BooksWeekend

Reader’s Diary: ‘Eva Hesse: Diaries’ 

An artist’s fame may continue, or even grow, as the actual works on which it is nominally based are lost from sight.

An artist’s fame may continue, or even grow, as the actual works on which it is nominally based are lost from sight. Phidias has for millennia been considered the greatest of classical sculptors, but no one even knows when one of his original sculptures was last seen. Eva Hess might soon be our Phidias. It’s ever more difficult to see the works for which she is famous. Let’s say you’re looking in New York: The Whitney has two major sculptures, “Sans II” (1968) and “No title” (1969-70), but neither is currently on view. The Guggenheim has her 1969 “Expanded Expansion,” but it’s out of sight too. The Met’s a pass altogether. Luckily there’s MoMA, which (according to its website — I haven’t had a chance to check) has on display two important pieces out of the twenty works it owns, the relief “Ringaround Arosie” (1965) — an important harbinger of what was just about to come — and “Repetition Nineteen III” (1968). As is well known, the absence from public view is because of the deteriorating condition of many of Hesse’s greatest works, made of latex and other materials that were not fated to last. Just as we now know the sculptures of Phidias through later reproductions (Frank O’Hara: “And the mountainous-minded Greeks could / speak of time as a river and step across it into Persia, leaving the paint / at home to be converted into statuary. I adore the Roman copies”) our descendants will mostly know Hesse’s work by way of photographs. In the meantime, one way of keeping her name in circulation has been to exhibit secondary works: The big shows I’ve seen in this millennium have been the 2002-2003 Tate Modern show, which focused on early work, and the eye-opening 2009-10 exhibition of “Studiowork” — essentially three-dimensional sketches and test pieces — at the Camden Arts Centre. The long awaited publication of Hesse’s diaries can be considered another of these informative stopgaps. This is a book I’ve been anticipating for years, but in another sense, it’s not the book I was waiting for at all. Remembering how Lucy Lippard put Hesse’s notebooks to good use in her classic 1976 monograph, I was hoping for a rich trove of reflections on her art. Instead, the central concern is the state of Hesse’s marriage, which seems to have been troubled almost from the start. Typical: “Tom takes everything for granted. He sees himself and does as he pleases—leaving everything up to me. His sole functions are: 1. to make sculpture 2. to read. –then his needs like drink, food, + women. Almost never has he volunteered anything on his own” (June 16, 1965). Sounds like a lot of male artists I know; after their split, there’s lots of obsessing over her ex’s new girlfriend, usually referred to as “Total Zero” or T. 0. If I were in charge of this material, I would have considered withholding it during the lifetime of Hesse’ onetime husband. On the other hand, I can’t help wondering why there isn’t more in this new book like the following lines, which Lippard quoted forty years ago in connection with the 1966 sculpture “Ennead”: “rope irregular (like snake, hung) while working on / ‘Laocoon,’ hang from ceiling to floor and infrastructure (room) / cord room. like new piece going + / coming every which way.” In this volume, there is no note connecting this entry to any particular work. Perhaps it is the lack of editorial apparatus that makes it harder than it should be to find the gems scattered here and there in these diaries. Even the dating of the notebooks seems askew, since some of them clearly contain entries from different periods yet are dated solely to a given year. This is raw material for the biography that we will one day have — I once thought of trying to write it myself — but until the assiduous researcher puts it all together, the knot that ties together Hesse’s life and her work will continue to keep most of its strange loops hidden within.

Editor’s note: Subsequent to the book’s publication, and to the writing of this article, Tom Doyle passed away at the age of 88.

Eva Hesse’s Diaries, ed. by Barry Rosen, with the assistance of Tamara Bloomberg (2016) is published by Hauser & Wirth in association with Yale University Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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