eva hesse (1936-1970)
When Eva Hesse came to maturity as an artist during the mid-1960s, the women’s movement and the sexual revolution were emerging as powerful, liberating forces in the U.S. It was a time when voices of the counterculture gained widespread recognition. The urge toward radical reappraisal and reform was manifest in the art world as well—Pop art and Minimalism displaced Abstract Expressionism through their categorical dismissal of artistic subjectivity and the heroic gesture. Almost immediately, however, artists questioned the geometric rigidity of Minimalism and the limitations of the Pop idiom. Finding inspiration in the human body, the random occurrence, the process of improvisation, and the liberating qualities of nontraditional materials such as industrial felt, molten lead, wax, and rubber, these artists mined a new aesthetic sensibility variously known as Anti-Form, Post-Minimalism, or Process art.
During her brief career Hesse contributed to this radical undermining of artistic convention with her abstract yet sensual sculptural works. She rejected the standard attributes of monumental sculpture—volume, mass, and verticality—in favour of eccentric forms made from rope, latex, and cheesecloth, all of which decompose with time. Her goal, she explained, was to portray the essential absurdity of life. In formal terms, this theme was realised through a wedding of contradictions: “order versus chaos, stringy versus mass, huge versus small,” in the artist’s words. Acutely aware of the challenges faced by a female artist in a predominantly male environment, Hesse may have utilised such formal opposites as a metaphor for her own position in the art world and to emphasise the inherent strength of flexibility and vulnerability.