear in a few contexts. Circular forms can be threatening, as in Honi HaM’agel’s circle that he drew and refused to leave until rain was promised to the famine-plagued Jews. Circles suggest bereavement and life, as in the egg eaten during periods of mourning, symbolic of the continuous “circle of life.” Kippot are circular, reminding us to look up to the heavens for inspiration. Additionally, the Sanhedrin sat in a circle.
Eva Hesse, no title, 1966. Black ink wash and pencil, 11 3/4 x 9 in.
Collection of Tony and Gail Ganz, Los Angeles. © The Estate of Eva Hesse, Hauser & Wirth Zürich London.
But generally, Jewish symbolism takes the form of trajectories of movement and transcendence. Circular movement always arrives back at the point where it started, like the move G-d commands Moses to perform to deceive the Egyptians into thinking the Jews were lost beside the Red Sea. Although Jewish ritual objects – think lulav, Torah-reading yad, mezuzah, and many others -have a long history of interpretation, they do not seem to focus on circles. Perhaps these efforts were an attempt to get away from idolatry since much pagan imagery surrounds the sun, moon and stars. In fact, tefillin cannot be made in a circular form, although the rabbis account for this due to safety reasons.
It is therefore interesting that an artist like Hesse would be so fascinated by the circle. The Jewish Museum show focuses a lot on Hesse’s Jewish identity. The final room showcases many letters and other documents and photographs, including a diary entry of Hesses with the Hebrew words from the Seder (the word Pesach appears below) indicating “Now we are slaves; next year we will be free.” Hesse’s life was clearly one punctuated by exile, redemption and then more sadness and pain. But it is the liberating feeling of “next year we will be free” that surfaces in her circles.
Ruth and Wilhelm Hesse, Eva Hesse Tagebuch (Diary) 1, Hamburg, Passover 1936. Collection of Helen Hesse Charash; Ruth Marcus Hesse, “proud Mama with her two daughters,” Helen and Eva. The Hebrew headline reads, “This year we are slaves, next year we shall be free.” Wilhelm Hesse wrote, “Evchen’s [little Eva's] first yom tov [holiday]. She doesn’t understand anything about it yet, but it concerns her that diet needs to be changed.” This is a rare entry, in that it was co-written by Wilhelm and Ruth Hesse. This was the last time Eva’s mother wrote in her tagebuch.
It might be most useful to think of Hesse’s circles as Hegelian in form. The philosopher Hegel conceived of history as unfolding cyclically, but he always saw history as progressing towards something. The image Hegel used was more one of a funnel that got increasingly great; it was a space of cyclic movement, but upward movement. Hegel was not a Jew by any means, but in Judaism, history progresses toward the messianic age, much like Hegel’s history progresses.
And in that sense, Hesse’s work can be viewed as Jewish. Hesse insists her circles are not symbolic of life. But rather than appearing stagnant, they are dynamic and they seem to be searching to break out of their paths. Hesse’s life was a vicious circle from which she couldn’t escape. But her sculptures and drawings managed, to some extent, to liberate her.
Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org