In 1969 Eva Hesse participated in When Attitudes Become Form, a benchmark exhibition of Minimalist art. This was a watershed moment for Hesse. What the participants in this show demonstrated with their work was that experience -- that of the artist and that of the viewer -- could be given shape through language, line, color, and pre-existing shape (primary ones such as circles and squares were popular) and that experience could acquire meaning as aesthetic objects. In essence, these artists demonstrated that the recording of their process of thinking about art and making objects was the artwork. Although it is this work that Hesse is known and remembered for, we are fortunate to be able to view her lesser-known paintings from the early 60s at the Brooklyn Museum.
Hesse no doubt saw these earlier works as transitional, coming as they did between the end of the Abstract Expressionist movement and the flourishing of Pop Art, but she did attempt to explain their meaning to some extent. In 1959 she wrote in her journal, “Paint yourself out, through and through, it will come by you alone. You must come to terms with your own work and not with any other being.”
In three gray “self-portraits,” Hesse may be identified by her straight dark hair. Iconic, highly simplified images in which Hesse eschewed likeness, instead attempting a psychological study of the self as seen from the inside. In No Title (1960) she depicts herself as a bald and sickly figure -- presciently foreshadowing her early death from a brain tumor.
The major painting in the exhibition, No Title (1960), gives us a double self-portrait, but of a Bride and Groom. The Bride, veiled and holding flowers, the Groom something that looks like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. The Bride sits in a chair with her elbows bent as if she is about to rise. Gollum moves in front of her, beckoning her to follow -- perhaps a reference to the Bride’s passage from virginity into matrimony, willing, yet haunted by doubt.
Though the paintings here are a small part of her body of work, they show a sensitive intellect and a painter fully in command of her pictorial vocabulary. Schools, dogmas, and styles (such as Miminalism) were but other ways that an art object was fit into the stream of history -- and even by the time of When Attitudes Become Form, the sense of avant-gardism had become institutionalized, a pre-requisite for any artist graduating from art school. (Hesse attended Yale School of Art with Richard Serra, Chuck Close, and Mel Bochner.) However, these early paintings show us that the real avant-garde may have already happened, and if it did, these works were largely ignored. In Hesse’s paintings, like those of Van Gogh, Signac, Gauguin, et al., we see a testament to the constant renewal of art, in spite of art’s entrenched notions of progress. A history of art should one day include works like these, ones that were overlooked, ignored, or best thought of as outside the arc of an artist’s history. A secret history, or as James Joyce wrote, conceived in "silence, cunning, and exile." - Bradley Rubenstein
The Brooklyn Museum is at 200 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.