Eva Hesse, “No title” (1954), ink on paper, 11 x 8 5/8 inches, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Gift of Helen Hesse Charash (all images courtesy Hauser & Wirth)

They sounded like an odd pairing when the announcement arrived: Eva Hesse and John Chamberlain, featured in the exhibitions, Forms Larger and Bolder: EVA HESSE DRAWINGS and John Chamberlain Baby Tycoons, at Hauser & Wirth’s uptown townhouse.

While they are clearly separate shows, their proximity nonetheless sets up inevitable — if unintended — comparisons between two artists who seem to share little more than an ingrained rebelliousness.

Neither of the exhibitions feature textbook examples of the artists’ oeuvres: Baby Tycoons is the name of a series of small, brightly colored sculptures welded from steel scraps, which Chamberlain began in 1988 and continued until his death in 2011; Forms Larger and Bolder is a mini-retrospective of Hesse’s works on paper, from teenage juvenilia and student croquis through a working drawing she made in 1970, the year she died.

“John Chamberlain Baby Tycoons” at Hauser & Wirth New York, installation view;
© 2019 Fairweather & Fairweather LTD / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Genevieve Hanson

The artists were born nine years apart — Chamberlain in 1927, in Rochester, Indiana, and Hesse in 1936, in Hamburg, Germany. Chamberlain was a World War II veteran who served in the US Navy from 1943 to 1946, and Hesse, at the age of two, escaped Nazi Germany with her sister Helen (who donated the drawings in this show, along with many other works and documents, to the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College), sent by their parents to the Netherlands on a Kindertransport train; the family was reunited in New York in 1939.

Chamberlain studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, where he befriended the poet Robert Creeley. In a 1978 interview in Niagara Magazine (reprinted in the catalogue for the exhibition, Chamberlain, at Kunsthalle Bern in 1979), Creeley described the young Chamberlain as being “deeply respectful of De Kooning [but] contemptuous of sitting at his feet.”

Chamberlain’s subsequent sculpture embodies the smoldering attraction/repulsion expressed in Creeley’s statement. Its gestures mimic and even parody de Kooning’s emotional arcs, while its careful assembly — required by its weighty, unyielding materials — unmask the sleight of hand perpetrated by the older artist, whose paintings were much more measured and deliberate than their swipes and splatters suggested.

The abundance of crushed car parts in Chamberlain’s work aligned it with Pop Art’s manipulation of consumerist culture, while the single-mindedness of its formal and material constraints has earned the artist a place in Dia:Beacon’s pantheon of mostly male Minimalist masters.

John Chamberlain, “COUP DE VERY” (1992), painted and chromium plated steel, 10 x 9 1/4 x 7 inches; © 2019 Fairweather & Fairweather LTD / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Thomas Barratt

In other words, Chamberlain’s aesthetic was an accretion of influences and techniques that gathered its juices from anywhere and everywhere, and ended up occupying an indefinable stylistic cusp.

Hesse’s equally indefinable art, on the other hand, was one of negation and refusal, of razing art to its foundations and starting over from scratch. One of her better-known statements, written for the catalogue of a group exhibition at the Finch College Museum of Art in 1969, reads:

I remember I wanted to get to non-art, non connotive [sic], non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non, nothing, everything, but another kind, vision, sort.

What is unspoken in the matchup of the 17 years’s worth of Hesse’s drawings (1953-1970) and the 16 years’ worth of Chamberlain’s sculptures (1992-2008) is that each in its own way constitute a last testament — works executed during the final one-and-a-half decades of the artists’ lives.

For Hesse, whose untimely death from a brain tumor at 34 still haunts historical memory, that brief period was all she had, from adolescence to the end, the flare of a meteor’s tail. The works, understandably, are all over the place — diagrams, cutouts, collages, thumbnail sketches, life studies, scribbly abstractions, with media that included gouache, watercolor, ink, graphite, colored pencil, and crayon.

Eva Hesse, “No title” (1969), ink and graphite on paper, 8 7/8 x 5 7/8 inches, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Gift of Helen Hesse Charash

While some of the works are immature or otherwise miss the mark, the most compelling seem to spring from restless spates of experimentation that dance as close to the abyss as the landscape drawings of Arshile Gorky, shown in the same gallery space nearly two years ago.

By the time he started the Baby Tycoons, Chamberlain had packed in more than a half-century of exploring forms, materials, and techniques, and it shows. His process is assured, his touch consistent. The bent, clustered, and twisted forms, painted in bright, contrasting colors, are blossom-like miniatures of the heavy metal sculptures that put him on the map.

But their stylistic finesse, a world away from the junkyard aesthetic of his early work, is also an implicit acknowledgment of the impossibility of turning back the clock, of deprogramming muscle memory to reintroduce awkwardness, uncertainty, or naiveté into the handling of the steel. 

They are all beautiful, often too beautiful — sleek and sensuous and sure-footed — and in this way they call to mind the baroque metal reliefs that Frank Stella began in the mid-1980s, a few years before the first of the Tycoons. But the best of Stella’s work from that period revels in a quantum of insanity, of too-muchness, of the artist losing control of the process. Chamberlain’s pieces, by contrast, keep their elbows and knees tucked in, sitting tastefully in the center of their plinths.

Eva Hesse, “No title” (1968), pencil on ruled notebook paper, 8 7/8 x 6 inches, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Gift of Helen Hesse Charash

Hesse’s drawings are anything but polite or tasteful. Except for her student sketches of nudes — classically composed contour drawings that evince a tactile sense of form — and a listless foray into still-life photograms, these works all display various degrees of wrongness, often exhilarating, sometimes simply off the mark. She is at her strongest when she’s romping through combinatory, contrary, and contradictory ideas with a vehemence that abandons stylistic consistency and regards formal notions like composition as an afterthought instead of a starting point.

Hesse disliked the term, “Untitled,” which she felt implied indifference, and she was never indifferent. (Her estate assigned the term “No title” to works that were not definitively named by the artist.) If she wanted to assign a title to a piece (more likely a sculpture than a drawing), she would search for the exact descriptor or phrase: “Cool Zone,” “Eighter from Decatur,” “‘Oomamaboomba” (all 1965).

The thingness that Hesse applied to her titling process ripples throughout her drawings, most patently in the working sketches she made between 1967 and 1970. These are all annotated and numbered, and while some are recognizable from the sculptures they anticipated, others are not. (It would have been useful if the gallery had found an unobtrusive way, perhaps via an app, to connect the drawings with their related objects.) But despite their practical intent, they are never technical or schematic, but roam the page along the liquid passages of thought.

Eva Hesse, “No title” (1965), ink and graphite on paper, 7 1/2 x 7 1/8 inches, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Gift of Helen Hesse Charash

Even more striking are the framed sets of shaped, cutout ink-and-graphite drawings from 1965 that are simultaneously studies for sculptures, standalone graphic forms, and objects in themselves. They resemble pneumatic apparatuses at once erotic and lethal, suspended between surrealism and science fiction, drawn with a loopy hand that balances the rigorously volumetric with the flamboyantly cartoonish.

Other drawings take a more abstract turn, with lines and shapes colliding in a gravity-free zone that evokes Gorky and graffiti, eerily foreshadowing the graphic inventiveness of Jean-Michel Basquiat, another artist gone too soon. An earlier body of work, from 1962, incorporates drawn-over slips of paper, many with star shapes, pasted down on the surface into sculptural reliefs spattered with scintillating color.

Forms Larger and Bolder: EVA HESSE DRAWINGS offers a glimmer of the spirit, in all of its messiness and hesitation, refinement and self-possession, that made the artist a beacon for successive generations. Her complex and nuanced forms embraced and disrupted the geometric and biomorphic, ignored the distinction between mind and heart, and exalted the act of making. She rejected both specific and broad claims about her art, delving instead, as she stated in a 1970 Artforum interview, the “whole absurdity of life.” And that’s what makes it click.

Forms Larger and Bolder: EVA HESSE DRAWINGS and John Chamberlain Baby Tycoons continue at Hauser & Wirth (32 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 19. Forms Larger and Bolder was organized by Barry Rosen and Allen Memorial Art Museum Assistant Curator, Andrea Gyorody. Baby Tycoons was conceived and installed through a close collaboration between the John Chamberlain Estate and the Hauser & Wirth gallery team.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.