I vividly recall the first time I saw Eva Hesse’s work. I was in my late teens, home in New York for the summer, and it was Repetition Nineteen at the Museum of Modern Art. But I don’t remember even reading the title card – instead I remember that fluttering in the belly, the open-mouthed awareness of being in the presence of something true and powerful. Later, in my early twenties, it was Untitled or not Yet. Playful, tactile, abstract, yet present and familiar in its own way. I have never forgotten those early encounters.
Eva Hesse died of cancer at the very young age of 34, but you wouldn’t divine that from her prolific and mature output and the influence she continues to exert on artists such as Kiki Smith and Rachel Whiteread. From painting to drawing to the sculptures for which she is known (and by which she became known to me) you can sense that singularity of vision, the utterly personal commitment. And no wonder. As Marcie Begleiter’s straightforward and moving film shows, Hesse did indeed invoke the personal to produce such intimate and emotional works of art. The film makes us grateful for even her short-lived life. By its account, it is nothing short of a miracle that Hesse 1) lived, 2) produced a significant body and amount of work, and 3) was recognized while she was still alive to appreciate it. Born in Hamburg to Jewish parents right before World War II, she and her sister Helen were on the Kindertransport program, evacuated to Holland for their safety; though her family were able to reconcile and sail to America, many of her relatives and her grandparents died in the camps. Her mother, also an artist, was bipolar and committed suicide. Her father was unsupportive of her career choice. Her husband, the artist Tom Doyle, was an alcoholic. Before Hesse died of cancer, she had managed to live for a few more years after the removal of a brain tumor. She came of artistic age when the galleries and museums were championing the work of male minimalists such as Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin. That she survived both physically and artistically is a testament to her intelligence, ambition and physical power.
The film deftly outlines her gifts and trajectory as an artist, without eliding the difficulties of being taken seriously by males, including her father. The film also ably demonstrates how her writing, intellect, personal history and constant drive to find new directions shaped her work. But not too literally – the film considers concepts such as abandonment, mortality, impermanence, fragility and playfulness and juxtaposed these with the central physical elements of Hesse’s work. In telling the story this way, we see how much Hesse’s process and the specific events she experienced as a woman were integral to her way of living, seeing, and working. Further, it was critical to include in the film excerpts from Hesse’s diary and letters. For long the object of men’s desires, critics’ scrutiny, and a cruel fate, Hesse was able to tell us her version of the story, through her writings and her work. While her materials may artfully degrade, her legacy continues and her work went beyond what she knew.
Eva Hesse, dir. Marcie Begleiter, 108 mins. Zeitgeit Films, 2016. In English and German.