How important is it to control one’s image, to have mastery over one’s oeuvre? As a female artist, to allow one’s life and work to merge is risky. It is a softness. Female artists who don’t contextualize their work run the risk of being misconstrued by biographers, critics, and the public at large. These are issues I’ve been mulling over for years. I use the “I” in my own poetry writing and this “I” is often construed to be me, Cynthia Cruz. I have thought of how context might help this — writing essays about my own writing as a means to direct the reader away from their interpretations. But so far I’ve refrained from this move — it feels defensive. Poets who write beautiful poems about what seem to be “nothing,” give interviews in which they assert that the poems are actually “about” post-Apocalyptic America. This feels like spin: weaving meaning into something that hasn’t got it to begin with. Providing context to one’s work feels like fabrication. But without this context, rumors germinate and flourish.
When Eva Hesse was two she and her sister, Helen, were evacuated by Kindertransport to the Netherlands where they remained in an internment camp until their parents were able to escape Germany and come for them. In 1939 the family immigrated to the United States by boat, resettling in the German Jewish community of Washington Heights in Manhattan.
Eva Hesse’s father was a compulsive diarist. He made scrapbooks and diaries for both Eva and her older sister, chronicling their lives. Why did Hesse’s father feel compelled, as he did, to get down all the images and facts of his daughters’ lives? Because it’s all here: the baby photos, the photograph of the ship they escaped on, her first words. Why did he feel the need to articulate her life in this way? And how did this act of contextualizing influence Eva Hesse’s life and art?
Hesse kept diaries and journals of her life and work for the entirety of her short life. A compulsion; her act of attempting to get it all down, as if losing just one iota of information might be courting danger. So what we have, alongside her work, are her words: her mother’s suicide when Hesse was four, Hesse’s constant sense of inadequacy, the specter of illness always at her heels.
But she didn’t write “context,” formal writings, though she certainly could have. She was close with writers who wrote publicly about their work (Robert Smithson and Sol LeWitt). So it seems she made a conscious decision not to write publicly. Instead, she used her personal writing as a laboratory, a space where she could work through her challenges and, in fact, move past her own narrative. You see this in her writing before, during, and after her monumental shift in 1965 from painting to sculpture where she did, in fact, leave narrative behind for good.
By abandoning painting, with its connection to narrative and representation, she let go of her own past and began to make work that no longer attempted to express. Though the work she began to make varied, there are several strands that unite them all. She used objects from everyday life: hose, cheesecloth, cloth, rope, wire, and string. Each sculpture was simple — a metalanguage. The work was not representative of anything. It was its own thing. She removed the backdrop, providing no narrative or context for the work. All that remained in the end was the work.
The number of books and articles on Hesse are a veritable Warburg archive. This might, in fact, be the direct result of her diaries and journals. One can extrapolate endlessly when culling information from an artist’s diaries (think of Sylvia Plath, as one instance, or Virginia Woolf, as another). The everyday quotidian, love interests, obsessions. It isn’t difficult to make a web of meaning from any one of these. And with Hesse, there were many repeating themes in her writings. Here, a diary entry dated March 7, 1965:
I am a terror. But it is fear that brings this about … Fears of desertion,
death, sickness, poverty. But these are universal. It is more personal
like the daily fears of being a lost, small nothing without abilities,
without courage, without distinction, without … It caused me anxiety
dawn to dusk, created the gulf between myself and the man I loved
and loved me … I can remove myself from these hang-ups to complete
an idea, a removal from myself must exist in order to create something
Lucy Lippard, among other feminist critics, argued that Hesse should not be seen through the lens of biography. I agreed with this when I began my inquiries into her work. But how can we ignore her ambivalence regarding the preservation of her work when contextualized by her biography? Much of the material she chose to work with was ephemeral, material she knew would not last. In addition, she used fiberglass, latex, and other elixirs she knew were toxic. To ignore this connection between her life and its precariousness and her artistic choices seems like willed ignorance. When Cindy Nemser asked Hesse in an interview in 1970, months before her death, “But are you concerned with the question of lasting?” Hesse responded:
Well, I am confused about that as I am about life. I have a twofold
problem. I’m not working now, but I know I’m going to get to the
problem once I start working with fiberglass, because from what I
understand it’s toxic and I’ve been too sick to really take a chance. I don’t
take precautions. I don’t know how to handle precautions. I can’t wear
a mask over my head. And then the rubber only lasts a short while. I am
not sure where I stand on that. At this point I feel a little guilty when
people want to buy it. I think they know but I want write them a letter
and say its not going to last. I am not sure what my stand on lasting
really is. Part of me feels that it’s superfluous and if I need to use rubber
that is more important. Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last. It doesn’t matter.
Hesse was haunted her entire life by the specter of death and its shadow, illness. Though she did escape it, the wheels of death were always right behind her. She was plagued with various debilitating maladies. And, in fact, a part of her did die when she was three. When she was forced to flee Hamburg for safety, a new Eva was born. The child Eva died then. After such a close call with death, one is never the same. And like all survivors, Hesse knew she was living on borrowed time. As a result, she was able to take bigger risks — her acceleration from student at Yale to full-fledged artist reflects this.
The other important point is that Hesse certainly could have chosen to destroy her diaries. When, at her deathbed, she instructed her assistant to destroy three of her paintings, she said nothing about her diaries. So, why did she keep them? Did she save them as a means to offer context for her work? Again: she embraced the ephemera by choosing material that would not last, by working with toxins she knew could very well shorten her life. So, did she choose not to write publicly about her work, and, instead, leave her personal writings behind as a means to embrace this ephemera as well? Because what we get as a result of Hesse’s delicate work alongside her dairy writings is a softness, a life that we feel we can almost touch. Were this poetry, we would call this personal. In the end, Hesse, herself, the story of Hesse, the “I” of Hesse, becomes pliable, malleable in our own hands.
I have been obsessed with Cady Noland for years. Her installations, rooms of carefully chosen objects, haunt my mind. Terror, violence, and pop culture are her themes, and these are the themes of America. Her handling of her own image and work is enviable. She is a master at this. By utilizing negative space in the gallery or museum and then only using objects that carry finite meanings she has absolute control over what her work relays to the viewer. By not allowing any background out about her personal life (including photographs or biographical information) she exerts even more control over her work. And yet, after showing for ten years, Noland vanished from the art world without a trace.
What ever happened to Cady Noland?
When I ask myself this question, I’m transported. My mind says, ‘She’s bunkered herself somewhere on the periphery, making art in isolation.’ In this scenario, I imagine Noland’s traded in her identity for someone else’s, à la The Passenger. This bringing to life of Noland inside the screen of my mind is precisely what I imagine she wants. Her vanishing from the art world was not her final act. Her second life inside our minds is.
Though I search the internet, stalking Noland, I cannot find her. I find only debris, the objects of her installations: wire fences, stacks of beer cans, plastic milk crates, flags, and scaffolding. There is no monograph of her work. There is no image of Noland. There is one interview with Noland in The Journal of Contemporary Art, date unknown. Also, a collaboration with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve for Parkett Magazine from 1996, and then, if you keep looking you might find her “Towards a Metalanguage of Evil,” a three-part essay Noland wrote in 1987 for an academic conference in Atlanta on evil. Each of these — the objects in her installations, the two interviews, and the essay — work as text in Noland’s own metalanguage.
Of course, it’s true that the public infers and manufactures backstories.
Noland’s essay can be seen as a handbook for the work she would commence to make for before dropping out of the art world. The way we read Noland is the result of her careful choreography. Both the writing and the work are presented in a constructed language. As a result, the objects in her installations are allowed autonomy. Each piece carries it own meanings. When we look, for example, at a room with stacks of cans of Budweiser beer we might think: Sunday night football, a frat house, underage drinking. Then the mind goes blank. As viewers our job is to unpack meaning. What we get when we read a Noland installation is the junk of America. In other words, there is only so far one can extrapolate. She puts the cap on our dreaming.
Furthermore, by not allowing biographical information out about herself, the message of her work is further contained. Noland’s work is contextualized by the few interviews she has given and her text, “The Metalanguage of Evil.” When art critics write about Noland the only source they have to rely on are her actual artworks, her interviews, and this one piece of her writing. There is no backstory, no narrative. Nothing. There is no ambiguity, no place for the mind to slide. She has the final say. In “The Metalanguage of Evil,” she writes:
Death by starvation, withdrawal, mass murder, appropriation, colonization,
pornographic death, death by illness, death by natural disaster, any anonymous
death in which one did not have, or almost have control, is the opposite, on
a polar scale, of the personal designer death. Death by choice, whether by
bonafide suicide or by accident-on-purpose, is the death of choice, being the
In the end, Noland successfully “killed” herself by vanishing from the art world.
Perhaps the extent to which we feel the need to articulate, to give guidance on how to register our work, is directly related to the extent to which we’ve put ourselves at risk. But how does one gauge this? Because the personal can be described in many disparate ways. Eva Hesse’s sculptures were not personal. Like the objects in Cady Noland’s installations, they are discrete pieces. Like Noland, her works are a language, not an expression of her feelings. So why be defensive when the work has nothing to do with one’s personal story? If we trust the viewer to see the work as it stands, there is no need to contextualize it.
Of course, it’s true that the public infers and manufactures backstories. This is the unfortunate result of living in a post-TV culture, a culture always craving a narrative. But is the solution to this problem to continually offer guidance, to, in effect, respond to the culture’s need for backstory by putting up a barrier of text? Or is the solution, instead, to trust that the public can, in fact, see the work as it is?
In addition, trusting the viewer to come up with her own interpretations allows a wider breadth of meaning to the work, beyond the finite meanings imagined when the work was made. For example, Noland’s “Toward a Metalanguage of Evil” is precisely what her art is, what the objects in her installations are. She has absorbed, then translated, the ideas behind her work, writing the document for us to use as a manual alongside her work. In contrast, Hesse has not. What she’s given us is her work and her life, trusting us in essentially leaving it up to us, trusting us, in fact, to determine the meaning.
When an artist offers her work as it is, without guidance on how to interpret it, with the faith inherent in this exchange, isn’t it possible we might, as a result of this trust, treat the work with reverence? Is it not also possible that, given the artist’s trust in us, and the intimacy implied in this trust, we might then view the work on its own merit? Having the sense that we “know” the artist, the result of her trust in us, it is also possible this trust might, in fact, quell the anxiety to know more information. Because, in the end, the impulse to “know” more about the artist and her background is simply our desire to fill in the unknowing we each must confront when we approach the work.