“I have the most openness about my art. Iʼm willing really to walk on the edge, and if I havenʼt achieved it, thatʼs where I want to go.”
Eva Hesse, a German-born American artist, was one of the few women recognized as central to the New York art scene of the 1960s. As the decade drew to a close, she looked toward a future nearly unprecedented for a female artist: over 20 group shows, a cover article in ArtForum, and much international coverage of her work. Tragically, though, they were accomplishments she would not live to see — in May of 1970, her life was cut short by a malignant brain tumor.
Although Hesse had only a single one-person show of her sculpture during her short life, subsequent years have seen multiple retrospectives, and major museums — like MoMA, Pompidou, and the Tate — have purchased her work for their permanent collections. Now, as her work and influence are cemented in the canon of Western and American art, filmmaker Marcie Begleiter is making Eva Hesse, a feature-length documentary exploring the journey of this singular woman.
The film is the culmination of a decade’s worth of research, catalyzed by Begleiter’s discovery of Hesse’s unpublished journals and letters. These materials provided an unprecedented glimpse into the courage, fears, struggles, and true accomplishments of an artist who is only now coming into her own. Here, Begleiter provides us an intimate window into that journey.
Text by Marcie Begleiter, director of Eva Hesse.
I discovered Evaʼs voice during a week spent reading through her unpublished journals and letters at Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum, a modest institution with a remarkable collection. Hesse passed away of a brain tumor in 1970, at age 34. For almost 20 of those years she wrote frequently, with insight, honesty, and a deep sense of the absurdity of life. Her story is set down in a collection of personal journals with pages numbering over 1,000 — plus dozens of hand-written letters, notebooks, and other ephemera.
How this extraordinary archive came to rest in Ohio is a story woven from relationships: between the young artist and her father, between a working woman and her close circle of friends, and, finally, between Hesse and an adventurous art historian named Ellen Hulda Johnson, who befriended a coterie of New York artists and invited them to Oberlin’s small-town college campus. Little did Hesse realize when she arrived in Oberlin to teach a workshop, in 1968, that those few days with Johnson would result in a long-term future home for her distinctive (and engaging) voice.
This is also the story of a remarkable family who barely survived the turmoil of mid-twentieth century Europe, and brought their hopes and memories to New York in paper and ink.
A Tradition of Writing
Hesse was born in 1936 in Hamburg, Germany, the second daughter of William Hesse, an attorney, and Ruth Hesse. Ruth, who had gone to art school in Hamburg, led a troubled life and left the family when Eva was seven. William supplied whatever stability his daughters knew, and kept meticulous and insightful journals recording the their growth and character. He also wrote about Jewish life in Germany during the 1930s and familyʼs harrowing departure from Hamburg on the heels of Kristallnacht in 1938.
“May this book of your childhood become a guide in your later life. In it, you will realize how you grew up. None of this may get lost my beloved child, because there is nothing that sustains us more in the hardships of our lives than a review of our childhood.” (William Hesse)
Eva most certainly watched her father work on these journals, and the habit was passed on. Boxes in the Oberlin archive are piled high with the evidence. After my first marathon week of reading, much was still unread — the archive is that dense — but I came away with a new understanding of the artistʼs works, as well as the life that led to their creation. It was an encounter with a woman who engaged completely each day: someone who did not turn away from challenges, but used them as opportunities to understand herself, her life, and her work more deeply.
“I want to do more than just exist, to live happily and contented with a home, children, to do the same chores every day. I am an artist. I want to experience all what life has to offer and I have to do this for myself.”
The Oberlin residency started me on a path that has changed my life. I came of age in New York just after Hesseʼs active years. I knew the neighborhoods where she lived and worked. Had shopped in some of the same stores for materials. Her writing was personal as well as art-historically interesting to me. Engaging with Evaʼs voice has resulted in a long conversation, albeit a bit one sided. Iʼve wondered, do we pick our projects or do they pick us?
Downtown New York in the ’60s
When Hesse moved downtown in the early 1960s, the area had yet to be developed and a horde of young artists, writers, and performers congregated there, lured by cheap space and the camaraderie of the streets. In 1964, Eva and her husband, sculptor Tom Doyle, moved into 134 Bowery. It was a tumbledown structure even then. It had been built in the early 1800s for pre-industrial manufacturing, and the couple rented two of its four dilapidated floors: a living space three flights up, to which Doyle added plumbing and a studio for Hesse under the attic eaves. It was in this space that most of her best-known sculptures were created.
The early 1960s were a time of great exploration for Hesse. She left Yale’s art program with an undergraduate degree in 1959 and painted seriously for some years, exploring it as a medium while at the same time feeling that it might be a dead end for her. At the same time, she wrote copious journal entries about her working process, relationships, and personal insights — all informed by her ongoing psychotherapy.
“Painting went lousy today. I get distrustful of myself. To be able to finish one and stand ground; this is me, this is what I want to say.”
“Painting has become that ʻmaking art,ʼ painting a painting; the history, the tradition is too much there. I want to be surprised. . . .”
When not working, she walked the industrial neighborhood that would eventually be known as Soho and would often run into other artists. Sol LeWitt, who was one of Evaʼs closest friends and an important correspondent, was over on Hester Street. The writer Lucy Lippard and painter Robert Ryman were around the corner. Bob Smithson and Nancy Holt were right up the street.
Distance gives a new perspective
In 1964, Hesse and Doyle were offered a stipend and traveled to Germany to take part in, as Hesse put it, “A year and a half under an unusual kind of ‘Renaissance patronage.’ A German industrialist invited us to live with him.” Travel, room and board, and a cavernous studio in an old textile factory were covered by Arnard Scheidt, a collector and owner of the textile mill. The artistʼs time away from New York gave her room for experimentation, and resulted in not only a daring set of relief paintings but also hundreds of pages of journals, letters, sketchbooks, and even a set of drawings inspired by the Scheidt children.
“Started work in oil paint today. Did two tiny very expressionistic paintings. Feel rather enthused since I enjoyed them and they seemed real for me. Somehow, I think that counts. Iʼm still not working right as I know in my mind one should. Tom also can find working difficult. Less so as he knows what heʼs about, what he wants to achieve.”
But Hesse felt increasingly stymied by the limitations of painting. Reaching out to her friend in New York, the artist Sol LeWitt, Hesse shared her doubts and her commitment. The following are excepts from their correspondence in the spring and summer of 1965. They have been edited in the documentary to reflect the conversational nature of the back-and-forth, and a selection is transcribed below:
I want to thank you for your letter. I finished one more. They are good. Iʼm working a third one. Much difficulties, but at least Iʼm pushing, and I will be. I swear it.
Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder, wondering doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, rumbling, rambling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse shitting, hair splitting, nit picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking ass-gouging, eye-ball poking, finger pointing, alley-way sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just do!
I have done drawings, seems like hundreds. Clean, clear, but crazy like machines. Larger and bolder, articulately described. Real nonsense.
That sounds fine. Wonderful. Real nonsense. Do more, more nonsensical, more crazy, more machines. Makes them abound with nonsense.
One should be content with the process as well as the result. I am not.
Stop worrying about big deep things. You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then youʼll be able to DO.
The other side of Germany
At the same time, Hesse was beginning to deal with the burden of being back in her homeland. The country that had destroyed her family barely 25 years earlier was, ironically, the place where she was given a chance to break through into a new way of working. And finally, near the end of her stay, Eva finally made the trip back to her home town.
“Just returned from H and H. Visited where I was born in Hamburg. In Hameln, house of my mother, quite a trying scene. Tears all around and much talk of those times when no one knew what was happening. I was the ghost from the past. Their guilt and all was just pouring out. On to better times and doings.”
Back in the archive
Only four years after returning from Germany, and just six months after her breakout solo show at the Fischbach Gallery in New York, Hesse learned that she had a malignant brain tumor. In and out of the hospital for the next year, she kept working, and completed some of her best known and most important pieces — including Untitled (Rope Piece), which is currently installed at the Whitney, and Seven Poles, both in 1970.
At the end, the artist knew she was fighting a losing battle. She took steps to purge her studio of work she did not want to be included in her oeuvre. This included the destruction of a number of sculptures from her first days back in the U.S.
The journals survived the purge.
And so we have Hesseʼs voice — at times confident, at times insecure. Determined, emotional, searching, and insightful. Above all, attentive to the details of life.
I’m not a simple person, and the complexity — if I can name what it consists of (and it’s probably increased now because I’ve been so sick this year) — is the total absurdity of life.
When I left Oberlin with a computer filled with notes and photos, there was a feeling of being overwhelmed by Evaʼs presence. Not in a metaphysical way, but the being that spoke through those words seemed to still be in the room. So visceral, so energized. And years later, when I finally met the people she was closest to, the ones to whom many of the letters had been written to, it was clear that her presence was still with them as well.
As her friend Grace Wapner said: “At my age, youʼve lost lots of people. But I still think of Eva every day.”
I never had the pleasure of speaking with Eva Hesse. But her voice is clear.
“One day it will all fit together and I feel capable of being there and ready. It will all have been worthwhile for what I have gained from it.”