Eva Hesse’s life story exudes drama. From escaping Nazi Germany at age two aboard one of the last Kindertransport trains bound for the Netherlands, to her emphatic break with the dominant mode of art making of the 1960s — Minimalism, to her death from a brain tumor at 34, and to her posthumous celebration as one of the most important artists of the second half of the 20th century, her biography has all the requisite elements of a rousing documentary or tear-jerking biopic.
But it’s only now, 45 years after Hesse’s death, that a feature-length documentary has been made about the artist’s life and work. Director Marcie Begleiter recently completed Eva Hesse, which will have its world premiere Sunday at the Whitney Museum, where one of Hesse’s last and most famous works is featured prominently as part of the institution’s inaugural show in its new building, America Is Hard to See. Hyperallergic spoke to Begleiter and the film’s producer, Karen Shapiro, about the process of reading through Hesse’s diaries, capturing her notoriously unwieldy rope and textile sculptures on film, and the powerful impact she had on her contemporaries’ lives.
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Benjamin Sutton: Eva Hesse kept fairly extensive diaries and notebooks; how essential were those to the process of making this film?
Marcie Begleiter: It’s not just diaries, it’s correspondence, and she was a very thoughtful person in terms of what she kept, the ephemera. There is a very large archive of her papers at the Allen Art Museum at in Oberlin College in Ohio. And there was a pretty substantial audio interview done with Hesse in 1970 with the writer named Cindy Nemser. And that has been widely published. That interview, it’s been published in October magazine and in Artforum, it’s been around for over 40 years. The very deep journal writing that she did starting — I think the earliest journals that we were looking at were from the late 1950s, and the journal writing was pretty consistent. There were two years in the late ’60s where the journal writing sort of dropped out and she kept very specific datebooks instead. So for those years — ‘67, ‘68, and ‘69 — we have a lot of sense about what was going on in terms of her practice and also in terms of her social life because of these datebooks, as opposed to her journals, which were more prose-oriented.
The work is what originally drew me to the artist, so the entry into the story came through the work, and then reading some excerpts from those journals in Lucy Lippard’s book on Eva Hesse that came out in ’76 intrigued me. I read it many years later, but she was really the first one to do a full book about Hesse and combine her own personal knowledge of the artist with excerpts from the journals.
The journals are unpublished, except for excerpts. The originals are in this wonderful archive at Oberlin, so I applied for grants to spend a short residency there — I was there about a week and a half. Every day they would bring out another box or two and give me white gloves, and I would get to read through the journals and letters, and it was in the process of reading all this material — and also looking at all these drawings that are also there — that’s really where I, as I describe it, went down the rabbit hole. I became really fascinated with the woman behind the work.
We engage her through her writing. There’s no traditional narration; the whole narration is made up of excerpts from Eva’s journals, her interviews and her letters, as well as the letters and interviews of her father and Sol LeWitt. These are the three main characters who we could not interview. Of course, Eva’s story, Eva’s writings are the whole arc of the narration, and that’s how you get to know her, along with the work. Some art documentaries go more toward the work and some art docs go more toward the human being, more like a biography. We worked really, really hard to walk a road that touched on both. And you can measure and take a look at how one thing was guiding the other. Her writings and interviews were really the basis of how we told the story. Certainly it’s an interpretation because everything’s an interpretation, but it’s really her story.
Karen Shapiro: And we’ve expanded the film so that it’s not only her story. We also look at the culture — the community of artists in Downtown Manhattan in the ’60s, so that really expands it. She’s the spine of the film, and the community of artists are the flesh and bone. That comes through in the interviews with the artists we talked with, and some in her journals. Her journals are poetic, and they have tumultuous things in them. As Marcie said, we tell her story, how her life created her work and how her work created her life.
MB: We have also spent quite a bit of energy and resources traveling to London, to Germany, to New York and shooting the artworks, because there are some issues about the fragility of her materials, and because of that museums cannot light them — well, they light them with conservation in mind rather than being able to show the materials in the most interesting way. But we could do that because we only turned the lights on for 10 minutes at a time. So, we want to give an audience the experience of the artwork.
KS: And it’s up close as well as far away. You see the texture. You see the color. Marcie’s done an incredible job, along with our cinematographer, Nancy Schreiber, on visualization, making it a beautiful film that’s worthy of Eva’s art. The other thing that we’ve done is extensive research, and in the research we’ve found photographs that have never been seen before as well as footage from her time in Germany that has never been seen before. There is new research in this project.
BS: It’s interesting what you just said about making a point of going the extra step to see the works in person and film them; her work seems, more so than a lot of other contemporary artists, like the type of artwork that you need to see in three-dimensional space, and showing it on film seems like a perfect way to give people a sense of what is so unique about it.
MB: We absolutely agree. When we went in, we moved the camera dolly through pieces. We’re able to give people a sense of moving through space. What surprised me is that the work holds us at every scale. You can shoot it wide, you can shoot it macro, and because of the way she used materials and the type of materials she used and how she used them, I can look very, very closely and the structure of the material reveals itself in a new way. So, for me, that was one of the big surprises. That and also how there’s got to be at least 1,500 pages of her writing that we’ve gone through. We’ve been involved with this project for almost four years now, and you go back to it for final editing and you’re like, “I see something now that I didn’t see before. I understand this now in a way that I didn’t understand it before.” After all of the time I’ve spent with the material, the fact that it continues to reveal itself, that’s been a surprise.
KS: It’s interesting because it’s all interconnected: you learn more about the art from the writing and you learn more about the writing from the art. And her life — she was interconnected in every aspect in that regard and very aware. The other thing that probably surprised us the most is traveling around and speaking to so many people who knew Hesse. We’re talking 45 years almost after she passed on and we’re talking with elders who haven’t seen this woman in over 40 years. It’s unbelievable how many people talk about how she has been with them every day. And this is not even her sister, these are people who knew her many, many years ago and the power of who she was, her presence is in their lives; they still feel it in a very particular way. One woman said to us, “I’ve lost, in my age, a lot of people, but Eva Hesse stays with me.” Not something you’re necessarily expecting to hear multiple times.
MB: From people who knew her well to people who only came into her orbit for a shorter amount of time. It’s part of what makes a powerful story, the change or the impression that not only her work made — which we have a lot of artists talking about — but again, who she was. And I agree with Karen, I don’t think you can completely separate the power of her artwork — the power it still has to move people — and also this woman who reveals herself not only through the art, but through her writing and through her relationships.
BS: I’m curious about that. People have known about her work for a long time now, but one doesn’t get a sense very easily of who she was as a person or what her personality was like. Based on your research and the people you’ve spoken to, what kind of personality profile did you get of her?
MB: Someone who had a very complicated and at times a very challenging life. I mean, this is not someone who was prolific and ambitious without lots of other facets coming into play. One of the reasons I think she wrote so much was that she was in psychotherapy from the time she was 19, pretty continuously, until she died. So that’s the majority of her life. The fact that she and her sister were two of the last children out of Germany on a Kindertransport in 1938, and also losing her mother — her mother committed suicide on the week of Hesse’s 10th birthday — there’s a loss of family in the beginning of her life. And she didn’t just put that behind her. She engaged with her loss. She engaged with her pain, and she engaged with all of her hopes and ambitions, often in writing. She was very naturally driven; other people come out of difficult circumstances and don’t do what she did.
But I think for me the core of the personality comes out in the writing when she talks about the utter absurdity of life. That’s a real core issue for her that she wrote about a lot and that people talk about. There’s a great quote, a great nugget from our interview with Nancy Holt — who passed away about six months after we filmed her. Nancy was talking about hanging out with Hesse in her studio in 1966 and looking at this wall of work that was really absurd looking, crazy-looking forms and some of the first work that Hesse made when she got back from Germany. They were minimal but they were also surreal, and she and Eva sat there and just laughed about how completely absurd it was. Eva liked when the work was more absurd because it was her view on life being absolutely absurd. That was kind of key to her personality to me.
KS: Well, for me it’s that she didn’t just hide her struggles, she didn’t just dwell in her struggles, she worked through them. People talk about her complaining, but she had such power that even when she complained and talked about her past, they loved her and they adored her. She had this magnetism and this strength and this drive that took her beyond her challenges. She worked through all of that, and I have no doubt that the art she created was integral to her life.
MB: She declared herself in a letter to her father, she was probably 19, she says: ‘I don’t want to have a life where I just do the same thing every day — I’m an artist.’ At that age, knowing what it was going to take for her as a woman in the late ’50s, early ’60s, to stand there and go: ‘You know what, I’m good enough. It’s not just about being a woman artist, I’m good enough and I’m smart enough to be acknowledged as a great artist on any level.’
KS: Her father, whom she adored, was scared for her. Any parent is like, ‘how are you going to make a living, how are you going to live?’ They’d lost everything, so it’s that losing of everything that made him want to make sure his daughter was secure. But on the other side of it, it’s not as if she was confident all the time. She wasn’t! She was totally not confident a lot of the time, but nothing stopped her. The lack of confidence didn’t stop her from exploring. She had times when she had what I might imagine you’d call writer’s block. She had times when she wasn’t creating, but she worked through it; it didn’t stop her. That’s what I admire: nothing stopped her. Maybe in the moment, but in the long term, nothing stopped her.
BS: People appreciated her work during her lifetime, but the appreciation of her work exploded after she died; did you get the sense from your research and talking to other artists who had known her that she realized how profoundly different and original her work was?
KS: I don’t know that she thought of it as history-changing, but I know she realized she had made it. When she got on the cover of Artforum the same month she passed away, she knew she had made it, that she had achieved her goal. Do I think she knew she changed the profile of art history? I don’t think she knew that.
MB: None of the artists who we interviewed had that kind of perspective on their own work or her work. Richard Serra, Carl Andre, Bob and Sylvia Mangold, they all talked about how at the time they thought it was really good work, it was solid work, and they all were all working at a very high level. We have a lot of people saying, in retrospect, we can look back and we can see how essential that work was and still is in terms of an influence, but, you know, when you’re making it, she knew she got into a great show at the Whitney, she was in the anti-form show in ’69 [Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials], she was in a major show at the Jewish Museum. She was getting into important institutional shows. I’m sure she could feel that energy building and, as Karen mentioned, when you’re on the cover of Artforum — and she did see the cover before she passed away — that’s as much as she knew.
BS: In reading her diaries and her notes, did you get a sense that she had reflected on the end of her life? Did she make peace with the fact that she was going to die very young? Or was she working at her normal pace up until her death?
MB: In a way, all of those things were true. There was a year between her first hospitalization and surgery and her last hospitalization and her death. She fell ill in April ’69 and she died in May ’70. At the beginning they told her they got it all, so she thought, ‘OK, I’m cured and I’m going to go back and I need to rest,’ but she was back in her studio and making work almost immediately. And she made an extraordinary amount of work in the year between the first hospitalization and her death. That said, she thought it would be OK and it was probably at the time of the second hospitalization, which might have actually been in December or January, that she began to realize what might happen. And she wrote about it and talked about it. She did come to peace with it. We have it in the film — it’s quite moving how she chose to face what we all have to face. She faced it early and, of course, coming out of the personal history she had, she was not unfamiliar with facing death.
KS: And she worked from the hospital bed on her last piece. Her assistants, who were her students, made it, but she created it.
BS: Her work has been cast in a lot different lights — as a response to Minimalism, as textile or fiber art, and, retroactively, as feminist art. In the film, do you address the way her work has been put to these different agendas or movements?
MB: It’s interesting, isn’t it? How the work can be read in these different ways. Our film focused on the relationship to Minimalism and to process art. We also focus on Hesse’s work as being, as I like to call it, proto-feminist, even though she wasn’t part of the feminist conversation. She was reading Simone de Beauvoir and she was writing letters to friends about the particular challenges of being a female artist, but it was her insistence that she only wanted to be known as an artist. Maybe that would have changed if she had lived another five or six years and seen the feminist movement. Where she was in the ’60s, I believe she aligned herself in terms of the work she was kind of engaged in, the work she was looking at. For us, because of her close association with people like Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra, Carl Andre, she was thinking about the work conceptually and she was thinking about the work in terms of Minimalism and, I think Robert Pincus-Witten coined the term, post-Minimalism. But your point is well taken, which is that a number of different groups look at the work and can find a touchstone of ideas in it.
KS: What Mike Todd and Dan Graham talk about in the film is how she looked at everyone and was influenced by all of the art. Graham, who was initially her studio assistant, witnessed her looking at everything. We also have that when she went back to Germany in 1964, and when she was there, she went to all the museums. And she wrote about all of her experiences at those museums and looking at all the art. So there’s no doubt that she looked at others as well, and not just one group.
BS: The Whitney Museum seems like a very appropriate place to hold the preview. How did that come about?
MB: It came about very directly from an event we did in New York about a year ago. Last April we did a private event, for a good chunk of people from curators to artists, at Eykyn MacLean Gallery on the Upper East Side. We were invited to do this event because Kristy Bryce, one of the directors of the gallery, had seen a presentation that we did at the Blanton Museum in cooperation with the opening of a show curated by Veronica Roberts called Converging Lines: The Art of Sol Lewitt and Eva Hesse. At the event were some people from the Whitney, including Elisabeth Sussman, who was interviewed for the film and also has been a consultant, and Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney. He saw our presentation and invited us.
KS: He came up to me and Marcie separately and said, “I want to screen this film. I want it to be part of the opening festivities at the Whitney when we reopen in May.” And that was a year ago.
MB: It’s really apt for Hesse because they own some major works and they were one of the institutions in New York that acknowledged and showed her work in major group shows early on.