by Priya Banerjee
[originally published March 11, 2022]
On February 22nd, The Allen Memorial Art Museum opened Forms Larger and Bolder: Eva Hesse Drawings in the Stern Gallery, the traveling exhibition’s final destination after being installed at Museum Wiesbaden in Vienna and Hauser & Wirth New York. An accompanying 400 page volume of Hesse’s works on paper, entitled EVA HESSE OBERLIN, was published by Hauser & Wirth in March of 2019. The Allen is home to the Eva Hesse archives including 300 works of art in addition to over 1200 personal objects, letters, journals, and documents once belonging to the late-artist. The collection was donated to the college by Eva’s sister Helen Hesse Charash. Ellen Johnson, art-world superstar and professor of contemporary art from 1945 to 1977, had a keen interest in her work and in 1967 invited Hesse to Oberlin as a visiting artist. Hesse so impressed Johnson during her two day visit that an exhibition of her works on paper was installed along the halls of the art department. Shortly thereafter, Hesse’s 1966 sculpture Laocoön was acquired by the museum. It was Johnson’s early support of the artist that compelled Helen to choose Oberlin as the site where Eva’s memory and legacy would be preserved.
Forms Larger and Bolder presents Hesse’s life and work chronologically beginning with her student work completed at Cooper Union, and culminating in the sculptures done at the pinnacle of her career just years before her untimely death. Her early drawings of gouache and ink reveal the beginnings of shapes and forms that she would become central later in her career. The second section of the exhibit turns to the brief period of the artist’s life in Germany, her once homeland that she fled during Nazi occupation. The work that came out of this period marks a turning point in her practice as she shifted from two-dimensional to three-dimensional. Her ‘machine drawings’ of amorphous pipes and parts evidently reveal her increasing fascination with form and space. Evolving from these machine drawings came a merging of sculpture and painting with her two-dimensional lines morphing into mounds of rope extending from the flat plane in such pieces as Ringaround a Rosie and An ear in a pond.
She returned to New York in 1965 intent on sculpture. This period is the focus of the final segment of the exhibition. The walls of the gallery are not filled with drawings and paintings, but instead pages removed from her sketchbook detailing plans for future sculptures. Small sketches of rudimentary forms are hung next to photographs of the completed sculptures they were based on. Her scribbled handwriting crowds the pages alongside calculations and lists of potential titles. The Laocoön is the only sculpture present in the entire exhibition. The sketches and notes present alongside the sculpture offer an insight into the artist’s mind. The Hesse archives at Oberlin allow for the artist's work to be understood in a way that relates directly to her life, a rare addition to an artist’s oeuvre of work. Her work is transformed in the context of her notebooks; it becomes hyper-personal in proximity to her most intimate documentations of her process. Walking through the exhibit feels almost like an intrusion on her private thoughts, with postcards from friends and photographs of the artist further supplementing the materials hanging on the walls. We become acutely aware of Eva’s physical presence with the imprints of her fingers on the Laocoön and the chicken-scratched to-do list torn from her sketchbook. Under a glass case is a framed five dollar bill that Eva had labeled as the first sum of money she earned from selling her work.
This exhibit makes clear the tightly wound relationship between Hesse’s personal life and work. In a 1970 interview with art critique CIndy Nemser just months before her death, Eva spoke repeatedly on the absurdity of life as the impetus driving her work. Her artist statement for a 1968 exhibition is a telling message: “I would like the work to be non-work. This means that it would find its ways beyond my preconception. What I want of my art I can eventually find. The work must go beyond this. It is my main 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. As a thing, an object, it accedes to its non-logical self. In its simplistic stand it achieves its own identity. It is something, it is nothing.” The Allen’s Forms Larger and Bolder offers the viewer an uncharacteristic window into Hesse’s oeuvre that aligns with the artists own prioritization of the personal and the self present in her work.