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Eva Hesse, untitled, 1963-1964. Photo courtesy of Craig F. Starr Gallery.

Against the Tide: When Eva Hesse Said 'Fuck That' to Trends and Got Real

Vanessa Thill

Taking in the rarely seen and exuberant collages of post-minimalist sculptor Eva Hesse.

Eva Hesse, untitled, 1963-1964. Photo courtesy of Craig F. Starr Gallery.

As the first New York exhibition of her work in seven years, Eva Hesse: Arrows and Boxes, Repeated at Craig F. Starr Gallery brings together collages from the early 1960s, sculptures from the end of the same decade, and works on paper finished by the artist before she passed away in 1970. The unifying principle among these pieces is the recurrence of strong graphic motifs, such as rounded rectangles and spikey arrows. Contrary to her reputation for serial forms and monochrome palette, this exhibition reveals her striking sense of color and investment in imagery, suggesting that the artist took a highly idiosyncratic pathway through Minimalism to arrive at her later works.

Despite the stately atmosphere of this uptown gallery, Hesse’s works buzz with light-hearted experimentation and humor. Scribbles of graphite nestle into compartments of bright color; a long slender latex sculpture slumps and shimmies up the wall. The artist is perhaps best known for her fleshy, earth-toned sculptures rendered in plastics and fiber, and a few such examples are on view here, including the duo Inside I and II (both 1967). Two pallid gray cubes each hold a lumpy treasure of tangled string or papier-mâché. Elsewhere one finds Accession V (1968), a cube measuring ten inches on all sides and made of perforated metal sheets threaded with countless segments of slim rubber tube. The steel square, rather than a geometric abstraction, is an absolute farce of wholeness, a barrier struggling with permeability.

Hesse explores these same tensions in her collages, examples of which use repeated square forms in a much looser style with watercolor and inks. An untitled work dated 1963-64 could be a view of the Bowery in downtown New York where the artist lived and worked at the time. In this piece, stacks of painted cubbies slant like ancient tenement floors as two grey arrows wedge up from below, tilting the whole composition to the upper left. Her tiny cubical rooms are segments of enclosure and protection, while the arrows threaten to interrupt their structural integrity. This repertoire of symbols reads as notation of mounting pressures, as well as the urge to burst forth and escape.

Eva Hesse, untitled, 1963. Photo courtesy of Craig F. Starr Gallery.

The artist wrote about such desires in her diaries, published in 2016 by Hauser & Wirth and brought to life in Marcie Begleiter’s documentary released that same year. The artist escaped Nazi Germany at age two with her sister, after which they fortuitously reunited with her parents to move to New York in 1939. Five years later, her parents divorced, and soon after, her mother committed suicide. In 1966, as her own marriage was ending, she writes, “never had a day’s comfort or peace at home not knowing what it is to just be in a home.” Hesse embraced life’s extremes with intensity, and her art was a strategy for navigating the chaos of unstable surroundings. Drawing was an important element in this process, as she noted in spring of 1961: “Monday. My work is impossible! Bad—nothing—which is o.k.—since I just must force myself regardless and I am at least in some form—drawing. Keep light—build slowly.” And then, in February 1965, she writes, “I did a drawing. I really like. now at moment. will eagerly await tomorrow, with hope that it will still mean something to me then…I will continue drawing. push the individuality of them even though they go against every ‘major trend.’ Fuck that. So did everyone I admire at the time they started go against.”

These collages may look crude at first, but to witness the experimental spirit of Hesse’s lesser-known works is a rare pleasure. Instead of constructing a timeline of progression through her output, the exhibition maintains that throughout her short life, this artist asserted a unique sensibility, and continuously approached making with rigorous curiosity.

Arrows and Boxes, Repeated is on view at Craig F. Starr Gallery through May 25.