Belonging to the rare and groundbreaking series of fetishistic-looking balloon and cord-based sculptures that Hesse made in New York between 1965 and 1966 Untitled is one of first of the artist's astonishingly evocative free-form sculptures.
An extraordinary, limp and undeniably phallic appendage suspended on the wall and trailing a long thin cord all the way down to the floor, this work is one of a small group of balloon-based sculptures that were first exhibited at the 'Eccentric Abstraction' and 'Abstract Inflationism and Stuffed Expressionism' exhibitions held in New York in 1966. As the titles to these group shows reveal, Hesse's work strongly resists categorisation - something the artist herself was proud of and deliberately sought. She is sometimes associated with Minimalism because of her absurdist use of repetition and deliberate subversion of the Minimalist grid, but in spirit her work from the mid-1960s is in fact closer to a Neo-Surrealist tendency in American art (as in the work of such artists as Paul Thek and Lucas Samaras for example) that has often been overlooked.
Following her own innate sensibility, Hesse rooted her art in the personal and in doing so developed a unique, and intensely powerful, almost psychological language of abstraction. It was a language that was both based on and which revealed the uncanny way in which simple forms and material can, when pushed to absurdity through painstaking repetition exaggeration or deliberate banality, trigger a powerful, emotional, sensual or even physical response from the viewer.
Though entirely abstract, Untitled is one of Hesse's sculptures that, almost in spite of itself, still in some way references the human body. It is part of a series of outstanding and peculiar sculptures that evolved directly out of the relief paintings Hesse had made in Kettwig in Germany in 1965 - the works that effectively announced her breakthrough as one of the leading avant-garde artist of her age. In these reliefs Hesse had developed a strangely erotic language of abstraction that began to formalise itself into a central motif of an ambiguous and absurd limp phallic cord protruding through and hanging from the 'nipple' of a breast-like cord spiral. Manifesting itself most corporeally in the 'relief Ringaround Arosie, through repetition Hesse explored the strange and evocative ambivalence of this essentially abstract and simple semi-geometric form in a series of untitled reliefs that include the first Cool Zone and the more-figuratively named Ishtar. Then, in the extraordinary object Ingeminate that she made in the winter of 1965, this recurrent motif materialised itself in a fully three-dimensional sculptural object in the form of a pair of partially-inflated balloons coated with papier-maché and spirally bound with black-painted cord and connected to one another with a rubber surgical tube. The title of these two mysteriously interlinked phallic cocoons means 'to emphasise through repetition' - a procedure she would follow closely under the aegis of the Minimalist aesthetic during the next few years.
An enigmatic and yet also highly evocative work, Ingeminate essentially served as the prototype for the series of balloon-based sculptures that followed. Untitled (sometimes known as the 'Lenk Balloon' because it was given by Hesse to the German sculptor Thomas Lenk in exchange for one of his works) is made in exactly the same way. Like all the following balloon sculptures Hesse dispensed with the need for a base preferring to suspend these works from either the wall or ceiling using the pull of gravity on these limp forms as if to convey a sense of the burden of existence upon them. Through this 'impossible' combination of opposites, of simple yet deliberately anti-aesthetic form and unusual material these inflated balloons, mummified in papier-maché and bound with cord, are made heavy and then suspended almost forlornly in mid-air where they hang as unique and awkward expressions of some kind of mutated abnormal life-form.
This unique disquieting and awkward quality that Hesse so wonderfully achieves in these works was undoubtedly some form of self-expression. Often, uncomfortable or ill-at-ease in her personal life and believing this position of alienation or outsidership to be the natural disposition of the artist, Hesse seems to have masochistically revelled in pursuing the achievement of a similar sense of awkwardness and out-of-placeness in her work. Ultimately, she felt the purpose of her art was to convey what she believed to be the fundamental absurdity of existence but in a wholly abstract, non-narrative, non-confessional way. 'I would like my work to be non-work,' she once explained, as a 'thing' or an 'object' it should 'accede' only to its own 'non-logical self' and thereby achieve its own 'identity', to be both 'something' and 'nothing', 'non connotive, non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non nothing, everything but of another kind, vision, sort, from a total other reference point.' (Eva Hesse, June 1968, cited in L. Lippard, Eva Hesse, New York 1976, p. 131)
Untitled is as clear and as simple an example of this statement as it is possible to imagine. A formal, material and sculptural self-contradiction, it is a work of absurd poetic beauty seemingly evoking everything and nothing.
'Absurdity is the key word...It has to do with contradictions and oppositions. In the forms I use in my work the contradictions are certainly there...When I work, it's only the abstract qualities I'm working with, which is the material, the form it's going to take, the size, the scale, the positioning, where it comes from - the ceiling or the floor...However, I don't value the totality of the image on these abstract or aesthetic points. For me it's a total image that has to do with me and life. It can't be divorced because I don't believe art can be based on an idea of composition or form. In fact, my idea is to counteract everything I've ever learned or been taught about those things, to find something else, so it is inevitable that it is my life, my feeling, my thoughts...I'm not such a simple person. The content is greatest on that level - the total absurdity of life in that sense... (Eva Hesse cited in C. Nemser, 'An Interview with Eva Hesse', Artforum, 8 May 1970, p. 60)