Working Through: the Drawings of Eva Hesse

By Cynthia Cruz

October 18, 2019

Hauser & Wirth New York, 69th Street-hires-2
Installation view, “Forms Larger and Bolder: EVA HESSE DRAWINGS from the Allen
Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College,” Hauser & Wirth New York, 69th Street, 2019. © The Estate of Eva Hesse Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Genevieve Hanson.

LaCapra (Dominick) goes on to distinguish between the traumatic event, which is more or less bounded in time, and traumatic experience, which knows no temporal cohesion, but is brought into coherence through some manner of “working through” the impact of an event, often in narrative, storytelling, music, dance, or sacred ritual.

 —Robyn Marasco, The Highway of Despair: Critical Thinking After Hegel

 “Forms Larger and Bolder: Eva Hesse Drawings from the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College,” the current exhibition on view at Hauser & Wirth in New York, takes up both floors of the gallery. Hesse’s drawings are rarely shown. In fact, Hesse’s work is rarely shown. This is because her sculptures, the work she is best known for, were mainly constructed of ephemeral materials such as rubber and polyester that have broken down over time. As a result, most of them reside in climate-controlled storage spaces—the underworlds of museums—where they are protected from the harsh lights and warm temperatures of showplaces that might further degrade them.

The drawings presented in the current show are culled from the extensive Eva Hesse Archives at Oberlin College. To walk through the exhibition’s three galleries is to witness the artist’s simultaneous disintegration and integration. As a number of art scholars have noted, Hesse’s drawings can be read as a means of “working through.” What, precisely, Hesse was working through requires a complex and indeterminate answer. Similarly, though the drawings can be seen as a means of “working through,” they never reach any conclusions. In the same way her sculptures fall apart over time, her drawings tend to leave space for the unknown. Though her working through may have been an attempt at moving toward something, it seems clear Hesse’s aim was not so much to reach a conclusion but rather, akin to Freud’s theory of the drive, to move forward without ever reaching a fixed station.

In the first floor gallery a series of four ink drawings, each without a title (none of the works on display are titled) and dated 1965, are hung at the end of the room. Three smaller drawings are set alongside a larger one, as if they were four moving parts of a greater machine. During the time Hesse was making these drawings she was living in Kettig, Germany with her husband, the sculptor Tom Doyle, who had received an invitation there for a 15-month stay to work. Forced to flee Nazi Germany as a small child, Hesse had fears regarding her return. In a diary entry from June 13, 1964, she wrote:

Our first day in Kettig. Yesterday I had some melancholy. I developed some of my more troubled thoughts and feelings. I was born in Germany in 1936.

Her marriage soon began to disintegrate. In other words, Hesse’s return to Germany was the cause both of a breakdown and a breakthrough. The art historian Sabine Folie, in her essay “Just Substitute Painting—That Is All” from the catalogue, Eva Hesse: TransformationsThe Sojourn in Germany 1964/65 writes:

To some extent Hesse found herself in Germany, or at least this was the beginning of her clarification of her position. The dialectic, of which she was convinced, and that she had to show in her work, is inherent in her work from the very beginning. The energy is inherent, even when the form is that of someone seeking, not yet knowing where she wants to go.

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Eva Hesse, No title (1965). Ink and graphite on paper. 19.1 x 18.1 cm. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH. Gift of Helen Hesse Charash. 1981.40.7.6.  From “Forms Larger and Bolder: EVA HESSE DRAWINGS from the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College” Hauser & Wirth New York, 69th Street, 2019. © The Estate of Eva Hesse Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Genevieve Hanson.

Hesse’s drawings were attempts at “working through” her childhood traumas, including her family’s exile, the separation from her parents as a toddler while she was moved through Europe with her sister via Kindertransport, and her mother’s later suicide after the family had reunited and settled in America. At the time Hesse was also “working through” her deteriorating marriage and her artistic influences. And yet, it seems clear her drawings are not attempts at reaching conclusions but rather, a dialectical practice. That these drawings are of disparate parts that never become one completed machine and that Hesse left expanses of blank, white space, attest to this.

The upstairs galleries include photograms, figure drawings from Hesse’s time as a student at Pratt, color exercises from her studies at Yale, watercolors, and collages. The show is an amalgamation, an accumulation, of distinct periods of her career. Each discrete series of works is markedly different from the others and is informed by both Hesse’s memories, and contemporaneous events from her life. Walking through the exhibition is akin to moving through an experiential collage. Collage work necessitates the cut: slicing material out and repositioning it into a new environment. This cutting is inherently violent, reminiscent of the surgeon’s incision and also of course, a kind of frankensteining.

Many of the works included in the show are collages; works that utilize material that has been extracted from elsewhere and then placed into new work. The act of collaging is a means of playing with disparate pieces to work through where they might fit. Like drawing, working through in this way is somatic in that it involves the body. Through using the hand, the body is drawn into the process. Memories and ideas embedded within each work are then processed through the mind and the body. It isn’t coincidence that the making of collages is often used therapeutically by psychiatric facilities and treatment centers: it is a form of working through and integrating memory and trauma. In her essay “Doing Things On Paper,” from the Oberlin show’s exhibition catalogue, Briony Fer writes:

When you look at the drawings they are absurdly nonfunctioning and issueless. A counter-reading, then, would suggest that rather than mobilize the flow they actively reflect on the quandary she found herself in: the getting nowhere, the being stuck. That is, I want to suggest that the drawings invite us to think about what stalls and blocks as well as what is creative and generative. In that contradiction, Hesse maybe found some kind of way out.

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Eva Hesse, No title (1968). Pencil on ruled notebook paper, 22.5 x 15.1 cm / 8 7/8 x 6 in. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH. Gift of Helen Hesse Charash, 1977. 52.76.62.1. From “Forms Larger and Bolder: EVA HESSE DRAWINGS from the Allen
Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College,” Hauser & Wirth New York, 69th Street, 2019. © The Estate of Eva Hesse Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Genevieve Hanson.

We can look at Hesse’s seeming contradictory nature occurring both overall within the exhibition (the markedly differing types of work) and within individual works as being a means of pushing disparate tendencies together in order to work toward something indeterminate. It is important to underline that she was not seeking a solution or conclusion. We know this because many of the works appear unfinished (which may be because they were drawings not meant to be shown) but, also, there is no completed so-called machine. This aligns with her body of sculptural work, which as I mentioned earlier, is largely disintegrating. Given the unknown properties of the renegade materials she was using at the time, it’s a condition of her three-dimensional work she may have intuited. All of these are means of resisting closure, of turning away from clean, reductive conclusions. Fer writes, “I don’t think it’s accidental that psychoanalytic writers from Freud on have concerned themselves with drawing as once symptomatic of failure as well as an exemplary vehicle for creativity.”

Just as the various series of works included appear as distinct machines, the exhibition itself can be viewed as these same series comprising a larger mechanical whole. In the same way, the traumatic events of Hesse’s own life can be seen as parts of a bigger apparatus. In her book, The Highway of Despair: Critical Theory After Hegel, Robyn Marasco writes that, “Minor traumas accumulate without adding up.” Hesse’s drawings have an uncanny resemblance to this sentiment: her works and her oeuvre—indeed, her own lived life—were accumulative, accumulated traumas, and yet did not “add up.” Here, by “adding up” we might consider the suggestion of an end or conclusion, not a working through but a working out of.

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Eva Hesse, No title (1969). Ink and graphite on paper 22.5 x 14.9 cm. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH. Gift of Helen Hesse Charash, 1977.52.2. From “Forms Larger and Bolder: EVA HESSE DRAWINGS from the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College,” Hauser & Wirth New York, 69th Street, 2019. © The Estate of Eva Hesse Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Genevieve Hanson.

But also, not “adding up” suggests absurdity and its inherent lack of justice. Either of these readings leads to the sense of a prolonged despair. Marasco writes, “Despair is aligned with the absurd, the extra-rational, and the excessive, as well as any meaningful practice of justice and freedom.” Describing thinkers who work through despair, she continues, “The thinkers of interest in this study stake out opportunities for radical thought and practice under hopeless conditions: hope where there is no hope, hope that is not quite irrational but exceeds the limits of reason alone.” Hesse utilized the practice of drawing, collaging, and the creation of a nonfunctioning, nonsensical, incomplete machine as a means to work through her life and the hauntings of memory, which was, also, in a sense, nonsensical and incomplete. And in doing so, she moved these dissonant bits and fragments out from the body and mind, externalizing them, in a series of incongruent systems. For Hesse, there never was any space between the work, the body, and the mind.


Forms Larger and Bolder: Eva Hesse Drawings from the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College remains on view through October 19th at Hauser & Wirth, 32 East 69th Street, New York


Cynthia Cruz is the author of five collections of poems. Her sixth collection of poems, Guidebooks For The Dead, is forthcoming in 2020. Her first collection of essays, Disquieting: Essays on Silence, was published April of 2019. Cruz teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University.

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