From February 2 through May 19, 2002, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present the most complete exhibition ever of Eva Hesse’s work. Co-organized by Elisabeth Sussman, guest curator for SFMOMA, and Dr. Renate Petzinger from Museum Wiesbaden, Germany, Eva Hesse focuses on the artist’s materials, working methods and the relationship of her work to the art of her generation. The exhibition features approximately 150 of the artist’s most significant paintings, sculptures and works on paper, including several key works acquired in recent years by SFMOMA. Unlike previous exhibitions of her work, Eva Hesse presents comprehensive groupings of the artist’s paintings and works on paper in proximity to her better-known sculptural works to offer a fuller understanding of how concepts and processes intersect in Hesse’s chosen media. The works are drawn from private and public collections around the world and many have not been publicly shown in over two decades. Following its SFMOMA premiere, the exhibition will travel to the Museum Wiesbaden, Germany (June 15 to October 13, 2002) and the Tate Modern, London (November 14, 2002 through March 9, 2003).
“To me, Eva Hesse’s brilliance is written across the drawings, paintings and sculpture that we have assembled. Our goal is to reveal her amazing career, her originality and her fearless creativity,” states co-curator Elisabeth Sussman. “We are indebted to the many private and institutional lenders—including the Estate of Eva Hesse—who have been extremely generous in supporting this project. We are pleased, too, to have Museum Wiesbaden, which recognized early Hesse’s significant roots in European culture, as co-organizer of the exhibition.”
Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1936, Eva Hesse and her family immigrated to the United States in 1939 to escape the Nazi regime. She lived most of her life in New York, studying at the Pratt Institute of Design from 1952 to 1953 and Cooper Union from 1954 to 1957. From 1957 to 1959 she attended Yale School of Art and Architecture, where she received her B.F.A. studying under Josef Albers. After a brief, prolific decade as a serious artist, Hesse died at age thirty-four from brain cancer.
An Innovator from the Start
From 1960 through 1970, the duration of her artistic career, Hesse painted, created drawings, collages and gouaches, and produced three-dimensional sculptural installations. She worked with a broad range of traditional and nontraditional media, and though she might focus on a single medium for distinct periods of time, Hesse continually blurred the edges between her processes and materials, pushing both to their extremes. In all of her works, the artist explored the tensions between order and chaos, rigidity and pliability, geometric and biomorphic form, series and singularity and continuity and change. Associated with both the conceptual and minimalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Hesse’s primary interests lay in the organic, the absurd and the irrational.
These artistic concerns were shaped by her extraordinary sensitivity to diverse, often untraditional, materials: from paint, watercolor and pencil to papier-mâché, rope, latex and fiberglass. She used techniques such as collage, reconfiguring and salvaging to combine disparate materials while never losing sight of the unique properties of each medium. In most cases, Hesse was drawn to materials because of their ability to further her artistic concerns—the way fiberglass and resin retain the mark of every gesture, the way rope both responds to and defies gravity. Similarly, in exploring form, Hesse broke from the ordinary expectations of her time with informal sculptural arrangements that often hung from the ceiling, leaned against the walls or spilled forth onto the floor. Indeed, her seemingly impromptu installations present manifold challenges to the conservators and curators working on the exhibition.
Hesse’s rare and early sculpture Untitled or Not Yet, 1966, acquired by SFMOMA in 1997, perfectly embodies the essence of her oeuvre. The elements are simple: nine fishnet bags, each filled and stretched by a ball made of sand, paper and clear polyethylene, hang on the wall from a cotton string. They are almost anthropomorphic in their form and shape. The work refutes the visceral and sensuous form through the impersonal, ordinary materials used to create it.
Similarly, the wall sculpture Sans II, created for Hesse’s first solo exhibition in 1968 and acquired by SFMOMA in 1999, features a pattern of repeating geometric shapes combined with an extremely visceral, expressive surface that has an almost membrane-like appearance. It is this physicality—at once structural and solid, delicate and tactile—that gives the sculpture its great power. The surface texture of Sans II is one of the piece’s unique, and most experimental, qualities. Sans II is among a group of artworks made of fiberglass and polyester resin; each of five units was cast individually in a gum rubber mold and then attached to form lip-like junctures that immediately call to mind body folds. The units were separated and sold individually following the 1968 show; for only the second time since 1968, all five of them will be reunited (at the SFMOMA presentation).
A Conservation Challenge
Hesse’s legacy of working with nontraditional media presents unique challenges to the organization of a retrospective thirty years after her death. Several of Hesse’s sculptures have deteriorated to the point that they no longer resemble their original selves, and in many cases, they are too fragile to be handled and installed as they originally were. For example, latex rubber, with which Hesse first worked in autumn 1967, discolors, weakens and eventually disintegrates over time. Fiberglass, which she began to use in early 1968, retains neither the translucency nor flexibility that initially characterized it. These material facts raised significant questions for curators Sussman and Petzinger and their conservation colleagues: Do we accept the aging of the sculpture as part of its meaning and present it as it now exists, which consequently assumes that Hesse would have accepted that process as part of the piece? Or, do we attempt to re-make the objects or portions of them, sacrificing literalness to present something true to the spirit of the original? Or, is the current state so far from the artist’s intention for the piece that it is better to leave it unseen and make do with photographs of it in good condition?
In November 2000, SFMOMA convened a group of conservators, curators, friends and colleagues of Hesse’s to address these questions in a roundtable discussion followed by a week of conservation studies. The participants explored Hesse’s use of materials and processes in her works as well as the ethical considerations facing those responsible for their care. Further, ultraviolet and infrared technologies were applied to thirty works on paper, as a means to understand Hesse’s techniques and their role in her artistic development. Excerpts from the roundtable are included in the exhibition catalogue, as is a case-study of Hesse’s works on paper by SFMOMA conservators Jill Sterrett and Michelle Barger. In their essay, Sterrett and Barger conclude, “The ease with which [Hesse] explored ideas in different forms and applied techniques in different media suggests that, in her own mind, her creative process had dissolved the boundaries existing between categories typically used to describe artistic form.”
The exhibition catalogue—a lavish 360-page monograph with over 250 color images, plus archival photographs of the artist and her studio—will also feature essays by Sussman, Petzinger, Briony Fer, James Meyer, Ann Temkin and Gioia Timpanelli. The clothbound edition is being co-published by SFMOMA and Yale University Press and will retail for $65; a soft cover version, retailing for $35, will be available exclusively at the exhibition venues. Both editions will be available at the SFMOMA MuseumStores or www.sfmoma.org.
In conjunction with the SFMOMA presentation of Eva Hesse, the Museum’s Education Department will present a series of related events and programs, including an opening-day lecture by curator Sussman; a three-day symposium in April; and daily docent tours. In addition, a new segment of the award-winning Making Sense of Modern Art multimedia program, which explores Hesse and the conservation issues involved in the exhibition, will be available at in-gallery computer kiosks and online at www.sfmoma.org.
Eva Hesse is co-organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Museum Wiesbaden. Support for SFMOMA’s presentation has been generously provided by The Edward E. Hills Fund, The Henry Luce Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Chara Schreyer, Christie’s, Galerie Hauser & Wirth, Helen Hesse Charash, and The Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation. Additional support has been provided by Hessische Kulturstiftung and Nassauische Sparkasse/NASPA Stiftung “Initiative und Leistung.” Hotel Sponsor: The W San Francisco.