Eva Hesse: Abstract Expressionist Painter

Earlier this month we marked the anniversary of the birth of Eva Hesse (January 11, 1936 – May 29, 1970). One of the great artists of the 1960s, Hesse’s major sculptural works stand out as singular achievements of that era. At once drawing on Minimalist strategies of repetition and seriality, and pushing nontraditional materials toward new modes of expression, Hesse created an art that evoked emotion, absence, and contingency. Here at The Jewish Museum, Hesse’s sculpture has been included in three group exhibitions in the late 1960s, and was the subject of a solo exhibition here in 2006.

Most recently, an example of Hesse’s early career as a painter, can be seen in Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism, on view through January 30. This exhibition, drawn primarily from the Museum’s collection, explores the widespread influence of feminist practice on the styles and methods of painting from the 1960s to the present. Shifting the Gaze is organized into six sections – self-expression, the body, decoration, politics, writing, and satire – with Hesse’s Untitled (1963-1964) featured under the theme of self-expression. Each brushstroke and paint mark seen in this section affirms the presence of women painters, even though their accomplishments were minimized by male artists and critics. Women artists, facing stereotypes of feminine passivity and struggling against gallery quotas, nevertheless asserted themselves in abstract painting and sculpture. In the 1960s and 1970s, Eva Hesse, Judy Chicago, and Miriam Schapiro broke through professional and social impediments by reinventing abstraction as a vehicle for feminism. Whether it was theories of essential female art forms or the need to express personal subjectivity, these artists transformed the mainstream while creating women-centered art and institutions.

One of Hesse’s last paintings, Untitled, hints of a new direction later explored in her pioneering sculpture—an evocation of the body in fragile biomorphic forms and a critique of the neutrality of minimalist art. Around the time Hesse painted Untitled, she read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and questioned her own fragmented status as artist and wife: “I must find something clear, stable and peaceful within myself.” Though Hesse never joined the women’s movement, feminist critics championed her process-based work, and she has been inspirational to many artists.

The Jewish Museum acquired Untitled in the early 1980s from the artist’s sister, Helen Hesse Charash and in preparation for Shifting the Gaze, the Museum cleaned, re-stretched and reframed the painting. Presented in juxtaposition with other outstanding examples of gestural abstraction by women artists in the Museum’s collection—notably  Joan Snyder’s Hard Sweetness (1971) and Miriam Schapiro’s Fanfare, (1958) — Untitled illustrates Hesse’s remarkable use of color and organic forms. This painting is a testament to her skill and talent as a painter, just before she began to explore the three dimensional reliefs that eventually led to the shift in her practice as a full time sculptor.

Related Links:
Eva Hesse’s Untitled (1963-1964)
Eva Hesse Chronology
Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism (Sep 12, 2010 – Jan 30, 2011)
Women Artists in Special Exhibitions, 1947-2010
Online Tour: Feminism and Painting