18 July, 2011

18 July - Eva Hesse Spectres

I finally made it to the UNM Art Gallery to see the Eva Hesse Spectres, 1960 exhibition. Seeing this show was a reminder of how visceral and searing Hesse’s work truly is live, her work suffers so dramatically in printed and digital reproduction. I was surprised to find that Hesse's early paintings are as haunting and fragile as her later works in more experimental and ephemeral medium that included string, rubber, cheesecloth, wax, and resin. The Spectres paintings achieve the hollow and fragile need, the teetering vertiginous quality of the installation and sculptural works that propelled her short career into international renown. Walking from painting to painting, I was reminded of a quote from Whitney curator Elisabeth Sussman’s 2010 Hammer Museum lecture on the same series, “It is always beyond me how good Eva Hesse is at all times.”

Eva Hesse 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.

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