“I would like my work to be non-work. This means that it would find its way beyond my preconceptions. It is my concern to go beyond what I know and what I can know. The formal principles are understandable and understood. It is the unknown quantity from which and where I want to go. It is something, it is nothing.”
Eva Hesse’s radical, provocative, and in the end, untamable works mark a nodal point in the expansion of definitions of art since her tragic death from a brain tumor in 1970. Her daring, visionary art opened on to a revolt against High Modernism while ushering in a vastly enlarged view as well as a deeper understanding of what art could and must be. Interpretations range from formalist to psychoanalytic, from material meaning to the sly undermining of perceived chauvinism in a male-dominated art world at mid-twentieth century. Straddling minimalism and post-minimalism practices, Hesse early on worked in simplified forms, paraphrasing works from the past and present. The present work is one such example, at once resonant with the 1950s targets of Jasper Johns, the early 1960s concentric circles of Kenneth Noland, and the rotary works of Marcel Duchamp. In their reduced geometries, Hesse’s concentric circles further suggest the simplified forms being made, for example, by her friend the artist Sol LeWitt and other minimal—as well as conceptual—artists. The irrationality of serial repetition, too, was put to use by Hesse, not only in her repeated forms, but also here in the present work, where the act of circling and encircling— seemingly without end—captures some of the same impulses that catalyzed minimal production.
What distinguishes a work like this is its demonstration of a specific mandate within Hesse own production: its radical malleability, its conception as both a drawing and work of sculpture, the ease and flexibility it seems to suggest of the flow between media. There is no “sketch to realization” matrix as one thinks of between Hesse’s drawing and other works that also feature in this immense, spiraling force. This work is important too, for its example of Hesse’s artistic method, in which one medium flows into another, almost along a continuum of processes, in this case, where a work molded in papiermâché, could be realized in rope, for example in a bas-relief from 1966, and is realized here in graphite and ink wash. To appreciate this organic relationship among Hesse’s work is to understand the value of an artist whose production involved the splitting off an idea into expressions of materials, of media as much as motif. Untitled is a variation on a theme, one that is central to Hesse’s oeuvre, realized through a variety of media. Mignon Nixon calls this “a chain reaction of physical processes” of which Untitled becomes a signal example (M. Nixon, “Ringaround Arosie: 2 in 1,” in Eva Hesse, ed. M. Nixon, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 2002, p. 209). In terms of the brief span of her production, the spiral works from the mid-1960s could be said to have been achieved simultaneity across media. For example, Hesse’s celebrated relief sculpture Ringaround Arosie, 1965, consists of two stacked unequal spirals, the larger centered by a protruding nipple, the latter by the head of a penis, both modeled in papier-mâché. In a mirroring of media and form, these objects are created by wrapping cord around wire, obsessively, and then wrapping those again into a spiral form. The bas-relief of 1965 in a sense engenders the work on paper, Untitled of 1967, and the many iterations of this motif in between. Further,Ringaround Arosie finds its source in Marcel Duchamp’s1925 Rotary Demispheres (Precision Optics), which in its spinning spiral alternately recedes and projects, creating a throbbing motion. Further, Duchamp’s rotary machine circulates the pun on Duchamp’s alternate name, “RRose Selavy,” endlessly repeating “Rose Selavy et Moi,” (“Eros, c’est la vie”), much as Hesse’s spiral, Ringaround Arosie, echoes both Duchamp’s effect and name. This rhythmic alternation can be experienced, too, in Untitled, as a sense of oscillation is created between the whitish grey circles the mirroring ink wash.
This work presents a trans-valuation of sorts: through a single motif, the properties of one element appear in another. A straight line moves into circularity, a cordwrapped wire becomes graphite, and a three-dimensional relief flattens into a planar wash. While pencil marks are distinct from the allover ink wash within the framing edges, those edges do not contain the whole of the expected image. Cut off at each side, this work bursts the seams of its confinement both literally and metaphorically. In this way, Hesse’s concerns about the relationship of image to frame merge into the notion of limits and supersession. It is a rare work, which operates between media while expressing the ongoing concerns of a singular artistic vision. Having returned from Germany to New York in fall of 1965, Hesse took up the minimalist preoccupation with serial repetition, but like the artist Agnes Martin, did so in a way that foreground the handmade. One can see this in works where circles are meticulously drawn within grids or the series of ink-washed concentric circles on gridded formats from 1966 and 1967. It’s as if Hesse’s preoccupation with rotation merges with Martin’s handruled grids washed in watercolor.
What Kathryn A. Tuma identifies as the “principle, or logic, of rotation” opens onto the singular surface where the suggestion of the eroticized breast, the crafted circularity of the spiral, and the rotational impulse inhering in the artist come together. For Hesse the fluency of the drawn line was liberating, being an act where physical drives and impulses are elaborated, yet “[not] connected to an object… One [did not] complete the other” (K. A. Tuma, “Eva Hesse’s Turn: Rotations Around the circle Drawings,” in Eva Hesse Drawing, ed. C. de Zegher, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, p. 226). At the end of her life, in an interview with Cindy Nemser, Hesse described the notion of transvaluing that a work like this represents: “Where does drawing end and painting begin? I don’t know if my own drawings aren’t really paintings except smaller and on paper. The drawings could be called painting legitimately, and a lot of my sculpture could be called painting... And a lot of my work could be called nothing or an object or any new word you want to call it” (E. Hesse, in conversation with C. Nemser, in Eva Hesse, op. cit., p. 23).