Present Tense review

Isla Leaver-Yap assesses the work of Eva Hesse, finding a sophisticated legacy with fresh resonance
In 1968, during the height of a New York summer, Eva Hesse begins making ‘Repetition Nineteen III’ in fibreglass and polyester resin. Robert Morris introduces her to Aegis, a fibreglass fabrication company. After Aegis’ prototypes prove unsatisfactory – Hesse complains that first attempts are too similar, too perfectly formed – she requests further models based on papier maché moulds made in her studio. Resembling translucent, saggy bottomless buckets, these 19 unique objects are arranged on her studio floor by Hesse, placed in no particular order. ‘Repetition Nineteen III’ is later reconfigured in a group show in Flint, Michigan. Hesse writes a note for the work: ‘It could be moved and changed. There is not one preferred format.’

The late 1960s was marked by violent political turmoil and huge cultural upheaval – it was also a period in which an early form of global consciousness could be said to take hold. And yet the work made by Hesse in this time is conspicuously self-reflexive, focusing intently upon the personal space of the studio. For Hesse, the studio was a crucial site not only for the construction of ideas and objects, but also as an early testing site for the integrity of display.

Works such as ‘Repetition Nineteen III’ and ‘Untitled (Rope Piece)’, 1970, reveal the significance of the studio as a bridge between creating objects and deliberating on them – the latter being an exclusive characteristic the of the gallery. ‘Untitled (Rope Piece)’ is renowned for being displayed in museums according to documentation of its studio hang. ‘Repetition…’ meanwhile carries a similar sense of incompletion through Hesse’s notes, posing the persistent question of openended display. This unresolved configuration proposes a sense of contingency: making and thinking are simultaneous processes, and both are an equal and ongoing endeavour. Studio work spills into viewing work.
Other works reveal glimpses of the studio sometimes simply by title. ‘Not Yet’, 1966, is a notable and witty example of such latency, where the artist’s working muddies the polished finality of the object’s exhibition. This work can be seen in a compelling photograph of the artist’s studio circa 1966/67, which shows this and other objects informally grouped and tentatively hung, hinting at the porosity between studio and display. Meanwhile, ‘Douglas Glass Case’, 1968, shows Hesse’s attempt to formalise these display experiments by placing small test pieces in shelving which doubled as vitrine display and storage space. As Hesse’s friend and artist Mel Bochner noted, there was ‘a smell of the studio in her work’. Conversely, then, perhaps there was also a sense of exhibition in her studio.

The ‘leaky’ elements in Hesse’s later work complicate the perceived boundaries of the art object, and erode the idea of its autonomy. Further, it comes across as a mischievous contrariness to the purist context of minimalism. Hesse was unfashionably disinterested in quoting or extending the work produced by her predominantly male peers such as John McCracken, Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt, whose fabricated sense of ‘finish’ in their individual works often erased any indication of the artist’s studio altogether. And although Bruce Nauman was simultaneously articulating the crossover between studio and gallery through direct and often witty invocations, Hesse’s work not only reflected the site of the studio but also externalised and bridged elements between studio and exhibition in a nuanced and propositional manner. She stated, ‘what’s important to me [is] finding a quantity for myself and whatever problem I might get with it. I might find something else, answer some question, or find some form of thought.’

Hesse’s expansion of the studio context and rejection of the impervious art object not only account for the insistent vitality of the work then and now, but also provide a crucial insight into reflecting on the notions of the art object within contemporary practices by younger artists today. Furthermore, it is interesting to trace how Hesse’s conception of studio/gallery has been absorbed into a wider notion of exhibiting practice rather than simply exhibiting discrete objects – a distinctly contemporary way of understanding the finitude of exhibition, and a liberating method to appreciating the contingency of the working process.

Aspects of Hesse’s approach have been taken up by a huge range of artists, too numerous and varied to begin compiling here. One needs only to begin with names as varied as Gabriel Orozco, Polly Apfelbaum and Mira Schendel, to achieve a sense of Hesse’s dispersed legacy among well-established artists. Her strategies have also been ambitiously and thoughtfully redefined by a younger generation of artists, attempting to establish their own vernacular. Interestingly, recent aspects of contemporary practice – including that of emerging practice – are perhaps most visibly positioned at the intersection between studio and gallery. At this level, work created and exhibited is often less interested in coming to a clear resolution within autonomous objects or images, and more engaged in developing a grammar that is porous to interrogation and expansion for future use. Additionally, artists’ historical research is often integral to this type of practice; while, formally, materials are treated with a similar sense of experimentation as the ideas that they support.

These types of formal similarities are perhaps most clear in the work of artists such as Karla Black and Saskia Olde Wolbers, for whom materiality is a conduit through which personal landscapes might be constructed, and the fabricated elements are always subject to the intervention of an intuitive working process. But there are also implicit or underlying conceptual strategies employed by Hesse which can be glimpsed in contemporary practices: either indirectly, through the dispersed approaches evident in Hesse’s studio/exhibition conflation; historically, through adapting strategies reflectively; or directly, by engaging with specific work at hand. A tiny handful of such practices and the works produced by them are described below:

Nina Canell
The intimate and lyrical work of Nina Canell, and work produced as part of her collaboration with Robin Watkins, hints at the specificity of the experimental and personal systems of object-making. Obsolete machinery, electrical cables and organic matter are fused together, forming installations of prosthetic structures, which self-consciously deliberate upon their hybrid formats. Motifs, traced within the practice rather than evidenced in a single exhibition, take on symbolic resonance with each utterance, and suggest a certain restlessness or reflexivity. The experimental exhibition environment recasts objects as ciphers of dispersed and often surreal thought processes.

‘Shedding Skin (Perpetual Current for Twenty-Four Buckets)’, 2008, is a complex installation comprising of water, buckets, steel, and various mist and sound machines. These components, inevitably textural, emit a sensual eroticism. But these units don’t form an autonomous bachelor machine. Rather, their contingency creates an unlikely communality of objects, while their mass of cables possess a kind of sexual wittiness akin to Hesse’s ‘Ingeminate’, 1965. Meanwhile, Canell’s hanging neon works such as ‘Winter Work’, 2009, employ a deadpan humour and give a sly nod towards a personalised and deflated minimalism. An inevitable anthrpomorphism seeps out.

Both in Canell’s individual practice and in Canell and Watkins’ collaboration, the consideration of exhibition is conceived as that of a transformative testing ground. This fluid space – where process is ongoing for both artist and viewer – undermines the ‘end game’ of exhibition, while simultaneously forging its own intuitive and synaesthetic vocabulary.

Kate Davis
Kate Davis’ work addresses a kind of stripped-down physicality created against the backdrop of the artist’s self-relexive agency. She transforms any similitude with previous conceptual structures by refracting them through a prism of cultural histories and recreating them within an unresolved present. Her densely layered yet visually sparse installation ‘I Want to Function in the Present Time’, 2006, is a compelling example of such interrogations, and specifically cites Hesse’s friend, Carl Andre. The title, meanwhile, is taken from a quote by Käthe Kollwitz.

‘I Want to Function in the Present Time’ oscillates between a post-minimalist formalism and Davis’ uncertain role in such a scenario. The style of Kollwitz’s drawings is deployed in Davis’ self-portraits, while a series of Andre-inspired bricks and tiles have been reconstructed and reappropriated. These latter objects adopt an uncannily similar process to Hesse’s ‘Repetition Nineteen III’. Refuting Andre’s industrial qualities and obsessive search for perfect geometry, Davis’ reinterpretation of Andre’s tiles is instead made from folded paper positives cast in aluminium.

Frayed and delicate, these brittle squares house an hyper-conscious preoccupation upon the artist’s subjectivity – a subjectivity that dreams of its future potential. These objects refuse to sit easily within the concept of appropriation: the tiles don’t simply quote Andre’s materiality, but seek to combine Andre’s work with other material processes that seem to run counter to the former, and thus reveals the transformative potential of Davis’ agency and intervention.

Davis’ practice repeatedly explores such temporal incommensurability, but also develops work through which radical strategies might be cast anew. This is not a merely utopian approach, but a reflective method that is both encumbered and configured by the past.

Sarah Pierce: The Metropolitan Complex
In 2006, Sarah Pierce – who operates under the name ‘The Metropolitan Complex’ – created ‘The Meaning of Greatness’, an ambitious project comprising of autobiographical elements, set against a reconstruction of Hesse’s ‘Untitled (Rope Piece)’. Pierce wrote an accompanying text on the work, which stated ‘I remade Rope Piece, using the artist’s notes, which describe two or three people working together, allowing it to “determine more of the way it completes itself.” ’

‘The Meaning of Greatness’ work refutes the reified aspects of museological conservation display, where the increasing fragility and discoloration of Hesse’s work has been dubiously twinned with the mortality of the artist. Pierce proposes instead a robust ongoing work that breaks down distinctions between the finality of exhibition display. Both the reconstruction of the work, and the viewer’s conception of the work as representation engages in the constant making of this piece, thus recasting exhibition a strategic and active site of reconfiguration.

The Metropolitan Complex is a title that hints at the highly dispersed methodology that Pierce employs. Negotiating a variety of organisational formats, including archives, workshops, exhibitions and papers, The Metropolitan Complex is a sophisticated practice that underscores the support structures of cultural life, and the need for an Arendtian vita activa within visual culture and beyond.

[published in MAP magazine, issue/year?]

Eva Hesse: Studiowork, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh,
5 August–25 October 2009