Like visiting an aging parent after years away, going to an Eva Hesse show puts mortality on the mind. The materials of her late career—latex, fiberglass, rubber—decompose, becoming more brittle each time we see them. Her forms themselves evoke bodies. Ringaround Arosie (1965), a Masonite relief mounded with electrical wire and cloth, resembles a large areola. Dangling in nets, the polyethylene spheres of Untitled or Not Yet (1966) suggest the gonads of an unknown species. In artificial chemical compounds, Hesse found a volatile, pangender, even posthuman fleshiness, marking a distinct territory in the crowded field of 1960s artists. Then, only months after 1970 rolled around, at just 34 and the height of her vision, she died of a brain tumor—a result, many have speculated, of her working with molten plastics and styrenes.
Thanks to her pieces’ short lifespans, each show of Hesse’s late work feels like a fleeting opportunity. We must visit Venice before it sinks into the sea! Held by museum collections far and wide, these sculptures, which she made after transitioning from abstract painting, in 1965, are rarely displayed. Some, such as Sans III (1969), an L-shaped chain of small boxes, have grown frangible and brown to the point of unrecognizability. Most pose curational dilemmas: Would Hesse, who likened her practice to a glass that sails through the air and shatters in a fireplace, show this work, had she survived? The questions are not only obstacles to museums and viewers but creative provocations that draw her gorgeous objects into conceptual realms. And perhaps none of her constructions has aged with the vexing force of Expanded Expansion (1969), among her last completed large sculptures and the centerpiece of a Guggenheim exhibition of the same name.
Measuring 30 feet long in its current installation, and propped up by 10-foot fiberglass poles, the work defies categorization. Though its 13 panels are almost painterly, Expanded Expansion nonetheless resembles a sculpture. Yet it can’t stand on its own, and must be leaned against a wall. While the draping, rubberized cheesecloth of its panels might have recalled the softness of textiles when Expanded Expansion premiered at the Whitney, in 1969, decay has rendered the material hard, a sock starched as it dries from the rain. Consequently, no one has shown the piece in 34 years.
Hesse originally conceived of Expanded Expansion as stretchable, capable of spanning areas of differing size. The stiffness of age stymied this possibility. She planned to add more panels, but the idea was scrapped when she passed away. Since then the piece’s color has darkened, from a shimmering off-white to a putrescent, uneven amber, like a fossil encasing a prehistoric insect. It looks large up close, yet from a distance somehow diminutive against the cavernous confines of the Guggenheim’s tucked-away Lefrak Gallery: art that endures in its power but just can’t fill a space like it once could.
Spread across the show’s front room are small works made of similar material, which only add to the sense that Hesse’s late oeuvre amounts to a natural history museum of the unnatural. Rounded half-cylinders are the size and shape of ossified sea urchins. Bands of latex, open at both ends, resemble scraps of leather armor from an ancient civilization. During her life, Hesse was grouped with minimalists like Donald Judd and Carl Andre, but the Guggenheim show suggests that posterity should compare her to fabricators of the faux-organic and anthropological—such as Paul Thek, who built dissected animals as well as the limbs of Roman soldiers from wax and other materials, and Duane Hanson, another fan of fiberglass, who used it to sculpt hyperrealistic statues of Middle Americans caught in a freeze frame of physical rise and fall. That Hanson, too, was purportedly poisoned by his dauntless use of dangerous compounds adds higher stakes to these artists’ commentaries on entropy.
We’re only living if we’re in the process of dying.
Some of the smaller pieces are displayed in a bakery’s pastry cases. The idea was her friend Sol LeWitt’s, who arranged her toxic confections in a cabinet he bought on Canal Street. The inclusion makes welcome reference to both New York and secular Judaism—Hesse’s family fled Hamburg, Germany, for the Jewish haven of Washington Heights in 1939, and she lived in Manhattan for nearly her entire life. Bakeries and delis, ransacked by Nazis in the old country, became signs of a thriving immigrant community in the new one.
The trauma of Hesse’s upbringing is an important route into her remarkable art, but one as well-trodden as her death. The Guggenheim show does something far more interesting by centering the conversation on conservation. In a small adjoining room, a brief film discusses the decision to show Expanded Expansion and the “minimal intervention” necessary to restore it. Conservators added strips to its back in order to repair rips in the cheesecloth and built an apparatus to raise the piece before its sections were reassembled. Unlike many documentaries in art shows—so often fawning, jargony, or simplistic—this one doesn’t condescend to its audience. Renowned curator (but not of this show) Elisabeth Sussman and sculptor Maren Hassinger disagree about the nature of Hesse’s work in its present state: Are her sculptures as vital as ever? Or have they become, in their rigidity, monuments? In one fascinating segment, the Guggenheim’s restorers partner with Doug Johns, Hesse’s personal fiberglass manufacturer, while he recreates a single panel from scratch in order to understand the work’s appearance half a century ago. (As the movie reminds us, photos from that time have faded, too.) In the same room are touchable samples of rubberized cheesecloth in various states of deterioration, fulfilling museumgoers’ appetite for tactility. These pieces also convey the inevitable: The oldest sample, and the only one protected by glass, is in shards.
For now, Expanded Expansion is alive. Unlike, say, Ancient Greek sculptures, which maintain six-pack abs and chiseled pecs while the marble fractures and fades, Hesse’s work ages like flesh does. It makes a singular point: We’re only living if we’re in the process of dying. Will I outlast Expanded Expansion? Will you? Will the generations before us, or after us? Will the knowledge of how this work was made? Keeper of the flame for Hesse’s craft after her demise, Johns passed on earlier this year, an enormous loss. Such technical expertise, from another cultural era, a bygone New York, can’t be replicated. But in Hesse’s art, this inescapable destruction becomes a creative process, a mortality marching along in slow lockstep with our own. ❖
Daniel Felsenthal is a regular contributor to the Voice, writes frequent criticism for Pitchfork, and publishes fiction, essays, and poems in other publications. In 2019, his novella Sex With Andre appeared in The Puritan.
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