Friday, January 28, 2011

Eva Hesse

Heart of the Matter

Let me say this:
Eva Hesse was a formidable artist. Powerful, intense, capable. And even though people didn't always understand what she was up to, they sensed the boldness in her work, and at a time when women were barely given a nod she held sway, made her mark. By 1963 she had had her first one-woman show; by 1968 she had gallery representation. Two years after her death in 1970, the Guggenheim Museum held a retrospective of her work, the first such exhibition organized around a woman.

Just closed at the Hammer Eva Hesse: Spectres 1960, a show of paintings — yes, Hesse painted. Small, muddy self-portraits/self-expressions, a series created just out of art school, in which she is pushing the limits of paint, pushing beyond what she was taught, being as intensely, privately spontaneous as possible.

“Looking inwardly and outwardly and with paint as her guide, she began to paint herself out and away and ahead… The procession of paintings under examination here represents a rupture that, once completed (not as a formal solution but rather as a psychological denouement), settled back into solving the problems presented in abstraction, eventually evolving into the constructions that Hesse is lauded for.”

So said E. Luanne McKinnon, the show's organizer and Director of the University of New Mexico Art Museum. Nicely put. The denouement, final act out of school, a deep delving into the heart of the matter — the matter being identity and self expression — the last chapter: a small series of ghostly paintings, figures wrestled out of the murky gelatinous materiality of paint, stick-figures, notations quickly done. That said, that done, she went on to put her hands more literally into the matter, into matter, substance, stuff — tactile and plastic.

Latex, papier-mâché, glue, fiberglass, polyester resin, vinyl, ropes and rubber, wire-mesh, sculp-metal, wax and cheesecloth, found objects, bits and pieces, wood and balloons — this the stuff Hesse got her hands on and worked with.

If her paintings seem intimate, revealing, private expressions of anxiety and dread... then likewise the small objects that comprise a current show at the Berkeley Art Museum are intimately revealing of her touch, her hands making manifest.

Left in her studio at the time of her death, clustered on the coffee table, sold or given to friends during her lifetime, these objects are little experiments, test pieces, templates, and small hand-made pieces that stand in contrast to the large, fabricated works that she's known for.

Laid out on table-height platforms or grouped in glass cases, these "studio-works" are wonderful: diverse materials, sundry shapes, they sit there like a jumble of thoughts, sometimes imprecise and other times fully articulated in a short fashion.

It is a delightful show. There is so much liveliness in these pieces, even as the materials change color, harden, disintegrate. It is Hesse's own vitality in them — and that is the mystery of the matter, that the art object carries the animate intensity of its maker. Between these two shows, Eva Hesse is present, revealed, accounted for.

Sculpture images courtesy of Hauser & Wirth Gallery.