Eva Hesse’s early works on paper evoke the same elusive tactility that informs her most accomplished work in sculpture. Her command of line is at once tangled and sinuous, her compositions treacherous and tense, and her drawings are fraught with implications of the body and interiority, and emotional complexity.
In 1959, after completing her studies at Cooper Union and Yale, Hesse settled in New York City, where she forged close friendships with the young practitioners of a burgeoning new art movement: among them Donald Judd, Brian O’ Doherty, Sol LeWitt, Ruth Vollmer, Claes and Patty Oldenburg, Carl Andre and many others. Hesse’s work from this rich period of exploration between 1960 and 1965 is threaded with a curious anxiety. There is an almost painful sense of moving toward the sublime, a sense of the unknowable being excavated. As the artist stated, “All I wanted was to find my own scene, my own world. Inner peace or inner turmoil, but I wanted it to be mine" (E. Hesse quoted in B. Barrette, Eva Hesse: Sculpture Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1989, p. 42).
Untitled, 1960-61, is an exquisite work full of delicate but raw energy. “’The drawings then were incredibly related to what I’m doing now,’ Eva Hesse remarked in a 1970 interview with Cindy Nemser reflecting on a body of work—small intense pieces in ink and gouache using a restricted palette of blacks, umbers, and grays—selected for the exhibition Three Young Americans at the John Heller Gallery in the spring of 1961, when Hesse was fresh out of Yale… so many of these drawings Hesse produced around this time… express an elemental collision between light and dark that seems to inaugurate the coming-into-existence of Hesse’s art” (M. Nixon, Eva Hesse Drawings, exh. cat., The Drawing Center, 2006, p. 16).
The second Untitled, 1965, from a series of so called “mechanical drawings were produced in Germany and casually exhibited in that year as a group of works on the wall of her host and patron, Arnhart Scheidt. “Lucy Lippard called those early drawings ‘the most beautiful in Hesse’s oeuvre,’ even making the claim that ‘in retrospect it seems that, had the circumstances been different, they might have led her directly into the mature sculpture which they so often resemble,’ the so-called process art that Hesse exhibited in her solo show at Fischbach Gallery in 1968” (ibid.)
The artist described these drawings proudly in a letter to Sol LeWitt “Drawings—clean and clear—but crazy like machine forms and larger and bolder, and articulately described so it is weird they become real nonsense” (ibid.). The extreme simplification of these new drawings, reduced to a pure linearity and to a monochrome (or at most bichrome) color scale, indicate that Hesse had finally understood that the diagrammatic would have to become central to her drawings.
In these critical works, she used ink and gouache exclusively, sometimes applied with the blunt end of a paint brush to produce distinctive lines. The year 1965, then, demarcates the last phase of Hesse activities as an eclectic apprentice devoted to weaving and unraveling the various strands of Modernist drawing. Coming to the end of her sojourn in Germany, she rapidly completed a series of totally astonishing reliefs that seem to have emerged directly from the drawings of mechano-biomorphc hybrids (ibid.). These works were shown in 1965 at the Kunsthalle Dusseldorf in her first museum exhibition Eve Hesse Material Bilder und Zeichnunger.
In the mere five years that followed 1965, leading to the artist’s untimely death at the age of thirty-four, Hesse solidified her legacy as one of the most significant innovators of American Post-War art. She drastically changed the course of sculpture through her unorthodox use of materials and exhaustive interest in their physical manipulation. Her perplexing, irrational, strangely beautiful creations are testaments to her idiosyncratic genius.