“Aspirations must either lessen and then failure will not be so great, or something must come forth to lessen the burden.” – Eva Hesse
This is the declaration of a troubled individual and a determined artist; of someone who feels a great weight on her shoulders and sees little prospect for relief. By 1960, Eva Hesse was certain of her artistic vocation. She had just graduated from the Yale School of Art and Architecture, had moved to a new studio in New York, and was ready to begin her career as a painter. From the new Eva Hesse Spectres 1960, edited by E. Luanne McKinnon, Helen Molesworth, the chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, includes in her introductory essay a photograph of Hesse taken in 1956. Only twenty years old, with soft brown hair, pale skin and a warm smile, Hesse is the figure of youth and beauty; a muse of subtle but erotic flirtation.
Looking at her paintings from four years later, the viewer is wrenched from this superficial complacency, and thrust instead into a world fraught with pain, fear, insecurity, and alienation. As Molesworth notes later in the same essay, these oft-overlooked paintings indicate Hesse’s confrontation not necessarily with the question, “What does it mean to be an artist?” but rather with, “What does it mean to be a person?” After examining the four dozen or so paintings from 1960, the viewer can only shudder at Hesse’s answer.
The catalog accompanies the exhibition, “Eva Hesse Spectres 1960,” the first retrospective to focus exclusively on the young artist’s paintings from 1960, independently of her celebrated sculptural work from 1965-1970. Curated by McKinnon, the Director of the University of New Mexico Art Museum, the exhibit will be in residence at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles until November 30. A slideshow of images from the Hammer Museum appears here. On New Year’s Day, the collection moves to the University of New Mexico Art Museum, where it will stay until the end of April.
The exhibition itself divides Hesse’s paintings into two distinct groups. The first includes figures that are gaunt, loosely rendered, and standing in groups of two or three. These paintings seem to emerge from an intersection of the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti and the paintings of Willem de Kooning. They straddle the divide of flesh and paint, figure and ground, abstraction and line, proximity and distance. As Molesworth points out in her essay, these figures are ultimately defined by a “logic of human relations”: a system of thought that highlights an emotional (and spatial) disconnect between individuals.
The second group of paintings is oriented around a series of self-portraits. As E. Luanne McKinnon observes in her contribution to the catalog, each of these self-portraits displays “a sense of loss or displacement and pain. More directly stated, in these paintings Hesse’s real beauty was transmogrified into the ghastly.” Claustrophobia and aberrant colors abound; skin is thick and dripping with paint; eyes are sightless and reflect nothing but violence. These self-portraits, as with the paintings that comprise the first half of the collection, are embodiments of emotional turmoil and existential frustration. They are an early index of a tragic figure who would become one of the most celebrated and compelling female artists of the 1960s, leaving behind too short an oeuvre before her early and sudden death in 1970.