Whitehot Magazine

February 2011, Eva Hesse @ Berkeley Museum of Art

Eva Hesse: Studiowork, co-curated by Briony Fer and Barry Rosen.
On view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through April 10, 2011. Photo: Sibila Savage.

Eva Hesse: Studioworks
Berkeley Museum of Art and Pacific Film Archive
2626 Bancroft Way
Berkeley, CA 94720
January 26, through April 10, 2011

Although Minimalism served as her aesthetic point of departure, Eva Hesse (1936 – 1970) nonetheless worked against the movement’s predilection for severe geometry, mechanical repetition and hermetic self-referentiality. Using non-traditional – and inherently cheap and transitory – materials such as latex, wax, fibreglass and rope to hand-make forms that were organic, unsystematic and verging on the erotic, Hesse’s sculptures destabilized established notions of art as both rigorously premeditated and impervious to external forces. Her oblique allegiance to anti-form – a theory put forth by fellow Post-Minimalist Robert Morris – and to art’s humanization is vigorously exemplified by Tori (1969), one of Hesse’s more well-known pieces in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In this sculpture, nine flesh-toned, torso-like vessels of mesh wire and fiberglass lie splayed about the floor, some on top of others, their topsides sliced open to reveal gaping vertical gashes. Like fallen soldiers, their arrangement is haphazard and undoubtedly differs with each “recreation.” Riddled with ambiguities and idiosyncrasies, the scene challenges the viewer’s interpretive sensibilities, confusing the distinction between erotic pleasure and mortal pain. Such a confrontation, which was unique to Hesse’s art, underscores how interpretation and the ensuing contingencies of space and place contribute to form-making as much as any other phenomenon.

Eva Hesse: Studiowork, 1967
Latex, cotton, and rubber; 3 1/3 x 3 ½ in. (diameter); tubing 36 in.
Private collection.

Eva Hesse: Studiowork, an intimate exhibition currently up at the Berkeley Museum of Art through the middle of April, certainly touches upon Hesse’s greater legacy as having revolutionized sculpture during the 1960s and 70s. Its focus, however, is an ostensibly minor history per the dictates of the mainstream canon. Organized by Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery and the Camden Arts Centre in London, the exhibition is comprised solely of Hesse’s test pieces, or what the curators are calling “studioworks,” a collection of experimental and informal though not insignificant sculptures rarely if ever seen by the viewing public. Occupying a rectangular space that has been parsed into two rooms by shallow walls, the exhibition mimics the “front room-back room” dynamic of most retail galleries, subtly patronizing the distinction between that which is acceptable for display and that which is not. In the first room, a group of palpably delicate, neutral-colored studioworks made of cheesecloth and papier-mâché are installed on a low, wide plinth. Reminiscent of sails, shallow vessels and serving platters, some objects exhibit the curious hallmarks of a palimpsest. This enigmatic effect is tempered however when one realizes that the occasional instances of barely discernable text are not covert messages but rather the quotidian stampings of various paper products pulled out of everyday circulation.

The readable though not easily resolvable objects in the front room pose an interesting counterpoint to those found in the back. Here, five hip-high bases display an array of strange and wonderful objects: a series of slumped latex cylinders that look like molten candles; a sea-creature-like object made of fiberglass, polyester resin and plastic tubing; and a cylinder of latex over cloth, tape and balloon that exhibits a strange corporeality, as if a disembodied arm. The walls too are intermittently hung with studioworks, one of which is comprised of five panels of wax and cheesecloth that have been vertically affixed by staples. In some ways this piece bears a connection to Contingent (1969) which consisted of eight similar though much larger panels hung in linear succession and which Hesse identified as “setting up an elusive interplay between negation and affirmation: not painting, not sculpture, it’s there though” (Eva Hesse as quoted in Alex Potts’s The Sculptural Imagination). Directly across the room on the facing wall is another “nothing-something,” this time in three parts: on the left, three rock-like bundles of paper, metal, chord and enamel are encased in nets that hang down from wall anchors like false buoys. The middle section is composed of a pair of sausage and pear-shaped sculptures rendered in enamel, papier-mâché and rubber. In logical succession, the final component is singular. Thickly twisted rope hangs over a nail while a single strand of cord gracefully swirls to the floor. Together, this black triptych forms an inverted cameo against the gallery’s white walls – silhouettes of vulgar and everyday shapes that negate any transcendent aura while testing our aesthetic prejudices and inviting us to make broader connections that subvert any pretense to a self-contained logicality.


Eva Hesse: Studiowork, co-curated by Briony Fer and Barry Rosen.
On view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through April 10, 2011. Photo: Sibila Savage

What is so fascinating about these studioworks is that we call them studioworks: there is no tidy category or christened concept by which to apprehend them. These objects, like splinters of ideas served up in incomplete sentences, require neologistic deliberation. It would be near impossible to imagine Minimalist sculptors such as Richard Serra and Donald Judd engaging in the types of unclassifiable, elastic practices constitutive of Hesse’ studioworks. Instead, between conception and completion, a formal maquette was arguably always created. The materials these artists utilized demanded precise planning for several reasons. First, one cannot just throw together several massive, multi-ton slabs of Cor-ten steel, a material used by Serra, and hope it creates a stable, coherent sculpture. Not only did the metals favored by the Minimalists require a compositional understanding before cutting and welding or other means of assembly, but they also often required factory machinery and a team of laborers. Second, Minimalism approached art as a coherent whole that did not make attempts to reference anything beyond its formal limits. Again, such a systematic and, ultimately, essentialist understanding of art begs for a highly refined maquette or architectural blueprint. Hesse’s studioworks are indicative of her radically different approach to art-making. As objects of contemplation rather than meticulously referenced miniatures for future, “complete” works, her studioworks are metynomic of her larger process, which asserts itself as a concern for the processual. Not only did the studioworks allow her to explore the structural unusual materials and, as the exhibition pamphlet indicates, visualize “the moments between thinking and making,” they are also revelatory of a compelling irony: a work is not identical to the process of making it.

This is why it was moderately disheartening to see that the rear room plinths had been covered under Plexiglas, ostensibly to protect the sculptures against the elements. Hesse however had made a conscious decision to use materials that would not stand the test of time like bronze or steel might have. In the forty years since she made her sculptures, the fibreglass has yellowed and the latex has transformed from white, translucent and pliable to amber, opaque and stiff. While questions of conservation are certainly never easy answered and forever compounded by the complex stranglehold of vying institutional, donor and public interests, the radical openness upon which these sculptures are predicated is not at all served by the strange entombment of their presentation.

As unfinished works, and thus removed from the realm of the fine object d’art, these pieces encompass an even higher degree of instability and liminality than Hesse’s finished art. Caught between the shifting subjectivities of time and thus ensuing modes of expression, identification and association, we see that objects, like subjects, are forever caught between a dialectic of dispersal and reassembly. And although her quest to open art up to the broader contingencies of life was sadly interrupted by the circumstances of her own, which was cut short by a brain tumor at the age of 34, this twist of fate serves not to fetishize her art as augury or bequeath it a false pathos. Such observations are rendered groundless when one discerns how the work continues to embody a vitality and romantic exuberance almost half a century after creation.


Eva Hesse: 1966
Enamel, papier-maché, and rubber; 9 1/2 x 4 1/3 x 4 1/3 in. and 29 9/10 x 1 2/5 x 1 2/5 in.
The Estate of Eva Hesse, courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Zurich and London.

Eva Hesse: Studiowork, 1968
fiberglass, polyester resin, and plastic (clear) tubing; 3 7/8 x 5 3/4 x 5 3/8 in.
gift of Mrs. Helen Charash, 1979.


Frances Malcolm

Frances Malcolm is a freelance writer and art critic based in San Francisco, where she also works as the public relations manager for a contemporary art gallery.  She completed her Master's Degree in Anthropology at the London School of Economics.

view all articles from this author