Eva Hesse: Artist Portrait

Eva Hesse

Born 1936. Died 1970.
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Eva Hesse Biography

A founder of Post-Minimalism, Eva Hesse is best known for her pioneering use of unconventional materials like latex, fiberglass, plastic, rope and wire to create whimsically “eccentric” sculptures. Marrying the spatial realms of painting and sculpture, Hesse’s transgressive, three-dimensional compositions reference the pared down aesthetic of Minimalism while also subverting its rigid asceticism with evocative, organic contours and proto-feminist sexual innuendo. The formal and conceptual innovations of Hesse’s short career leave behind a distinctive legacy, influencing a diverse array of late-20th century artists including Louise Bourgeois, Brice Marden, Anish Kapoor, Kiki Smith, Martin Puryear and Bill Jensen.

Hesse was born in 1936 to a Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany. Fleeing Nazi persecution, the family emigrated to New York City in 1939. In 1946, when Hesse was ten years old, her mother committed suicide. The trauma and tragedy of Hesse’s early life left an indelible mark; her close friend, art historian Lucy Lippard, would later describe Hesse’s work as a “materialization of her anxieties.”

Hesse studied art and design at a number of institutions including the Art Students League and Cooper Union, and received a BFA from Yale University where she trained under Josef Albers. Upon her return to New York, Hesse associated with Minimalist artists including Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd and Yayoi Kusama. In 1961, Hesse’s paintings were included in group exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum and John Heller Gallery in New York, and in 1963, she had her fist solo show at New York’s Allan Stone Gallery.

In 1965, Hesse produced her first relief, Ringaround Arosie, a playfully erotic piece utilizing cloth-covered electrical wire to evoke male and female anatomy. The following year, she turned her focus entirely to sculpture with the groundbreaking Hang Up, a blank canvas with a long steel loop extending from its surface. That same year, Hesse was included in the seminal Eccentric Abstraction show at Fischbach Gallery. By the late 1960s, Hesse’s sculptural practice had developed toward experiments with unconventional materials like latex and fiberglass, featuring repetitive forms and textural juxtapositions. In 1969, at the height of her career, Hesse was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After three failed operations, Hesse died in 1970 at the age of 34.

Two years after Hesse’s death, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York mounted a major retrospective of her work, the institution’s first such exhibition honoring a female artist. Today, her work resides in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Tate Gallery, London, among others. Hesse’s life and work is also the subject of the 2016 documentary Eva Hesse.

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