1936: A Bold, Witty Sculptress Dies Terribly Young

Saved from the Nazis, before dying at the mere age of 34, Eva Hesse sculpted for only five years - which sufficed to make her one of the greats.

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Eva Hesse in her studio, in 1965.
Eva Hesse in her studio, in 1965.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

January 11, 1936, is the birthdate of artist Eva Hesse, whose life was punctuated with one dramatic and tragic event after another, culminating in her premature death at age 34. Yet she left behind a legacy of sculptures that were bold, witty, and even whimsical, and that challenged the sharp-edged geometrical strictures of the then-reigning school of Minimalism.

Hesse only began working in sculpture during the last five years of her life. But so passionate and intense was her spirit during that period that her creations are still exhibited, studied and praised for their originality.  A documentary of her life premiered last year in New York, and will be released in U.S. theaters this spring.  

Eva Hesse was born in Hamburg, Germany. She was the younger of two daughters of Wilhelm Hesse, a lawyer who, three years earlier, was denied the right to practice his profession by the Nazi regime, and the former Ruth Marcus, who had studied art.

Shortly after Kristallnacht, in November 1938, Wilhelm and Ruth arranged for their daughters, then two and five, to escape via the Dutch Kindertransport program to the Netherlands. The following year, after their parents had departed Germany, the entire family emigrated to the United States, settling in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan.

‘To see, to observe, to investigate’

Ruth Hesse suffered from depression, and in 1946, a year after she and Wilhelm divorced, and soon after he remarried, she killed herself. It was just days before Eva’s 10th birthday.

Considering all of these early traumas, Eva is said to have grown up as a popular and ambitious child. At the age of 18, while serving as an intern at Seventeen magazine, she was featured in an article, in which she described, in clear and considered language, what it meant to her to be an artist: “to see, to observe, to investigate. It means trying to understand and portray people, their emotions, their strengths and faults. I paint what I see and feel to express life in all its reality and movement."

Addendum by Eva Hesse, Tate LiverpoolCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Following graduation from New York’s High School of Industrial Art, Hesse studied briefly at the Pratt Institute of Design and then at the Cooper Union. During her studies, she work as a textile designer and selling jewelry, but after receiving a certificate of design, in 1957, she went into a master’s of fine arts program at Yale University.  

After graduation, Hesse, now set on a career as a painter, returned to New York. Working in ink and gouache, she quickly began to see her work exhibited, at, for example, the Brooklyn Museum and the John Heller Gallery.

In April 1961, she met Tom Doyle, a sculptor, and they were married six months later.

In 1965, Doyle received funding to spend a year in Germany. Despite her misgivings about being in the country of her birth, Hesse accompanied him, and at Doyle’s suggestion, she began working with found materials from the abandoned textile mill where they lived and worked, outside Dusseldorf.

'Non, nothing, everything'

By the end of 1965, which was also the end of their German sojourn (she and Doyle divorced soon after their return to the U.S.), Hesse had a selection of sculptures and paintings displayed at the Kunsthalle Dusseldorf.

All of Hesse’s sculpture was created over the next five years, a highly fertile period. In an artist’s statement from 1968, she explained that her goal was not so much to make art, but rather “to get to nonart, nonconnotive, nonanthropomorphic, nongeometric, non, nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort, from a total other reference point.”

She worked in materials that hadn’t been employed in the fine arts before: latex, fiberglass, plastics. Apparently, she understood that these materials would deteriorate with time, but wrote that, “Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last.”

Eva Hesse works

And indeed, Hesse was diagnosed with a brain tumor in early 1969, just a few months after having her first solo show, at the Fischbach Gallery in New York. Over the next year, she would undergo surgery three times. But she also continued working, exhibiting and also teaching, at the School of Visual Arts.

Eva Hesse died on May 29, 1970, at age 34.