Eva Hesse's brief, tragic life and her continued productivity during her heroic battle against cancer were so touching that criticism tended to deal more with tier biography than with her work until Lucy Lippard adjusted the balance in herEva Hesse, New York, 1976.
in a single decade, with less than half of it devoted to three-dimensional work, Hesse
created some of the masterpieces of contemporary American sculpture. Her attitude toward
process art differed from that of Richard Serra, for example, who deliberately displayed
process, sometimes allowing it to become the very subject of the work. Hesse, on the other
hand, chafed at the classification, declaring: "Everything is process ... I never
thought of it for any other reason than the process
was necessary to get where I was going to." For her it was not a pro
gram; it was only a means to an expressive end. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the process of hanging, failing, drooping, for example, is a prime determinant of her pathetic "absurdity," just as Serra's sawing of huge redwood logs, allowing them to lie as they fell from the cut ting, is largely responsible for the nearly brutal aggressiveness of his sculpture.
Excerpted from Cindy Nemser's1970 interview with Eva Hesse in Nemser, Art Talk: Conversations with Twelve Women Artists, New York, 1975. Some of this material first appeared in Artforum (May 1970) and Feminist Art Journal (Winter 1973)
C.N.:Since you didn't feel any strong influence at Yale, were there people in New York who influenced you when you came back and started working on your own?
E.H.:I think at the time I met the man I married, I shouldn't say I went backwards, but I did, because he was a more mature and developed artist. He would push me in his direction and I would he unconsciously somewhat influenced by him. Yet when I met him I had already had a drawing show which was much more me. I had a drawing show in 1961 at the John Heller Gallery which became the Amel Gallery. It was called Three Young Americans. The drawings then were incredibly related to what I'm doing now. Then I went back one summer again to an Abstract Ex. pressionist kind of tone-that was really an outside influence. I think that struggle between student and finding one's self is, even at the beginning level of maturity, somethething that cannot be avoided. I don't know anyone who has avoided it. And I my struggle I was very difficult and very frustrating.... But I worked....
C.N.:When did you start working in soft materials?
E.H.:I started working in sculpture when my husband and I lived for a year and a half under an unusual kind of "Renaissance patronage" in Europe. A German industrialist invited us to live with him and I had a great deal of difficulty with painting but never with drawings. The drawings were never very simplistic. They ranged from linear to complicated washes and collages. The translation or transference to a large scale and in painting was always tedious. It was not natural and I thought to translate
and with line-using
it in some other way. So I started working in relief the cords and ropes that are now so commonly used. I literally translated
I I -
the line. I would vary the cord lengths and widths and I would start with threedimensional boards and I would build them out with paper-mache or kinds of soft materials. I varied the materials a lot but the structure
would always be built up with cords. I kept the scale, in Europe, fairly small, and when I came back to America I varied the materials further and I didn't keep to rectangles. Even in Europe I did some that were not rectangles, and then they grew and grew. They came from the floor, the ceiling, the walls. Then it just became whatever it became.
C.N.:How do the soft materials relate to the subject or content of your work? ...
E.H.:It's not a simple question for me. First when I work it's only the abstract qualities that I'm really working with, which is to say the material, the form it's going to take, the size, the scale, the positioning or where it comes from in my room-if it hangs from the ceiling or lies on the floor. However, I don't value the totality of the image on these abstract or aesthetic points. For me it's a total image that has to do with me and life. ... And there I'm very complex. I'm not a simple person and the complexity-of I can name what it consists of (and it's probably increased now because I've been so sick this year)-is the total absurdity of life. I guess that's where I relate, if I do, to certain artists who I feel very close to, and not so much through having studied their writings or works, but because, for me, there's this total absurdity in their work.
CN.:Which artists are they?
E.H.:Duchamp, Yvonne Rainer, Ionesco, Carl Andre.
C.N.:Let's talk about some of your early sculptures.
E.H.:There was a piece I did for that show in the Graham Gallery, Abstract Inflationism, Stuffed Expressionism, in 1965 or 1966. It was called Hang-up-a dumb name. I did the piece when I came back from Europe and I wasn't totally aware of how "hang-up" was being used here. It's unfortunate, but I can't change it. I think it was about the fifth piece I did and I think the most important statement I made. It's close to what I feel I achieve now in my best pieces. It was the first time where my idea of absurdity or extreme feeling came through. It's huge-6 feet by 7 feet. It is a frame, ostensibly, and it sits on the wall and it's a simple structure which if I were to make again I'd construct differently. This is really an idea piece. It is almost primitive in its construction, very naive. It's a very thin, strong metal, easily bent and rebent. The frame is all tied like a hospital bandage as if someone had broken an arm, an absolutely rigid cord around the entire thing. That dates back to those drawings I told you about. I would never repeat that piece of construction but there's a nice quality about it. It has a kind of depth I don't always achieve-a depth and soul and absurdity and life and meaning or feeling or intellect that I want to get.... It is also so extreme and that is why I like it and don't like
Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1969-70. Latex over
rope, wire and string. 3 units, 12, 10 1/2 and 7 1/4 fet. College of Mr. And Mrs. Victor
W. Ganz, New York.
it. It is so absurd. This little piece of steel comes out of this structure and it comes out a lot. It's about 10 or 11 feet out and it is ridiculous. It's the most ridiculous structure I have ever made and that is why it is really good. It is coming out of something and yet nothing, and it is holding. it is framing nothing. And the whole frame is gradated-oh more absurdityvery, very finely. It really was an effort. And it's painted with liquitex. It is very surreal, very strange. It is weird. it is like those things I did in Europe that come out of nothing in a very surreal and yet very formal way and have really nothing to do with anybody....
C.N.:How about motifs? I notice that you use the circle quite frequently. What does it mean to you?
E.H.:I think the circle is very abstract. I could make up stories of what the circle means to men, but I don't know if it is that conscious. I think it was a form, a vehicle. I don't think I had a sexual, anthropomorphic, or geometric meaning. It wasn't a breast and it wasn't a circle representing life and eternity.... I remember always working with contradictions and contradictory forms which is my idea also in life. The whole absurdity of life, everything for me has always been opposite. Nothing has ever been in the middle. When I gave you my autobiography, my life never had anything normal or in the center. It was always extremes. And I think, I know that, in forms that I use in my work that contradiction is certainly there. When I was younger or a less mature artist, I was always aware that I could combine order and chaos, string and mass, huge and small. I would try to find the most absurd opposites or extreme opposites and I was always aware of their contradiction formally. It was always more interesting than making something right size, right proportion....
C.N.:Repetition is very prevalent in your work. Why do you repeat a form over and over?
E.H.:Because it exaggerates. If something is meaningful, maybe it's more meaningful said ten times. It's not just an aesthetic choice. If something is absurd, it's much more greatly exaggerated, absurd, if it's repeated....
C.N.:When I looked at Ishtar, the piece that had the half-cups with the cords going through it, it seemed to me that it had sexual connotations and there was a joining of the two sexes. And it's the same in a work like Repetition 19 where you have container-like forms that are tall and could also be tower-like or phallic.
E.H.:You mean they're both male and female symbols?
C.N.:Because they're containers and they're also cylindrical forms.
E.H.: And the next version gets taller-greater erections. No!
I don't see
that at all. I'm not conscious of that at all or not even unconscious. I'm aware they can be thought of as that even in the process of making them, but I am not making that, ...
C.N.:How about the relation of light and color in your work?
E.H.:I think they are less important. Color is whatever comes out of the material and keeps it what it is. The light-I'm not too concerned with it. because if you use reinforced fiberglass clear and thin the light is there by its nature and the light does beautiful things to it, It is there as part of its anatomy. I an not interested in dramatics and so I de-emphasize the beau
ty of the fiberglass or the light and just make it natural. I don't highlight it with extra light. It's a by-product, built in there. Maybe dark does beautiful things to it....
C.N.:Here's this piece I like so much from the Whitney's Anti Illusion, Procedures, Materials exhibition. What's it called?
E.H.:Expanded Expansion. It has also been called Untitled because I hadn't really completed it when I went to the hospital. They didn't know it had a title. I never call things Untitled since things need to be titled as identification. I do title them and I give it a lot of thought most of the time because things being called Untitled is a sign of uninterest and I am
interested. I try to title them so that it has meaning for me in terms of what I think of the piece and yet it's just like a word. I use a dictionary
and a thesaurus. I usually use a word that sounds right too but that doesn't have a specific meaning in terms of content. It's straight but not another word for it....
C.N.:You were insisting your pieces aren't environmental before, yet this piece is so large-scale.
E.H.:Its scale would make it environmental but that is not enough to make something environmental. Then it is leaning against the wall and it looks like a curtain. Those things make it superficially environmental....
C.N.:But you are concerned with the idea of lasting?
E.H.: Well, I am confused about that as I am about life. I have a two-fold problem. I'm not working now, but I know I'm going to get to the problem once I start working with fiberglass because from what I understand it's toxic and I've been too sick to really take a chance.... And then the rubber only lasts a short while I am not sure where I stand on that. At this point I feel a little guilty when people want to buy it. I think they know but I want to write them a letter and say it's not going to last.... Part of me feels that it's superfluous and if I need to use rubber that is more important. Life doesn't last; art doesn't last. It doesn't matter....
194 AMERICAN ARTISTS ON ART
C.N.:Does your work concern itself with the process, in the sense of Richard Serra's saying he is concerned with pushing or pulling or lifting, etc.?
E.H.:Well, process-that is the mold I felt I was going to be put in. I don't really understand it. Everything is process and the making of my work is very interesting but I never thought of it as "now I am rolling, now I am scraping, now I am putting on the rubber." I never thought of it for any other reason than the process was necessary to get to where I was going to get to. I do have certain feelings now to keep things as they are. I have very strong feelings about being honest, also heightened since I have been so ill. And in the process, I'd like to beit sounds corny-true to whatever I use and use it in the least pretentious and most direct way. Yet you could say that it's not always true, for instance I rubberized cheesecloth....
C.N.:Then it's not the old truth-to-materials doctrine.
E.H.:Yes. It partially is because rubber needs more strength than rubber alone for permanency. And if you like to keep it very thin and airy you have to figure that out. There is a very, very fine plastic glued to a very cheap plastic to get some of those very, very close lines, because cheap plastic is so thin and it clings together well, so when the rubber dries you have all this clinging, linear kind of thing. And I make things too. If the material is liquid, I just don't leave it or pour it. I can control it but I don't really want to change it. I don't want to add color or make it thicker or thinner. There isn't a rule. I don't want to keep any rules. I want to change the rules. In that sense processing the materials becomes important because I do so little with them. I do so little else with the form which I guess is the absurdity. I keep it very, very simple, so then it's like a hanging material....
C.N.:I think you said it was the first time you did a sketch for a sculpture (Contingent].
E.H.:I did a whole group at one time-in one or two weeks. I did ten sketches and I think I worked them all out or they are being worked out-every one of them,
C.N.:That was unusual for you because previously the drawings were separate.
E.H.:Yes. I always did drawings but they were separate from the sculpture or the paintings. I don't mean in a different style but they weren't connected as an object, a transference. They were related because they were mine but they weren't related in one completing the other. And these weren't either. They were just sketches. It is also not wanting to have such a definite plan. It is a sketch-just a quickie to develop it in the
EARTH AND PROCESS ART
process rather than working out a whole small model and following it. That doesn't interest me. I am not even interested in casting. The materials I use are really casting materials. I don't want to use them as casting materials. I want to use them directly, eliminating making molds but making them directly at the moment out of some material, in that sense I'm interested in process.
C.N,:... Sonnier used material so that layering was almost a form of painting-one color on top of the other.
E.H.:That is my drawings. My last series of drawings ... were painted. They were inks, layer over layer, very, very fine washes on paper. They're absolutely paintings. Even those very careful ink drawings were layer over layer. These were very careful too, but they are looser. Those five circle drawings were washes, one over the other.
C.N.:And that extends to the three-dimensional work too?
E.H.:Fiberglass and rubber are layers. Fiberglass less, but it builds up and if I need any thickness it is one fine layer over the other. And rubber is certainly that way. The rubber that I've been using you can't pour on very thick.
C.N.:So your work has more relation to painting than to sculpture which one thinks of as carved-out or molded.
E.H.:But I never did any traditional sculpture.... I don't know if I am completely out of the tradition. I know art history and I know what believe in. I know where I come from and who I am related to or the work that I have looked at and that I am really personally moved by an, feel close to or am connected or attached to. But I feel so strongly that the only art is the art of the artist personally and found out as much as possible for himself and by himself. So I am aware of connectiveness-its impossible to be isolated completely-but my interest is in solely finding my own way. I don't mind being miles from everybody else. I am not now, possibly. Critics, art historians, museums and galleries do like to make a movement for their own aims, and for art history and to make people understand, but I wonder about that. In that way I have be connected to other people but I don't mind staying alone. I think it is important. The best artists are those who have stood alone and who are separated from whatever movements have been made about them. When a movement goes, there are always two or three artists. That is all there is.
C.N.:Then your art is more like painting?
E.H.: I don't even know that. Where does drawing end and
I don't know if my own drawings aren't really paintings except smaller and on paper. The drawings could be called painting legitimately and a lot of my sculpture could be called painting. That pieceContingent I did at Finch College could be called a painting or a sculpture. It is really hung painting in another material than painting. And a lot of my work could be called nothing or an object or any new word you want to call it....
C.N.:Whose work did you really like?
E.H.:... I loved most de Kooning and Gorky but I know that was for me personally. You know, for what I could take from them. I know the im- portance of Pollock and Kline and now, if you ask me now, I would probably say Pollock before anyone. But I didn't in growing tip.
C.N.!What about Minimal art?
E.H.:Well, I feel very close to one Minimal artist who's really more of a romantic, and would probably not want to be called a Minimal artist and that is Carl Andre. I like some of the others very much too but let's say I feel emotionally very connected to his work. It does something to my insides....
C.N.:Are there other artists you admire?
E.H.:Oldenburg is an artist, if I have to pick a few artists, that I really believe in. I don't think I was ever stuck on Oldenburg's use of materials. I don't think I have ever done that with anybody's work and I hope I never do. I can't stand that. But I absolutely do like Oldenburg very, very much. I respect his writings, his person, his energy, his art, his humor, the whole thing. He is one of the few people who work in realism that I really like-to me he is totally abstract-and the same with Andy Warhol. He is high up on my favorite list. Ile is the most artist that you could be. His art and his statement and his person are so equivalent. fie and his work are the same. It is what I want to be, the most Eva can be as an artist and as a person.