Eva Hesse: Biography, Artwork & Sculpture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Sometimes a career doesn't have to be long to have an impact. In this lesson, learn about Jewish artist Eva Hesse, who in ten short years developed new paths for sculpture. She became one of the pioneering artists of American modernism.

Early Years

Eva Hesse (1936-1970) came to America as a child when her orthodox Jewish family fled Germany to escape the Nazis. They settled in New York City, where her mother suffered bouts of depression before committing suicide when Eva was ten. Despite her difficult early years, Eva was always determined to become an artist. When she was just eighteen, she appeared in an article in Seventeen Magazine (she was interning at the publication) in which she stated her passion for art in clear terms.

Hesse took classes at the Pratt Institute of Design and then studied at Cooper Union in New York City, receiving a certificate in design. She then attended the Yale School of Art and Architecture, where she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1959. Early in her career, Hesse admired the paintings of Willem de Kooning, who was part of the abstract expressionism movement that gained importance in America after World War II. These artists painted from unconscious emotion, often without reference to objects or figures seen in the real world. They sometimes applied paint to canvas in unusual ways (like spraying or dripping) and tended to work on a very large scale. Hesse was familiar with abstract expressionism and her first paintings show its influence.

Here is an example of Hesse's painting style from the early 1960s. This untitled work includes thick slashes of paint. Brushstrokes are bold and expressive, and the forms may appear vaguely to represent parts of the human body.

Untitled, Eva Hesse, ca. 1960
Untitled painting, Eva Hesse

Paint is applied in layers, but you can still see colors and forms underneath (blue under yellow, and the orange peeking out from the forms on the right). Bold colors contrast with line and shape. We aren't sure what it means, but it has a definite emotional quality to it.

From Painting to Three Dimensional Work

Hesse aimed to be an abstract painter. But marriage to a painter named Tom Doyle took her back to Germany in 1965 where he had an offer to work for a year in a large factory building as part of an artist residency. There, she began moving into three dimensions, experimenting with materials not used in fine art at the time. She incorporated rubber, string, wire, and fiberglass into her work, and used techniques like winding and wrapping. She was still painting, but moving in a different direction.

Hesse's work from this period has an organic feel to it. Art that is organic seems like it came from nature and often has an irregular form to it. An example from 1965 is Ringaround Arosie.

Ringaround Rosie, 1965
Ringaround Arosie

Look closely. Although it is a painting, it is also a relief, meaning parts of the work protrude into the third dimension. Made of a wide list of materials, including pencil, acetone, varnish, enamel, paint, ink, and electrical wire on paper-mache and masonite, Ringaround Arosie is playful (title reflecting a child's nursery rhyme) and at the same time visually sexually suggestive.

Hesse's work continued to evolve, moving further away from painting as she used an increasingly innovative range of materials.

Hang Up, 1966
Hang Up

In this image, a work titled Hang Up marks her clear transition to three dimensions. The metal rod that sticks out from the two-dimensional empty frame moves the work into the realm of sculpture. Hesse realized this, and said of Hang Up that it was her first important artistic statement. It's also got an element of humor, as the the play on words in the title comments on the work on the wall.

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