2.12 / Review

Eva Hesse: Studiowork

By Jessica Brier February 21, 2011

It’s no easy task to put a new spin on an artist whose work has been posthumously exhibited, theorized about, and revered for the past forty years, but this is what Eva Hesse: Studiowork, currently on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, proposes to do, and does so with surprising success. Curated by art historian Briony Fer and Barry Rosen, who handles the artist’s estate, the show makes a strong case for the importance of what the curators coin studiowork to the artistic legacy of Eva Hesse.

Nine years after Hesse’s death in 1970, her sister, Helen Hesse Charash, gave a group of small works, many of which had been left unfinished in the artist’s studio, to BAM/PFA. This exhibition highlights this unique segment of the museum’s collection, which forms the core of the works on view, and exposes an aspect of Hesse’s artistic practice that sheds new light on her iconic, fully realized sculptures and installations.

Hesse is renowned for her ambiguously corporeal sculptures from the 1960s that exist somewhere between figuration and abstraction, and which consist of unusual, notoriously difficult to conserve materials such as latex, tape, papier-mâché, rubber, and wax. Her interest in the tensile qualities of materials and her meticulous attention to craft set her apart from many of her contemporaries. Her work, which is frequently described as post-minimalist, bridges the interests and concerns of minimalists, conceptualists, and abstract painters of the 1960s and ’70s; it has had a profound influence on myriad artists since.

This exhibition demonstrates that influence at a close and intimate scale. The show opens with a beautiful display on a single, large, open platform of objects made of delicately sculpted cheesecloth and papier-mâché between 1968 and 1969. Each one is a meditation on the material qualities of a brittle and weightless object, like a shell or a plastic bag. In the following room is a series of six table-height vitrines that house different groups of smaller studioworks. One case holds a number of pieces created between 1964 and 1966, including one from 1966 that combines paint, wood, rubber, and metal; it appears to be a piece of wood into which two halves of a rubber ball have been screwed and then painted. We see in these sculptural objects an artist discovering and manipulating the individual material properties of found objects and learning to replicate those properties in unexpected ways as her technique was honed and sharpened. Her earlier experiments with manipulated ready-mades, such as the rubber ball piece, give way to mature sculptures that reference not only organic matter and processes but also their own objecthood—the way they occupy space in relation to each other and to us. One studiowork looks like a ribbed, deflated balloon or some kind of strange sea urchin at rest. On closer examination, we can see that Hesse has actually stapled small strips of latex together to create this three-dimensional creature.

Eva Hesse: Studiowork, installation view, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Photo: Sibila Savage.

Eva Hesse: Studiowork, installation view, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Photo: Sibila Savage.

The strikingly spare installation of the exhibition not only does justice to Hesse’s interest in spatial relationships, it also begs the question of how this configuration of objects was conceived. Fer offers, “The idea of grouping them together is fundamental to Hesse’s approach to all her work, much of which consists of multiple elements in fairly random arrangements. The look of accident is important: it suggests something more temporary than permanent.”1 The tension between intentionality and randomness is connected to the important relationship between material and space in Hesse’s work. Just as she privileged everyday, non-precious materials, she also allowed for chance to take over in the installation and presentation of her work.2 Installation could be dictated by the natural way that materials fell in space or deteriorated and changed over time. 

Temporality is a strong subtheme running through the exhibition. Some of the works are purely material experiments, achieving varying levels of success, while others are more mature; that distinction comes from close, unhurried examination. There is an implicit connection in this presentation between our recognizing that distinction and the way this work has changed physically. Hesse knew her materials and was well aware that the color of latex and resin would evolve—another instance in which the material characteristics of her objects correspond with the organic forms they resemble.

In defining studiowork, Fer integrates a contemporary reading of the importance of process in post-minimalism, applying to it the (now commonplace) notion that objects can be considered art in various states of completion. The exhibition makes a compelling case for this studiowork as an important part of Hesse’s oeuvre, without needing to artificially elevate these objects. Fer argues: “… in her notes, she referred to them as ‘samples.’ The word ‘test-piece’ was attached to them after her death, partly by default. It was, like ‘prototype,’ a word of the times, revealing a desire to link art with the language of industry.”3 This use of a term borrowed from industrial production is particularly interesting in the context of post-minimalism, which cast off the intentionally reductive nature of minimalist sculpture, insisting that pared-down geometric abstraction could coexist harmoniously with hand-craft and an interest in organic subject matter. Hesse’s work exemplifies this return to craft; her technical skill and fascination with what she could do with materials are reflected in Fer and Rosen’s choice to move away from industrial terminology in describing her work.

With this shift in emphasis toward process, we have the unique opportunity to examine the material, spatial, and temporal aspects of Hesse’s work from a new perspective. The careful selection and arrangements of work, complemented by a well-articulated thesis, sheds new light on the experiments of an artist fascinated by the way materials and objects interact with each other, and with viewers, in space and time. Eva Hesse: Studiowork wonderfully demonstrates how a contemporary reading of older work can open up our understanding of even the most closely examined artist.

 

Eva Hesse: Studiowork is on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum through April 10, 2011.

 

________
NOTES:

1. Briony Fer, “Eva Hesse: Studiowork,” exhibition pamphlet,(Berkeley: UC Berkeley Art Museum/ Pacific Film Archive, 2011).
2. Hesse exhibited some of these pieces in cases in her solo show Chain Polymers, at New York’s Fischbach Gallery in 1968, which served partially as a model for the installation of Eva Hesse: Studiowork.
3. Fer, Ibid.

Comments ShowHide