EvaHesse was born in Hamburg in 1936. She and her family fled to the United States when she was 2 to escape the Holocaust. This body of work was created when Hesse was just 24, soon after graduating from the Yale School of Art. The show consists of 19 oil paintings on canvas and masonite. An early departure from the abstraction and minimalism she would later be known for, the Spectre paintings are semi-representational, haunting, and acutely personal.
The paintings are comprised of two distinct groups. The first are smaller paintings that are of cadaverous, loosely rendered figures standing in small groups of two or three. As described by the Yale Press blog, “These paintings seem to emerge from an intersection of the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti and the paintings of Willem de Kooning. They straddle the divide of flesh and paint, figure and ground, abstraction and line, proximity and distance.”
The second group are larger in scale and are elegiac and isolated self-portraits. As UNM Art Gallery curator E. Luanne McKinnon describes in her catalog essay, these figures embody “a sense of loss or displacement and pain. More directly stated, in these paintings Hesse’s real beauty was transmogrified into the ghastly.” As described by the Yale Press blog “claustrophobia and aberrant colors abound; skin is thick and dripping with paint; eyes are sightless and reflect nothing but violence. These self-portraits, as with the paintings that comprise the first half of the collection, are embodiments of emotional turmoil and existential frustration.”
Hesse’s work, regardless of medium, cuts to the core of human experience. Almost unbearably desolate, her work also holds a tenderness that I experience as a visceral sense of optimism, breathless expectation. Hesse fearlessly explored pain, loss, and isolation in her work, but also the unchartered territories of life's mysteries - the tender spaces between its excruciating moments. In her words, “I am interested in solving an unknown factor of art and an unknown factor of life.”
IMAGES: No title, 1960. Oil on canvas. 36 x 36 in. (91.44 x 91.44 cm). Collection of Barbara Bluhm-Kaul and Don Kaul, Chicago; Eva Hesse, 1969; Contingent (detail), November 1969 Fiberglass, polyester resin, latex, cheesecloth, 138 x 248 x 43.