Eva Hesse: review of the documentary

While travelling recently, I had a chance to attend a screening of the documentary film Eva Hesse, directed by Marcie Begleiter.  The film draws from the large collection of diary entries and letters written by Hesse, now housed at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio, and makes generous use of archival photographs and footage of Hesse and her circle of New York City artists and writers during the 1960s.  Featured in this film are Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), with whom Hesse maintained a close friendship, Robert Mangold and Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Paul Thek, Lucy Lippard, her former husband, Tom Doyle, and her older sister, Helen Hesse Charash, among others.   The actress Selma Blair is the voice-over for the selected passages from the diaries and letters.  Most of the still photography is black-and-white, and a few of the photographs are manipulated very subtly so that they appear to be slightly moving, creating a haunting effect.  Hesse’s artwork presented in the film is beautiful, poignant, and profoundly personal.

The primary focus of the film is on Hesse’s life and work in the decade of the 1960s, a period of artistic awakening that coincided with a growing burden to come to terms with her tragic family history.  Her work of that time explored new expressive possibilities with materials in sculpture and painting, at times completely synthesizing them.   In an era known for the vigorous and masculine cult figures that dominated the art scene in New York City, Hesse was daring with her use of rope, plastics, polymers, and silicone, which she used to create mysterious, erotic, emotional constructions.  Even as she was rapidly approaching stardom in the art world, her written words reveal insecurities and painful childhood memories that still haunted her into her early thirties.  Her work is a way of coming to terms with her tragic past.

The film does admirable justice to her early life and her death at age thirty-four of brain cancer without delving too deeply into this private territory.  Hesse was born into a Jewish family in Hamburg just as the war and Nazism was closing in on their family.  Her parents managed to escape with their two daughters, and they settled in New York.  Her mother committed suicide in 1946, when Eva was 10 years old, and Eva was raised by her kind, but traumatized father with whom she had a very close relationship.  The film covers a sojourn in 1964 that Hesse made to Germany with her husband, the sculptor, Tom Doyle, and includes interviews with members of a family in Germany who sponsored the residency for Mr. Doyle.  Following their return to New York, the couple divorced and Hesse’s father died.  For the next six years of her life she pushed her artwork towards an even greater emotionalism and sensuality.  Today, six decades later, the work of Eva Hesse continues to exert a powerful emotionalism and immediacy.

The documentary film Eva Hesse is playing in theaters around the country.  The complete collection of letters and journal entries has just been published by Yale University Press, with the title Diaries.

Further reading

Corby, Vanessa. Eva Hesse : longing, belonging and displacement. London : I. B. Tauris, 2010.

Fer, Briony. Eva Hesse : studiowork. Edinburgh : Fruitmarket Gallery ; New Haven : Distributed by Yale University Press, c2009.

Hesse, Eva. Circles and grids. New York, NY : The Drawing Center, ©2006.

Hesse, Eva. Eva Hesse : catalogue raisonné. New Haven, Conn. ; London : Yale University Press, 2006.

Pollock, Griselda. Encountering Eva Hesse. Munich ; New York : Prestel, c2006.

Rosen, Barry. Eva Hesse 1965. London : Hauser & Wirth, [2013] ; New Haven ; London : Yale University Press.

Zegher, M. Catherine de. Eva Hesse drawing. New York : The Drawing Center ; New Haven : Yale University Press, 2006.

Thank you to Jolene de Verges, Director, Hamon Arts Library, for this contribution. 

Featured image by Jolene de Verges.

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