Eva Hesse was a leading Post-Minimalist artist whose brief career was cut short by her death from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-four. Hesse belonged to a group of New York artists, who – at the end of the 1960s – rebelled against Minimalism and made art known as “process art.” Her sculptures consisted of organic or draped forms and challenged the idea of an art object having to be stable and durable. She created her Post-Minimal art with floppy, unstable materials such as latex, fiberglass, and plastic in opposition to the rigid geometry of the hard, industrial materials used in the male-dominated art of that time.
Born in Hamburg, Germany to Jewish parents, Hesse and her sister were put on a children’s train to Holland. A year later the family escaped the Holocaust by emigrating to New York City in 1939. Her mother killed herself seven years later in 1946 when Hesse was ten years old.
Hesse studied at the the Art Students League and Cooper Union. She received her B.F.A. in 1959 from the Yale School of Art, where she studied under Bauhaus artist Josef Albers and was influenced by Abstract Expressionism. After graduating, Hesse painted dark expressionistic self-portraits, that reflected the emotional turbulence in her life. Her works in the early 1960s were abstract paintings and drawings, which possibly were drafts to her later sculptures.
In 1960, Hesse met the Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. They became close friends up to the time of her death just ten years later. They influenced one another in art and in life. He was a constant source of encouragement to her. He wrote a poignant five-page letter confirming his belief in her talent and her work. While his influence on her has always been acknowledged, what is now being realized is that she also influenced him. LeWitt himself has acknowledged this, and her aesthetic can be especially seen in his later works, which contain biomorphic movement similar to hers.
In 1964, in addition to her abstract oil paintings, Hesse started to make non-objective sculpture. Hesse spent a year in Germany in 1965 where she created sculptures with materials left behind in the abandoned factory she was living in with her sculptor husband Tom Doyle (married 1961-1966). It was during the last five months of this stay that she embarked on a series of fourteen untitled three-dimensional reliefs using a wide range of materials. Latex became a medium for her sculptures, and she used it in ways that had never been done before. From this time on, her work would embody elements of Minimalism in the use of simple shapes that were folded, piled up, twisted, and wound – sometimes almost looking like flesh.
Her last works showed her total denial of fixed form and scale. Her “Rope Piece” takes on a different shape each time it is installed. The resulting linear web extends into new space in the tradition of “drawing in space.” It is a three dimensional version of a poured painting.
Her first solo sculpture show was held in Dusseldorf in 1965. Her work appeared in two group exhibitions in New York in 1966 and was praised by her fellow artists. Her only American solo show during her lifetime was held in New York in 1968. There were dozens of posthumous exhibitions of her work in Europe and in the United States, including the Guggenheim Museum, San Francisco MoMA, Seattle Art Museum, and the Jewish Museum of New York. In 2016, the documentary “Eva Hesse” was premiered in New York.