Artist and Musician Biographies


Curator and Elisabeth Sussman of the Whitney Museum of American Art discusses Eva Hesse's rope sculpture, No Title (1970).

Working primarily in the 1960's, Eva Hesse transcended many of her male counterparts in a time when female artists were not looked highly upon. Tragically, her life lasted only from her birth in 1936 to her untimely death in 1970. Although she was only 34 when she succumbed to a brain tumor, she still managed to produce an impressive body of work.

While Hesse is considered an American artist, she was born in Nazi Germany to Wilhelm and Ruth Hesse, who were Jewish. To protect their child, the family placed Eva with a Catholic family for her first three years. In 1939, the family successfully fled Germany and relocated in New York City with both Eva and her older sister Helen.

Eva would continue to be haunted by fears of abandonment throughout her adult life and these issues would resurface in her work. Instability was a trend in Eva's childhood. After the family had safely settled in New York, her parent's marriage ended divorce in 1945, when Eva was becoming a U.S. citizen. Within a year, her emotionally disturbed mother committed suicide.

Hesse was educated in the public city schools in Manhattan's Fort Washington section, an area primarily inhabited by refugees. 1952 brought about her graduation from the High School of Industrial Arts and subsequent enrollment at the Pratt Institute to study advertising design. Far removed from the work she is known for today, Hesse began her adult life with a job at "Seventeen" magazine. At the same time, she was taking a few courses at the Art Students League and ended up winning an illustration competition sponsored by "Seventeen" and was featured in the September 1954 issue.

Hesse studied at Cooper Union from 1954 through 1957 working with such prominent artists as Will Barnet and Neil Welliver. From there, she went on to study at Yale University's School of Art and Architecture under Josef Albers. She received her B.F.A. from Yale in 1959.

The New York Times (read more) called Hesse an artist who brought soul to Minmalism. Indeed, Hesse saw herself as a painter in her early years. Her work was done in the fashion of Abstract Expressionism and her influences included Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. After leaving Yale, her work began to migrate toward drawing and she became intensely involved with ink drawings and washes. A drawing in 1961 served as a precursor for the distinctive elements of circles and line grids that would carry through almost all of her work.

In 1961, Hesse also had her first show, a group exhibition, in which she entered drawings and watercolors. Marriage also came in this same year to fellow artist, Tom Doyle, a sculptor. This marriage ended in separation in 1966, but the couple never actually divorced before Eva's death in 1970.

In 1962, Hesse spent a summer in Woodstock, New York and her first sculptures began to evolve. Her very first sculpture, done for the Ergo Suits Traveling Carnival, is mentioned in literature concerning the event, but no description is provided. 1963 brought about her first solo exhibition, displaying only drawings, at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York.

Hesse soon left New York, where she had not yet achieved the status of many other artists working in her circle, to venture to Germany with Doyle in 1964. Staying as a guest of a prominent art collector in Kettwig-am-Ruhr, Eva was able to develop her work free from the confines of New York.

It was to Hesse's advantage that a large studio had been given for Doyle's use, and in it, Eva made her own space. Hesse was influenced by the industrial elements Doyle used in his sculpture and began creating drawings depicting single shapes and dramatic contours. During the production of these works, Hesse came to describe her work as "absurd,", a term she would use frequently and a state of being she would eventually try to achieve in her art. Gradually, Hesse's drawings became more and more like sculpture as she began to make them relief pieces to be hung by ropes from the wall. The method of working she used applied layer upon layer, cultivating a sense of three-dimensions.

As she moved away from drawing and submerged herself in sculpture, her work began to include items such as wood and steel wrapped in cloth strips and flexible rubber and latex tubing. A very well-known work in this style is "Hang-Up" (1965-1966), a 6 by 7 foot wood frame wrapped in cords and ropes in a bandage-like fashion. The frame was then painted with Liquitex and intersected by a loop made of narrow steel. Hesse considered this piece to be one of her most absurd, as her journal entry at the time denotes.

Hesse was soon beginning to incorporate fiberglass into her work as well, which allowed her the freedom to play with light. She used a transparent fiberglass that appeared somewhat milky yet still translucent. Repetition, a staple of minimalism, was employed in 1968's "Repetition 19, III" that was made up of 19 fiberglass vessel-like components that resembled wastebaskets or paper cups. The vessels were all placed together on or near the floor, and in gallery lighting, capture the light quite beautifully.

1968 also began her suffering from the brain tumor that would take her life in 1970. Hesse still continued to work avidly up until her death, although her work was growing larger and it became necessary for her to employ the help of assistants. One of her favorite pieces was completed in 1969 and titled "Vinculum II," a piece made of wire mesh layered with latex, staples, string, rubber hosing and fiberglass that are all suspended from a pole leaning diagonally against a wall.

Hesse may be grouped among the minimalist artists of her time, but she and her work did much to purge the movement of its male-oriented coldness through giving depth and meaning to her work. Many consider Hesse to represent the beginning of the movement of process art, in which the process of making is of greater importance than the outcome.

A deep concern with the integrity of her materials and in being true to them played a crucial part in all of Hesse's work. And with this came the fact, of which Hesse was very aware, that her materials only had a limited lifespan. Today, as her work is being shown, one can see the materials beginning to degrade. Her work has become, in a way, a metaphor of her life. Hesse only had a brief period of time to make her art, but she left a hefty impact on the art world, as her work still does today, although, it too will soon disintegrate.

Page author: N.G.