In 1967, Walter Brooke famously asked Dustin Hoffman to consider “just one word,” a word that had come to represent, for many of the era, a sleek soullessness: plastics. Whether or not a young, soon-to-be-famous sculptor named Eva Hesse saw The Graduate that year, she would shortly take the advice, but in ways that upended the connotations. Hesse used plastics and rubber—specifically, resin, fiberglass, and latex—to transform the vogue of a cold, corporate-like minimalism into something softer and more approachable. A smartly comprehensive exhibit at the Jewish Museum reveals that Hesse’s sculpture, though physically deteriorating somewhat, still enchants.
Minimalism’s kingpins billed their movement as a thoughtful rebuke to overt expression, but the work often seemed manufactured—perfect forms that elicited little more from the viewer than they gave. White paintings received blank stares. Though strongly influenced by these artists (Sol LeWitt was a good friend), Hesse sort of rebuked the rebuke, introducing chance, defect, and variation—and thereby delightful flora and fauna elements—into geometry and repetition. This approach clearly emerges in her Accession V, an open steel cube, typical of Donald Judd, that sprouts anemone-like filaments of rubber tubing. Compare, too, Judd’s well-known stacks of metal boxes to Hesse’s Sans II from 1968, a horizontal unit of amber fiberglass drawers, each one slightly deformed. Differences in color, texture, and shape—which Hesse achieved by changing the molds—create a skin-like surface that appears to undulate, an inviting sense of life that minimalism’s rigid forms simply refuse to possess. That sense exists, too, in Hesse’s collections: misshapen buckets, hanging spiky objects, five-foot tubes—all of them simple and creaturish, like families of enlarged protozoa.
In trying to explain Hesse’s art, critics often stress her traumas—escape from the Nazis on kindertransport as a child, her mother’s suicide, the brain cancer that would kill her at age 34—but what comes across in the exhibit is her joie de vivre. Hesse truly embodied that free-spirit quality we associate with the ’60s. In one of her last works, rope and string covered in latex create a giant cat’s cradle, but one that has gone ecstatically wrong. It’s minimalism that embraces the mess of living.
Like Hesse, Gustav Klimt appropriated contemporary approaches and techniques, and made the results distinctly his own. In five stunning paintings at the Neue Galerie (finally returned from Nazi theft to the rightful owners), Klimt seems like an impresario of the canvas, who gathered the styles of Monet, Mucha, Cézanne, Matisse, and even a photographer to use as he pleased. Two worshipful portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer (possibly Klimt’s lover) dominate. In the better-known, Klimt enshrines her as a queen; the painting is a dreamy mix of expressionist urges, China-doll fragility, and golden Art Nouveau decoration full of mystical symbols (some, like Hirschfeld’s disguises for Nina, contain the sitter’s initials). In the other, she resembles a tall vase standing against panels of fauvist colors that could have been sketched by Matisse. Known for his eroticism, Klimt frequently touched on death too: Adele’s skin glows with a bluish pallor.
Three landscapes painted near a favorite vacation spot attest to Klimt’s love of nature. Abruptly cropped like snapshots, the scenes thrust outward, as if Klimt couldn’t get enough of what he saw. The gorgeous Birch Forest, with its bright cloisonné trees disappearing into darker reaches, creates that mix of foreboding and freedom common to the solitary hiker, two emotions emphasized by the floor of orange autumn leaves and the summer green above.
Their lives were tragically short, but both Klimt and Hesse left us vital, inspiring art. You can easily take in these two exhibits on a single day (they’re within walking distance of each other); gorge on the maximalist, get some exercise, and then diet on the minimalist. It’s a healthy day of art.