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Telling the story of Eva Hesse’s life and work presents one major challenge: as a narrative arc, it is necessarily truncated. In most respects Hesse is the perfect subject for a drama-filled documentary. Her childhood was full of pain and upheaval. The early years of her career were marked by relentless experimentation and constant self-doubt. Her marriage, rather than being a source of stability, brought added tumult and anxiety. After synthesizing the lessons of Minimalism and her own formal experiments, she achieved a series of major breakthroughs that sent her career skyrocketing. Her circle of friends included the biggest artists of her generation, among them Sol LeWitt, Nancy Holt, and Carl Andre. And then, at 34 — the very same month her work appeared on the cover of Artforum — she died of a brain tumor.
At the end of Eva Hesse, the new documentary about her life and work currently playing at Film Forum, my immediate feeling was that it seemed incomplete somehow, or that some satisfying, cohesive takeaway was missing. This was quickly followed by the realization that in this and many other ways, director Marcie Begleiter successfully immerses the viewer in Hesse’s psyche, so that when the end comes it is sudden and very difficult to process.
The film is structured around excerpts from Hesse’s very extensive and self-reflexive journals, which are read in voice-over narration by Selma Blair. (Yale University Press will publish the diaries later this month in a dictionary-size volume that clocks in at 904 pages.) The journals are complimented by passages from her correspondence with her father and LeWitt, read by Bob Balaban and Patrick Kennedy, respectively. The mostly chronological account of her career is filled out and contextualized with talking head commentary from art world heavyweights including Lucy Lippard, Richard Serra, Phyllida Barlow, and Nicholas Serota, as well as those closest to her, including her sister (and director of her estate), Helen Hesse Charash; her estranged husband, Tom Doyle; and her best friend, Rosie Goldman. Archival documents and new, closeup footage of Hesse’s work shot by director of photography Nancy Schreiber convey just how radical and strange her sculptures were and remain.
Begleiter provides a thorough and engaging account of Hesse’s artistic evolution, but what’s most powerful about the film is the psychological portrait it offers. “The true artist is also the true personal misfit,” Hesse wrote in her journal when she was just 19; this line is among the first in the film. Save the final years of her life, when she found her artistic voice and crowd, she was a true misfit, not only in her work but also in her own skin. She endlessly questioned her practice, her relationships, her attitudes and instincts. “I realize how hung up I am about always feeling what I do is wrong, not good enough,” she wrote in 1966. “Always that it will break, wear badly, not last, that technically I failed. It does parallel my life for certain.”
The documentary immerses us in Hesse’s inner monologue, lending great emotional depth and complexity to someone who was both very sensitive and very thoughtful; someone who was extremely vulnerable, yet managed to process her trauma through her work and writing. Unlike past artist documentaries about Louise Bourgeois, Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, and others, which benefit from but are also limited by the access their subjects grant to the filmmakers, Eva Hesse is, in a way, more intimate because her diaries make her — pardon the expression — an open book. Sections of the film recounting her trip back to Germany (where she and her sister were born before being smuggled out in 1938 as the threat of Nazism loomed) and her father’s death make clear how debilitating her pain could be, but also how she was able to make sense of and move beyond it. The absurdity that she saw in her personal life found three-dimensional form in her increasingly playful, alien, and unwieldy sculptures.
The torment she endured through much of her life makes Hesse’s eventual epiphanies and ascendance particularly bittersweet. “I do feel I am an artist and one of the best, I do deeply,” she wrote around the time of her first major show, in 1966 at Graham Gallery, underlining her growing confidence. The film’s voice-over moves the narrative forward effectively, but the most haunting voice we hear is Hesse’s own, for too few seconds in a brief excerpt from an interview she did with art historian Cindy Nemser just months before her death. After 90 minutes of Blair-as-Hesse, the contrast with the artist’s true voice — her soft, almost husky tone and sharp New York accent — is startling. Save for lacking more of the artist’s own voice, Eva Hesse marries thorough biographical and psychological accounts of an incredible artist’s tragic life and wants for nothing — except, of course, an alternate ending.