Just weeks before she graduated from Yale University in May 1959, Eva Hesse — a child survivor of the Holocaust who would become renowned for her sculptural assemblages — railed against artists of the day: “The hell with them all,” she wrote in her journal. “Paint yourself out, through and through, it will come by you alone. You must come to terms with your own work, not with any other being.”
The exhibition “Eva Hesse Spectres 1960,” which will be on display Sept. 25 through Jan. 2, 2011, at the Hammer Museum, will for the first time show 21 rarely seen paintings the artist rendered upon moving into her first studio in New York City in 1960 — 10 years before her untimely death at 34 of a brain tumor.
In stark contrast to her later abstracted, idiosyncratic Minimalist sculptures and assemblages, these more figurative paintings and self-portraits are haunting images reflecting a haunted psyche. And though they adapt some of the painterliness of the Abstract Expressionism that dominated the era, in contrast to those mostly large-scale works, a number of Hesse’s paintings are as small as a hand-mirror — or a page from a diary — as the 24-year-old artist strove, “literally, to paint her self out,” E. Luanne McKinnon, the show’s curator and director of the University of New Mexico Art Museum, writes in its catalogue.
In the self-portraits, Hesse transformed her real-life beauty into grotesque visages in corpselike shades of gray or putrid yellow-greens, her body often rendered sexless and undefined, the eyes sometimes gouged out. In one image, a slash of red lipstick indicates her mouth, which leers through a hole in a masklike layer. In another, Hesse’s doppelganger abjectly stands in the extreme left side of the frame — isolated, confined, sealed off — her dark hair hanging lankly. In a third painting, blazing eyes stare from a face that is cropped below the nose, as an oversized hair bow gives the likeness a childlike aura.
Other paintings in the exhibition depict erect figures with a great deal of distance (read: disconnect) between them. Still others appear to cleave together or apart, like two halves of the self, struggling to individuate or to merge with each other. The biomorphic creatures are perhaps indicative of Hesse’s own battle to move past her pain while immersed in psychoanalysis and to discover her unique voice as an artist in a predominantly male milieu.
Then there is a kind of double self-portrait: a ghostly bride who sits passively as a black-clad spectre with a skull’s head aggressively exits the scene.
“The abiding question for Eva Hesse always was, ‘Is it safe?’ so there is an awkwardness in these pictures,” curator McKinnon said. “We see levels of self-doubt, monstrous depictions of an inner, haunted [soul], disconnection, the loss of her mother and the fear of being reduced to simply a wife and a mother. And so we are invited into an inner sanctum of Hesse’s psychological being.”
In some of the paintings with two figures, McKinnon sees “one self coming out of another self. ... Hesse was bothered and challenged with being by herself in New York for the first time, knowing it would be up to [her] to carve out her way.”
“The act of looking ... was directed both at herself and at others, at her past and no doubt her future,” McKinnon noted in the catalog. “Looking inwardly and outwardly and with paint as her guide, she began to paint herself out and away and ahead.”
Hesse had quite a past to contend with. Born in Hamburg, Germany, to an observant Jewish family in 1936, she was separated from her parents when she was almost 3, as they sent Eva and her sister on a Kindertransport to the Netherlands to escape the Nazis. Although the family managed to flee to England and then to New York, the Holocaust continued to cast its long shadow; Hesse’s mother spiraled into depression and committed suicide when Eva was 10. Hesse’s father remarried, to a woman who reportedly had little interest in children.
By 1960, Hesse had already been in analysis for three years in an attempt to grapple with the anxieties stemming from her multiple abandonments; it is not insignificant that she gave one of her self-portraits to her analyst, Dr. Samuel Dunkell. “Things have come to pass, so disturbing that the shell made of iron which has refused to be set ajar — will — must — at last open,” Hesse wrote in 1960, upon learning that a former lover had married. “Problems of my past, of my past sickness, of the scars of my early beginnings. The deep-rooted insecurity which has made any relationship ... impossible.”
McKinnon was struck by how Hesse “obliterated” the eyes in many of the figures, in which the eyeballs are “either shut or damaged or hollowed or smeared through,” she said. “In her acts of self-blinding, I think Hesse is shielding herself from seeing her memories of tragedy ... symbolically working through her fears in order to protect herself from recurring and debilitating anxieties.” And thus regaining the clarity of vision so necessary to the emerging artist.
Yet Hesse’s early paintings could also be forceful. “There is a physicality to the work,” McKinnon said. “You can almost feel the stroke of her brush and her hand coming away from the canvas, allowing the paint to drip.”
McKinnon envisioned the “Spectres” exhibition after viewing several of Hesse’s 1960 paintings in more complete retrospectives of her work at Yale and at the Robert Miller gallery in Manhattan. While Hesse had become one of the most examined artists of the 1960s, the 21 self- or partial self-portraits she rendered before definitively embracing abstraction had never before been shown, or studied, en masse. Hesse had never allowed them to be exhibited in her lifetime, although she clearly valued the pictures, because she was prodigious about destroying work she disliked.
In 1965, in the midst of a major personal and creative slump, Hesse had her first major artistic breakthrough. At the time, she was deeply unhappy to find herself back in Germany, as a wealthy industrialist had given her husband, the artist Tom Doyle, an abandoned textile factory in exchange for artwork. Although the couple’s relationship was rocky and they later separated, it was Doyle who encouraged Hesse to begin making sculptures out of detritus she found in the building — prompting the kind of whimsical works that would later place her on the map as an artist.
McKinnon sees qualities in Hesse’s 1960 paintings that, she said, “I could feel in her future, completely abstracted works. Four years later, she was working with fiberglass and other materials, but even in this abstracted work, ultimately, there is a sense of veiling, or of bodies connecting and disconnecting.
“Are the disturbing images a premonition of her early death?” McKinnon queried, rhetorically. “Of course, we can never know that. All we can do is present the paintings and ask the questions that emerge.”
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