OBERLIN, OH — “We like to think that we discovered Eva Hesse,” reads a line from a 1954 profile of the then-18-year-old artist in Seventeen magazine, before acknowledging that Hesse came on her own to intern at the magazine as a recent dropout from Pratt. But the sentiment feels relatable; I suspect that at one point or another, nearly everyone would like to think that they discovered Eva Hesse. She is one of those artists who feel like a well-kept secret, which is perhaps another way of saying that she made her mark as an artist during a time when few women succeeded in the field, and even fewer were championed. Thus, the first encounter with Hesse likely feels like a revelation — but as the article in Seventeen demonstrates, that seems to have always been the case, even before she carved out a niche for herself within the Abstract Expressionist dick-swinging of her time.
Another reason seeing Hesse’s work feels like a clandestine encounter is, of course, because there is ultimately so little of it. The artist died in 1970 at age 34, having just come into her own as a sculptor, and much speculation connects the aggressive brain tumor that ended her life to her trailblazing experimentation with resin compounds in her art. When someone who becomes so influential meets such an untimely demise, everything that person leaves behind feels precious.
This sentiment drives Forms Larger and Bolder: Eva Hesse and the Practice of Drawing at Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum. Hesse came to Oberlin as a visiting artist in January of 1968. Though it was only a two-day trip, it was a significant meeting for both artist and institution. AMAM would go on to be the first museum to purchase a sculpture by Hesse — her milestone work “Laocoön” (1966) — the acquisition of which took place shortly after her death. Due to the purchase, and the artist’s lingering regard for her short time in Oberlin, AMAM also became the recipient of 1,500 items related to Hesse, including 300 artworks on paper, given in tribute by her sister, Helen Hesse Charash. Though “Laocoön” forms a natural centerpiece to the exhibition, its real focus are these works on paper, and the way they demonstrate the role of drawing in the famed sculptor’s process.
The works on display follow the artist through her first efforts in art school, first at Pratt, then Cooper Union, and eventually Yale. They include conventional watercolor still lifes and figure studies that show an aesthetic in the making, but little hint of the significance Hesse’s postminimalist works would go on to achieve. Yet even as early as 1954-55, sketchbook entries show meditations on industrial settings in graphite and ink, establishing the foundations of her work in the mid-1960s. During this time, Hesse returned to Germany, the native homeland her parents were forced to flee when she was two years old, due to the rise of Nazism. Hesse and her then-husband, sculptor Tom Doyle, were invited by the German industrialist Arnhard Scheidt for a protracted residency on the grounds of his disused textile factory in the small town of Kettwig. The post-industrial setting left a deep impression on Hesse, who began to create works she termed “wild space” collages in an expressionist mode, as well as so-called “machine drawings.” Perhaps most illuminating are a selection of working sketches and diagrams from 1967 to 1970, some of which directly connect to realized sculptures; others never evolved past the diagrammatic stage, either intentionally abandoned or thwarted by fate.
Hesse is an artist’s artist, cited as influential by many, and embraced in her own time as a valued interlocutor with the likes of Josef Albers, Sol LeWitt, and Tom Doyle, to whom she was married from 1961 to 1966. The exhibition, co-curated by Andrea Gyorody and Barry Rosen, puts microcosmic focus on the details of Hesse’s work, making Forms Larger and Bolder catnip for art viewers who love to sink into these details of line, pattern, and color.
Because of the curators’ penchant for minutia, some aspects of the show feel overly precious, occasionally lavishing expensive matting and framing on scraps of paper that appear to be ripped from a telephone jot-pad, or containing little besides scribbled dimensions for speculative works. But for this same reason, it adapts beautifully to catalogue form, and the generous dimensions and production details of the 428-page Eva Hesse: Oberlin Drawings (2019, Hauser & Wirth Publishers) offer the opportunity to see even more of the collection, and examine the works at length and in aggregate. In fact, having seen the catalogue first, the show seemed smaller than expected, given the abundance of material — though it’s a testament to the curatorial abilities of Gyorody and Rosen that they were able to edit everything into an exhibition that can be absorbed in a single visit. This is especially important because Hesse’s work invites slow looking.
Hesse fans unable to travel to Oberlin will still find much to embrace in the catalogue, including the opportunity to revisit the work over time — though the bound-and-printed experience does lack the anchor of seeing “Laocoön” in person. The ladder-like construction, iced with dripping gray latex, stands alone as a strange, stately monument and witness not only to Hesse’s incredible aptitude for material and formal exploration, but to the results when the surrounding forms and figures step off the paper and into three-dimensional reality.
Forms Larger and Bolder: Eva Hesse Drawings continues at Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College through June 4. The exhibition was curated by Andrea Gyorody and Barry Rosen.