Eva Hesse

Review by Michael Hettich



I would like the work to be non-work. This means that it would find its way beyond my preconceptions. What I want of my art I can eventually find. The work must go beyond this. It is my main concern to go beyond what I know and what I can know.


—Eva Hesse, Untitled Statement (1968)


When I first came in contact with the work of Eva Hesse, some thirty years ago now, it exhilarated and confused me, as it pricked open a strange and deeply haunting world whose images had the transgressive, transformative, disturbing power of myth—but myth divorced from narrative, of a world forgotten and remembered at once. Elemental in every sense of that word; her work it haunted me then, and it continues to do so. For me she is the most powerful artist of her generation.


Hesse’s achievement is all the more astonishing given her death at only 34. Born in Hamburg, Germany, she and her sister Helen were sent to Holland in 1938 to escape the Nazis. From Holland the family moved to London and then eventually to New York, where they arrived in 1939. Something of a prodigy, Hesse entered Pratt Institute in 1952; unhappy there, transferred to Cooper Union and then to Yale, where she studied with Josef Albers and from which she graduated in 1959.  From then until her death in 1970 she yoked intuition to intelligence in ways that challenged virtually everything in art, including the notions of what “woman’s art” might look like. Her five or so years of fully mature production are awesome in their fecundity, and while of course her work must be seen to be fully appreciated, the many photographs in this book give a sense of Hesse’s range and power.


Lippard, one of the leading critics of contemporary art, was close friends with Hesse for many years, and was in fact the owner of one of the first galleries to show her work. Because she knew the artist so well, Lippard is able to demonstrate the relationships between Hesse’s biography and the development of her aesthetics and techniques, The critic is able to clearly trace the astonishing development of Hesse’s vision from the “good” artist she was when she graduated from Yale, to the astonishing one she became. Although not a memoir, this book feels lovingly intimate in its portrayal of the artist, while it is also able to consider the work through a rigorous critical perspective. Thus we gain a well-rounded portrait of Hesse as person and as artist—as well as of the braid of selves that made up the actual person. As Lippard says in this incisive and insightful book, Hesse was possessed of “almost a nervous tremor that manifested itself formally as well as emotionally.” In short, she was obsessed, driven, always trying to break from what she could do and dig into what she couldn’t—with all the pain and exhilaration that such an attitude toward life and art entails. Eva Hesse was a singular artist and human being, and this is the best book about her life and art.


In the catalog statement of her final show included here, less than a year before she died of a brain tumor, Hesse wrote:


…I wanted to get to non art, non connotative, non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non, nothing, everything but of another kind, vision, sort.  from a total other reference point. is it possible? I have heard anything is possible. I know that. that vision or concept will come from total risk…


Going to buy this book? Support the Art Book Review by purchasing here.

Lucy R. Lippard, Eva Hesse, (DaCapo, 1992)
Images: Cover and Eva Hesse, Right After, 1969