A Short, Amazing Life

The work of Eva Hesse in the mid-1960s was crucial in leading sculpture out of the minimal forest of grids and boxes and back to the free-flowing river of intuition. Using flexible materials like latex and vinyl tubing to make constant allusions to female anatomy, Hesse successfully challenged the art world's macho derring-do. Because she died tragically (of a brain tumor in 1970, at 34), her sculpture resonates with a kind of heroism. A new retrospective of more than 100 pieces at the Yale University Art Gallery (through July 31, then traveling to Washington, D.C.) proves that the best of her work is also eccentrically beautiful.

Hesse was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany, in 1936. She escaped the Holocaust on a children's train to Amsterdam and, reunited with her parents, moved to New York in 1939. After studying art at Yale, she met and married the sculptor Tom Doyle in 1961, and began a career as a painter. Truth be told, she was an ordinary one. She first did brushy, introspective portraiture, then tried to liven things up with compositions that looked cartoony. But her fierce desire to make art that sprang from herself and not from rules of taste led her into the more physical medium of sculpture. Although other artists were experimenting with goofy forms and casual configurations, Hesse's work stood out: it was "Abstract Expressionist sculpture of a higher order than I would have thought possible," wrote one critic.

The seminal work, by Hesse's own estimate, was "Hang Up" (1966), in which a large wooden frame wrapped with cloth played host to a floppy cable that looped out onto the floor. It referred to her failed marriage to Doyle. About a year before she made it, Hesse wrote in one of her journals (excerpted in the catalog) that "resentments enter most precisely if I need to be cooking, washing or doing dishes while he sits King of the Roost reading." Hesse coupled her protofeminism with what Linda Norden's catalog essay calls "her unbridled ambition as an artist." In the intellectually electric art world of the day, where dense theory mingled with a sort of Zen notion of doing it right by just doing it (sculptor Sol LeWitt told Hesse to make a lot of work, even if it was " bad'), she absorbed everything she could. One journal entry in 1966 finds her seeing a J.M.W. Turner show at the Museum of Modern Art, hearing architecture critic Vincent Scully lecture and sipping Cokes with artist Mel Bochner.

Whatever she did, it was worth it. Take "Untitled" (1970): four irregular boxes made of fiberglass and resin over wire mesh, each emitting two insectoid tendrils that jiggle to the floor and expose stingers of bare metal. It's initially off-putting, maybe a little threatening. But the piece has an uncanny rightness-- the boxes' variations, the dance of the dangling ropelike elements, the sheen of the surface-that buttresses its originality with savoir-faire. After more than two decades of bigger, weirder, technically more sophisticated Hesse-inspired sculpture, the piece is more stunning than ever. And so is the legacy of Eva Hesse.