Andrea J. Nitsche on Eva Hesse

At first blush, this india ink, gouache, watercolor and crayon drawing, from the early years of Eva Hesse’s career, may seem anomalous within the artist’s better-known sculptural oeuvre. Yet initial associations of erotic machines or cartoonish anthropomorphisms eventually give way to a drawing that deals in the studied dialectics in which Hesse showed a sustained interest throughout her truncated yet prolific career.

This drawing, with the date carefully inscribed at bottom, was executed during the fourteen months that Hesse and her husband, sculptor Tom Doyle, spent living and working in an abandoned textile factory in Kettwig-am-Ruhr, Germany, at the invitation of F. Arnhard Scheidt, a German textile manufacturer and art collector. This pivotal period initiated Hesse’s foray into sculpture and saw her experimenting with discarded factory materials, such as plaster, screens, cloth, and cord. Coupled with a sustained devotion to investigating the balance between representation and abstraction through drawing–a concern foregrounded in the present work–Hesse’s explorations in these found media provide the formal and conceptual groundwork for her exceptional sculptural work in latex and resin, to which she would turn upon returning to New York.

While living in Kettwig-am-Ruhr, Hesse traveled throughout Germany and Europe, where frequent visits to museums and kunsthallen, as well as to the 1964 documenta III exhibition in Kassel, exposed her to the work of many historical and contemporary artists. The pseudo-erotic forms depicted in the present work perhaps recall the drawings of Arshile Gorky, fresh in Hesse’s mind from an exhibition at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, seen just two months prior to the creation of this drawing. To those who are so inclined, Hesse’s episodic grid can be read as a humorously deadpan comic strip starring the phallus and the uterus, the sperm and the egg, or any other cast of visceral and gendered forms.

A number of allusions quickly suggest themselves, though not all with sexual overtones. In a journal entry on November 16, 1964, Hesse remarks upon the drawings she made for Scheidt’s children, who would often visit her in the factory. One such drawing depicted the numbers one through ten; perhaps in this vein, the use of crayon and the animated seriality of the present drawing may be likened to a children’s anthropomorphic alphabet chart.

Hesse scholarship is notoriously mired in myth, her personal life and artistic production compressed by scholars into one anguished and remarkable statement. This tendency to nostalgically anthologize all things Hesse is spurred by the patently tragic elements of her biography: born in Hamburg in 1936, her family emigrated to New York, successfully fleeing Nazi Germany; however, in May of 1970, at the age of 34, Hesse would slip into a fatal, brain tumor-induced coma. One is hard pressed to avoid reading biographical data even in this strange and playful drawing. The grid-like framing that gives way to an ambiguous play between foreground and background suggests an analogy to portals or windows—a varied and reoccurring motif in Hesse’s oeuvre. Anne M. Wagner connects this motif to Hesse’s representation of the scene of her mother’s suicide: she died jumping from a window.1 A closer look at the upper right-hand pane makes the theme hard to ignore: the pale pink forms seem to blow as curtains in the gentle breeze of a fully open window. However, while biography may have a place in this work, it is not romanticized—rather, the drawing is surprisingly unsentimental.

In Untitled (1965) we see Hesse working though formal and theoretical dichotomies. Contradictions are gently made to cohabitate in this drawing: interior and exterior; figuration and abstraction; purity and sexuality; geometric and free-form; humanoid and machine or object; trepidation and insistency. Seemingly conflicting pairs exist simultaneously and in such a way that neither element is diminished by the presence of its opposite. The dialectics at play in this work and Hesse’s deft command of their ambiguity are of lasting relevance in the artist’s oeuvre.

  1. Anne Wagner, “Another Hesse,” October, Vol. 69 (Summer, 1994), p. 72. []
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