Artist Spotlight: Eva Hesse

Eva Hesse, Study for Sculpture, 1967. Mixed media, 10 x 10 x 1 in.

One of the most important 20th century works in NMWA’s collection, Eva Hesse’s Study for Sculpture may not be the most colorful or eye catching, but it has certainly made an impact on the history of feminist art.

During a time of social unrest in society and especially artistic culture, a young Eva Hesse was considered part of the male-dominated Minimalist movement, that focused on repetition, geometry, and lacked the personal touch of the artist’s hand. Hesse segued into post-Minimalism through sculpture, which had ties to emotions, the use of gravity, and established artistic imperfection without the strict boundaries of Minimalism.

Eva Hesse was born in 1936, of Jewish descent, in Hamburg, Germany. Shortly thereafter, her family fled the Nazi regime and later settled in New York City in 1939. Hesse had various forms of artistic training throughout her adolescence and young adulthood, including studying at Yale and Pratt Institute, but did not begin her official artistic career until around 1960. In order to be taken seriously, as a female in a male-dominated New York art scene, Hesse was constantly inventing new artistic ideals. She was a pioneer in the field of post- Minimalism, using materials not yet seen in contemporary sculpture such as latex, fiberglass, and plastics. Hesse brought the personal touch back to minimalism with her hands, as most Minimalist pieces removed the handmade quality of artwork and replaced it with machine.  Sadly, Hesse died at the age of 34 from a brain tumor in 1970, putting an end to her short artistic career, but not her legacy in contemporary art. There have been a number of posthumous exhibitions since her death; the most famous being a retrospective at The Jewish Museum in New York City in 2006.

Study for Sculpture is an outstanding example of Hesse’s work as a whole. It contains elements of gravity, shadow, light, and a deep emotional intensity. Hesse used a matte gray acrylic paint on masonite, along with various attached rubber tubes and left the remaining elements of the piece, such as lighting and placement, up to the institution that installed it. This simple idea of chance pays homage to the early 20th century Dadaists, therefore interpretation and interaction is left in the hands of the viewer. Hesse struggled with mental instability, separation, divorce, and suicide within her short lifetime and these elements have clearly given depth and consequence to the piece.

Study for Sculpture is a must see in the NMWA collection and a true example of the fight to stand above a male-dominated 1960s American art world. Take a stand and view Eva Hesse and other important contemporary artists in our third floor galleries!

About the Author- Ali Printz is currently an intern in the LRC at NMWA