‘No title’ (1963)

When​ the sculptor Eva Hesse died fifty years ago, she was 34 and making work that still feels new. After a promising start as a figurative painter, she moved quickly towards contemporary abstraction. Then she discarded painting entirely, in favour of an approach that linked the body to sculpture in distinctive new ways. Ropes resemble sinews and tangled nerves; fibreglass forms brittle cells and chambers; an open steel cube bristles with grey vinyl tubing. Even now, the sheer bodiliness of these pieces reminds us that sculpture offers surrogates for corporeal experience.

Was it Hesse’s impatience with the effortful ways the body is traditionally figured in bronze or marble that led her to term her version of sculpture ‘non-work’? The advantage of this negation is that like similar coinages – ‘non-belonging’ or ‘non-aggression’ – it directs us towards some fundamental questions. What is a non-work? What would it mean for a sculpture to be one? If the traditional modes of sculpture are public and permanent, upright and commemorative, then a non-work ought to avoid these in pursuit of the private, the transient, and the prostrate. If it is not actually purposeless, it should be self-fulfilling. We might even say that a non-work seems less a thing than a person, because, unlike the fixed and impervious sculpture, it has a material presence that seems improbably alive. Hesse spoke of the non-work as ‘everything and yet nothing’. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

The idea of negation was central to the tensions Hesse created and mediated in her sculptures. One of her favourite descriptions of them was ‘chaos structured as non-chaos’: it captures the distinctive look of her work and its commitment to disruptive repetition. Her graph paper drawings put the contradiction to work, the essential orderliness of a grid providing her with a structure for her chaos. When she chose a green-ruled variety as the matrix for a tightly inked pattern, it was so that the opposition between line and circle, the harmony of repeated shapes and the freeform, would seem almost to hum on the page. This piece is one among hundreds of drawings included in Eva Hesse Oberlin, a travelling exhibition distilled from the enormous collection of Hesse’s works and papers (some 1500 items) housed at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio. Hesse wasn’t educated at Oberlin, but at Yale: it was her elder sister, Helen, who chose Oberlin for reasons that, many years later, seem both savvy and poignant. She wanted the collection to mark Hesse’s campus visit in 1968, the pleasure she took in working closely with students there, and for the collection to be a resource for future students. At the same time, the bequest also celebrated the museum’s decision to acquire Laocoön (1966), Hesse’s first major sculpture, not long before her death. Helen and Hesse’s dealer, Donald Droll, chose for the bequest not the drawings they thought her best – these were kept for the market – but those they felt would be ‘appreciated’ by Oberlin students: images that show her work changing and maturing.

For many years, the Oberlin collection was a well-kept secret, visited by devotees and specialists and gradually expanding thanks to further gifts. The exhibition has travelled to Wiesbaden, New York and Vienna and ends its tour next year back in Oberlin. What will remain is the handsome (and hefty) catalogue published by Hauser and Wirth, which makes a fine advert for the collection.* The images take me back to my initial encounter with Hesse’s drawings three decades ago, when I spent a week working at the Allen. I already knew and admired Hesse’s sculptures but was unprepared for the sheer range and variety of the drawings, let alone the clear sense they conveyed of assimilation and growth. I hoped to find that Hesse’s drawings fed into her sculpture, and I saw that this was what had happened eventually. But along the way she experimented, in form and in medium: ink and Conté crayon, etching and lithography, pencil and watercolour, gouache and collage.

Among the images in the Oberlin catalogue, there are many that, at first, I didn’t remember seeing. Bit by bit the forgotten imagery came back to me: from the early 1950s, a set of gorgeous floral watercolours, each awash with colour; rapidly inked nudes of seated models; a group of increasingly capable post-Cubist abstractions. These are the works that gained her admission to Yale: I think I can see why. Over time, she seems to have arrived at the understanding that what mattered wasn’t colour, but line. Then, at some now lost moment between the life drawings and the post-Pop body parts, something fund amental seems to have changed. It’s as if Hesse was beginning to think of human bodies not as smoothly interlinked systems but as surprisingly haphazard assemblies: in one drawing as limp as flattened boxes; in another boldly twisted, like the outflow under the sink. Is a machine like a body? Are they soft or hard? Can they link up and have sex?

The most interesting drawings at Oberlin take us as close as we can get to the moment when Hesse grasped that sculpture isn’t the realisation of an image, but a practice. Page after page of her sketchbooks show her trying to solve specific technical problems. Take Laocoön. At just over two metres high and half a metre deep, it might be described as an open-work ladder draped in tangles of rope (these evoke the writhing snakes of its great namesake). What mattered most to Hesse was the modular structure of the ladder-like construction. Like the graph paper it offers repetition, non-chaos. Practically, it offered stability to a skeletal structure of this height.

All this may sound obvious, but, as every beginner must learn, each step on the way to a finished sculpture needs thinking through. Alongside the sketches for one of her most elaborate pieces, a long wall-hung relief titled Sans II (1968), Hesse made a list of the ‘Problems in Art’. It begins: ‘NON ART/materiality’. Next comes a hurriedly drawn triangle, with ‘PROCESS’ at the apex and ‘content’ and ‘materiality’ flanking the base. Then, more or less in the middle of the page, she wrote: ‘Sans must have the materiality of fibreglass. Edges.’ Sans II was made using fibreglass, which was sold in thin sheets for layering. It offers a specific sort of materiality. Light-filled but brittle, its surfaces can be worked to look both thin and thick. Hesse described the idiosyncratic edges that can be created as not ‘tight, petty’ but instead ‘open & free’. What did she mean? Sans II, with its double row of luminous chambers, suggests an emptiness that is individualised, as well as ‘open and free’. This was both a mode of art and a model for making. ‘Don’t pressure self about this,’ she wrote when she was still at the planning stage, ‘it will come when life style opens up.’ This is excellent advice, and not just for students.

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