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Eva Hesse / MATRIX 53

July 15, 1982 - October 15, 1982

Test piece, 1967-69

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).

Many viewers will remember the Eva Hesse retrospective at the University Art Museum in 1973, which demonstrated the exquisitely sensitive approach of this major sculptor. The Museum is delighted to show an important gift of Hesse's work. On view in its entirety for the first time, the gift has been the subject of an innovative conservation study.

Hesse's emphasis on a process of experimentation is in evidence in the thirty sculptural studies or test pieces (found in her studio after her death) included in the exhibition. Some are remnants elevated to the status of found objects by Hesse; that is, these scraps were considered to possess great aesthetic interest. Also on view are trial pieces and molds, the latter to form shapes for more elaborate works. And a number are studies for major pieces. All display Hesse's finely attuned sensitivity to the aesthetic possibilities of unusual materials. "Decoration" and "beauty" were anathemas to her. Instead, she demonstrated the extraordinary rich tactile potential of such unlikely materials as latex and fiberglass; in doing so, Hesse influenced many younger artists to explore new media. The test pieces are especially useful in showing the vocabulary of evocative, elemental shapes that Hesse developed in her work. within that vocabulary, the idea of a vessel or cavity is a major component, lending an erotic quality to the art. Other forms are organic, threatening, or ambiguous.

Aught reveals the final transformation of a motif consisting of slab-like rectilinear pieces of latex. Possessing qualities of both painting and sculpture, the work resides comfortably in the territory of being, simply, an object. Similarly, the title is meant to be all-inclusive; Hesse wrote in her diary that "aught" means "anything, whatever; any little thing."
The repetition of loosely geometrical shapes gives Aught a "minimalist" orientation. But Hesse took the "minimal" vocabulary a step further, to a more personal expression that has been called "eccentric abstraction." In contrast to typical "minimalist" materials like steel and wood, which are rigid, Hesse's latex sheets bend and sag. The vulnerability of these objects suggests a human, emotional content.

Inevitably-and not unreasonably-the vulnerable quality of Hesse's work has been associated with her personal life. Born in Germany in 1936, she came to New York with her family in 1939. Despite having escaped the Nazi regime at a young age, Hesse retained painful memories of Germany. Her mother's subsequent suicide added to the emotional scars that remained near the surface of Hesse's conscious life, as is shown by her writing. She graduated with honors from the High School of Industrial Art in New York and received a B.F.A. from Yale University in 1959. At a time when her work was attracting considerable attention in the art world, tragedy continued to haunt Hesse's life. In 1968 she began to show symptoms of a brain tumor from which she suffered until her death in May 1970.

The works on view in MATRIX 53 were very generously donated by the artist's sister, Mrs. Helen Charash. The Museum is also grateful to Sol LeWitt and to Donald Droll, an executor of the artist's estate, for the help and information they so graciously provided.

Elise Goldstein
Mark Rosenthal

MATRIX is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal Agency.