In her decisive and influential monograph on Eva Hesse that was published in 1976, Lucy Lippard dates the beginning of the artist's mature production to the fall of 1965. The timing coincides neatly with Hesse's return to New York at the end of a fifteen month sojourn in West Germany with her husband Tom Doyle, and her subsequent separation from him. In truth, Hesse's dramatic evolution began a few months earlier, in the spring of that year, in Kettwig-am-Ruhr, where she created fourteen seminal reliefs that germinated the iconography and content that would resonate throughout her future achievements. A Ear in a Pond, completed on April 27, 1965 is the third of these reliefs, and is a work of profound importance in the genealogy of Hesse's oeuvre.
The artist's formal training was in painting, a fact that is hardly surprising given the complex, multi-faceted dialogue between two- and three-dimensionality that pervades her work. After graduating from Yale in 1959 where she studied with Josef Albers, Hesse moved to New York, where she met and married Doyle in 1961. Eight years her senior and already a well established sculptor, he was invited to work in Kettwig by the textile manufacturer and collector F. Arnhard Scheidt in 1964. The couple moved to the Ruhr town in June of that year, taking up residence in an enormous floor in one of Scheidt's factories, where they had access to its raw materials and workmen.
Hesse had struggled with drawing and painting without satisfaction for five years, and finally, prompted by her husband and her own frustration, turned to sculpture in early 1965. Dabbling in collages created by layering cutouts of her own drawings, she next embarked on attaching projecting elements onto panel. Using fiberboard and chipboard that were cut to size in the Scheidt carpentry shop as a backdrop, she built plaster and papier-mâché forms, which she then transformed using cord (specifically spindle thread) and metal parts culled from the factory floors, as well as tempera paints mixed with gouache and enamel. Revealing her budding interest in process, she described her first attempts at sculpture: "In the abandoned factory where we worked there is a lot of junk around. I finally took a screen, heavy mesh which is stretched on frame like so and taken cord which I cut into smaller pieces. I soak them in plaster and knot each piece through a hole and around wire. It is compulsive work which I enjoy." (Lucy Lippard, Eva Hesse, 1976, p. 29). The resulting works were erotic, mechanical constructions fraught with mysterious allusions and suggestive aura.
Despite this productive spurt, tensions between Hesse and her husband were mounting. Her reliefs and drawings of this period often allude to sexual and reproductive organs, so much so that an artist friend referred to them as "birth machines." Hesse conceived of the first of these reliefs, Ringaround Arosie, as a "breast and a penis" in a letter to Sol Lewitt. Although the rosy-nippled circular convex mounds of this piece suggest two breasts in what Lippard called a "sort of doubly female figure," the artist may have come closer to realizing her original vision of male and female oppositions in A Ear in a Pond.
Here, the long, stiff, curved green rod on the left--a clear phallic reference--seems to fertilize, via the raised, green elbowed line, the gradated pink mound of coiled cord on the bottom right--a vague allusion to an egg or ovary. Also resembling an inverted breast (the convex shape becomes progressively concave towards the center) or a vessel, this form "births" a partially wrapped string of fuchsia that recalls an umbilical cord. At once bold, delicate, tender and witty, the contraption evokes both the mechanical device and an organic process. Despite its inherent absurdity, the work is poignant, a fact that is evident in the tremendous sensitivity and meticulous handwork, seen especially in its exquisitely shaded and painstakingly wrapped pink focus.
The dichotomies between machine and nature, male and female and humor and emotion extend in formal terms, between the rigid, vertical and sensuous, circular shapes and the slimy green and soft pink colors. In addition, while restricting most of the work to a contained rectangular framework, Hesse let part of it droop to gravity. Lippard regards A Ear in a Pond of importance because it acts as a "prototype for all the later sculptures from which cords and strings dangle the surface". (ibid, 40). Indeed, mature, iconic works such as Ishtar (1967), Addendum (1967) and Untitled (1970) reveal this specific formal trope.
Of her interest in polarities, Hesse stated, "I remember always working with contradictions and contradictory forms, which is my idea also in life, the whole absurdity of life, everything has always been opposites, nothing has ever been the middle. My life never had anything normal or in the center and it was always extremes". (B. Barrette, Eva Hesse: Sculpture, New York, 1989, p. 11).