Eva Hesse was reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex during the 15 months that she spent in a disused textile factory near Dusseldorf from 1964-5. She noted in her diary how de Beauvoir’s feminist existentialism was impacting on her own work: “Transcendence to arise above beyond into another space.”
This was an astonishing period of creativity for Hesse, the results of which are displayed here. Accompanied by her husband, the artist Tom Doyle, the residency marked a return to the Germany that she had fled via kindertransport as a 2-year-old Jewish girl in 1938. Her family had settled in New York before her mother’s suicide in 1945.
Hesse’s oeuvre is often analysed in the light of personal tragedy, but the miscellaneous works in this exhibition – painting, sculpture, drawing – are remarkable for their joyousness, their colour, and their sense of fun. They offer a privileged insight into the process of an exceptional artist, whose career spanned little more than 10 years.
Legs of a Walking Ball (1965) is a relief work, or sculptural painting, that combines bulging organic form with mad mechanics. Spare parts that Hesse picked up off the factory floor are incorporated. Painted bright red and yellow, they protrude from the canvas as though inviting the viewer to perform a function that remains mysterious.
The relief works grew out of drawings which Hesse described as “crazy like machines.” They are graceful diagrams in black ink that seem at once sure of their own logic and completely erratic. The outline of a pipe swoops into what might be a sail; plumbing detritus falls through the air. These broken systems appear happy to be so.
Hesse was 28 when she began the residency. She would transform over the year from a painter into a sculptor, from the artist-wife of her more established husband into an artist in her own right. Her aesthetic obsessions would begin to emerge. Soon she would split from Doyle and her father would die. She herself would die at the horribly young age of 34 from a brain tumour.
On her return to New York, she would produce the fragile, formally stunning sculptures for which she is famous. One of these, Sans II (1968) is included here. It is a resin and fibreglass work comprised of rows of boxes that seems to glow with a greyish, interior light. The exhibition is worth seeing for this piece alone.