1968 was a pivotal year in Eva Hesse's brief yet prolific career. In addition to creating important new sculptural works that were the result of tireless experimentations with innovate materials and techniques, she mounted the first and only one-person exhibition of her sculptures held during her lifetime. Chain Polymers, Hesse's show at Fischbach Gallery in New York, was a resounding critical success and cemented her position as one of the most influential sculptors of her generation. It was during this year that she created the present work, a drawing executed in graphite and ink wash on paper, which presents a Minimalist-inspired grid that Hesse has imbued with a unique sense of touch and transience. A highly finished and carefully honed composition, this untitled drawing is part of an important body of work known as the "window" drawings.
At the time that Hesse created the present drawing, the Minimalist movement was at its height. Here, as in many of her most important works, she explored the concept of seriality that lay at the heart of the Minimalist movement, while at the same time resisting its strictures. Working within the structure of the archetypal Minimalist grid, Hesse's drawing echoed the forms of many classic Minimalist works by her friends such as Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt, who found in the structure of repetitive square units a way to resist traditional hierarchical approaches to composition. Yet Hesse emphasized in her layers of ink washes a sense of spatial depth that goes against the grain of Minimalism's emphatic anti-illusionism. She also rejected the pervasive impersonal quality of Minimalism, and eschewed its industrial materials for more organic and often ephemeral ones. Her drawing radiates with a fragile translucency that counters the geometric certainties of hard edges. In this way, it alludes to a sense of transience and flux, which closely relates to her groundbreaking explorations of soft sculptural materials such as latex.
As Hesse expressed in her diaries, she was often keenly aware of the challenges of being a woman in the male-dominated art world of the 1960s. Yet as Hesse's friend Mel Bochner recalled "Eva influenced her male friends as much as they influenced her. LeWitt, Andre, [Robert] Smithson, myselfwere all influenced by her" (quoted in Eva Hesse: Drawing in Space - Bilder und Reliefs, 1994, p. 91-2). Indeed, Hesse would prove to leave one of the most powerful legacies of any artist of her generation.
Hesse's interests in drawing and sculpture were intimately intertwined. In fact, she had been prompted to delve into sculpture after creating her "machine drawings" in 1965. She continued to explore parallel ideas in drawing and sculpture for the rest of her career, using the surface of paper not only to work out her three-dimensional concepts for finished sculptures, but also to create drawings such as the present example that were fully conceived works in their own right. Around the same time that she was working on the present drawing, she produced related works in three-dimensions that were based on the repetitive use of square modular units, as in her series of Sans sculptures. Sculpted in the innovative material of fiberglass and resin, her sculptures such as Sans II appear to be soft and malleable, their repetitive grid at odds with the organic variety between each unit, which seem to push and pull away from one other. The present drawing also expresses a similar procedural quality to Aught, where she created a series of large rectangular forms through a process of pouring latex in successive layers, creating frayed edges that express a sense of transience. Similarly, in the present drawing, layers of ink wash were accumulated upon one another to create organic variation within the structure of the grid.
In 1968 Hesse dramatically changed her approach to works on paper, turning away from her signature motif of circles within a grid to explore the rectilinear grid itself. In her series of "window" drawings, Hesse can be seen as playing with the convention of the picture plane as a window that opens onto the illusionistic space, instead keeping the focus of the work resolutely on the surface, echoing the structure of window panes. Her carefully balanced grid places equal emphasis on positive and negative space, allowing them to remain in a state in dynamic balance. Hesse both pays homage to the clarity of structure in the grid and seems to dissolve it from within, expressing a dialectic relationship between presence and absence, something and nothing. She imbues the seemingly impersonal grid with a sense of living presence, of touch and movement, while remaining firmly abstract.
Hesse's richly experimental approach to art-making would prove to be visionary. As she explained in her artist's statement for her Chain Polymers show in 1968, "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" (E. Sussman, ed., Eva Hesse, New Haven and London, 2002, p. 31).