Unlike sculpture, which Eva Hesse (1936–1970) only started working with shortly before her death, drawing was a mainstay of the artist’s practice from the beginning. The Jewish artist of German extraction was considered a promising talent in her day; her turbulent life story and tragic early death only reinforced the myth surrounding her art. In an interview, the US-American artist noted that drawing had always come easy to her. Now mumok is showing a selection of sketches and drawings from the extensive holdings of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, Ohio, where Hesse’s archive is located.
A diverse array of work – from early figurative studies, abstract-expressionist “scribbles” and suggestively erotic diagrams to sketches for sculptures – reveal Hesse’s ease with drawing and the joy she took in it. VIENNA ART WEEK spoke with curator Manuela Ammer about the exhibition.
VIENNA ART WEEK: Eva Hesse’s sculptures are widely known, the drawings less so. What relevance do they have for Hesse’s overall body of work?
Manuela Ammer: My impression is that Hesse saw drawing as a self-evident activity, a mode in which one can negotiate various closely-held impressions, considerations and emotions, before potentially translating them into other media, materials or dimensions.
VIENNA ART WEEK: Do you consider Hesse’s drawings an independent art form or are they more like sculptor’s sketches?
Ammer: Both. Hesse was undoubtedly interested in drawing as an artistic discipline and form of expression; her graphic works show an interest in virtuoso artists of her time including Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Cy Twombly, for example. But there are also pieces that were plainly meant to be used either in the preparation of sculptures or to accompany them. They are never purely technical, though, and they do capture such qualities as dynamism, density, or mass.
VIENNA ART WEEK: What fascinates you personally about Eva Hesse’s art?
Ammer: The “Hesse myth” was always a little bit of a turn-off for me personally. I sometimes had the impression that her biography pushed in front of the work, as it were, and skewed the way in which it is seen. That’s why it was interesting to conceive a presentation based on the lesser-known drawings that couldn’t exclude her biography and wouldn’t try to, but would try to bring other aspects to the fore.
VIENNA ART WEEK: Which aspects are the strongest here?
Ammer: Hesse’s play with the relationship between surface and space, for example, her close examination of the art of her time, and not least her extraordinary sense of color. Hesse’s courage sets an example for artists of any generation – she never hesitated to try something new, or to question and reinvent herself if necessary.
VIENNA ART WEEK: How important to the drawings are feminist theories or her role as a woman in the art world at that time?
Ammer: Hesse’s work has been discussed in feminist contexts like hardly any other, but she didn’t necessarily see herself as a feminist. Nevertheless, her work exemplifies an attempt to offset a hegemonic, male-identified aesthetic with other qualities.
VIENNA ART WEEK: How does that manifest itself?
Ammer: Hesse’s version of minimalism operates with the imperfect, with the impression of the handmade and organic; her works often seem psychologically charged. She paved the way for subsequent generations of artists to look for more complex relationships between art and life and to counter dogmatic notions of art with more inclusive approaches.
VIENNA ART WEEK: What conceptual considerations were there in the presentation at mumok?
Ammer: There is a tension in Hesse’s work between the joy of experimentation and conceptual rigor. This is particularly evident in the motif of the cube or the box, which appears both in the drawings and in the paintings and sculptures. Since the museum is also linked to the modernist idea of the “white cube,” we took the form of the cube to present Hesse’s drawings at mumok: Hesse’s works on paper are presented in three cubes at different stages of deconstruction.
Forms Larger and Bolder: EVA HESSE DRAWINGS
from the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College
16 NOV 2019 – 16 FEB 2020
Curated by Manuela Ammer and Barry Rosen together with Andrea Gyorody