Eva Hesse, a pioneering figure in postminimalist art, left an indelible mark on the art world during her brief but impactful career. Born in Germany in 1936 to a Jewish family, her early life was marked by the upheavals of World War II, spent fleeing from Nazi persecution. At just 10 years old, her mother’s suicide was yet another personal tragedy she had to navigate.
Hesse went on to pursue formal art education at the School of Industrial Art in New York, Pratt Institute of Design, and Cooper Union, culminating in a BA from Yale in 1959. At Yale, Hesse worked under the guidance of Josef Albers, a renowned abstract expressionist who helped her find her artistic roots. However, it was only in the 1960s, amidst a primarily male-dominated New York art scene, that Hesse carved her niche. Her works pushed the austere and traditional boundaries of minimalism, creating artworks from materials that had their agency and were made in the shape of feminine figures, becoming a voice for women’s sentimentalities in a male-dominated field, reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Gender Equality.
Hesse's sculptures, like Ringaround Rosie, were often created with unconventional materials like latex, polymer resin, fibreglass, and rope. They bore the unmistakable presence of the artist's hand as is apparent in how Hesse must’ve painstakingly shaped the rope for Ringaround Rosie into a tightly wound circular and protruding structure.
These pieces stood out during their time, in contrast to the rigid and impersonal symmetry of her male counterparts who worked with minimalist art. Hesse's work exudes warmth, sensuality, and a touch of surrealism. She also used materials traditionally associated with industrial masculinity and combined them with labour-intensive methods that are perceived as feminine, for example, traditional crafts like knitting and weaving. This creates a tension of gender roles that are frequently explored in her art.
Her notable piece, Study for Sculpture, exemplifies her style. The piece features an unconventional grid of hanging cords made from materials like Elmer's glue and varnished Masonite. The juxtaposition of ordered columns with slightly uneven spacing and tightly-tied knots reflects again, the opposing masculine and feminine forces often present in Hesse's work. They show how gender experiences are rarely ever binary, that there is always a masculine within the feminine, and vice versa. Hence, in a piece like Study for Sculpture, Hesse emphasizes a need for an equilibrium of both to create a whole.
While Hesse didn't explicitly identify as a feminist, her experience as a woman certainly influenced her art, and paved the way for other women artists. In the 1960s and '70s, she inspired a new generation of artists like Petah Coyne, Rona Pondick, and Kiki Smith to break free from the mould of minimalism and infuse their practice with deeper psychology and depth of a woman’s experience. Today, she stands as one of the most innovative sculptors of the post-war period, regardless of her gender.
The postminimalist movement, as her practice would come to be known, finds echoes in contemporary artisanal wares. This is especially apparent in Hesse’s sculptural works like Repetition Nineteen III, where she used fibreglass to shape small vase-like sculptures. The fibreglass deteriorated over time and gave the sculpture’s now signature bents and yellow-ish colour, another part of Hesse’s practice where she deliberately used materials that could enact their agency into the piece instead of being passive, much like a preference for giving women the ability to enact their agencies.
Even today, designers influenced by the playful lines and unconventional materials seen in Hesse's 1960s work, are reviving postminimalism in various forms, making everything from necklaces to pottery. This resurgence is yet again a reaction to the minimalist trends, which rejects its monotone sleek surfaces and prefers a sense of individuality and emotion in design, qualities often associated with the warmth of femininity.
However, Hesse's meteoric rise was tragically cut short when she was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1970, before eventually succumbing to the illness at the age of 34. Despite her untimely death, Hesse's legacy endures. Her influence transcends time, with posthumous exhibitions spanning several decades. Hesse's unique contribution to sculpture, blending randomness and structure, chaos and order, remains relevant. The fragility of her materials poses challenges for conservators, yet her work vibrates and lives on in the artists she continues to inspire. Eva Hesse, an artist who didn't conform to norms, rightfully earns her place as one of the mothers of contemporary sculpture.