Eva Hesse’s Wanton Duality: Liquidity and Compression in the Mechanical Drawings of 1965
The conjoining of opposed formal, material, and aesthetic qualities has long been regarded as one of the most characteristic aspects of the work of the German-born American artist Eva Hesse (1936-1970). Lightness and weight, line and volume, hardness and softness, transparency and opacity, liquidity and solidity, viscerality and evanescence, the synthetic and the organic, structure and indeterminacy, deliberateness and absurdity, abstraction and figuration, something and nothing: in Hesse’s work these paired terms are rendered indissociable without becoming unpolarized. Such compelling tensions were first brought to an acute point in the colored relief sculptures and the ‘mechanical drawings’ (the focus of this article) that Hesse produced toward the end of her stay in Germany in 1965.
In one such drawing, Not Title (1965), now in Tate, London (Fig. 1), even and sinuous black lines describe two slender tubes that issue from a bulbous pod. The pod is lined internally with a layer of tiny synthetic hairs or villi, and floating inside it is a phallic sheath. The sheath is skirted and bisected by more contour lines, which begin to introduce subtle chromatic variations. The cartridge of the pen changed, paler purple ink has flowed into the black, and these material transitions play out within an intricate membrane of tightly packed parallel lines that fill in the lower section of the sheath. The space inside the pod is otherwise unpopulated, and the white field outside it is empty except for Hesse’s signature. The forms meander from the top right of the sheet to the lower center, bulging out to the left before inclining more directly up to the right along the pod’s bottom edge. Described with the unbroken clarity of a medical or botanical diagram, the tubes meet the edge of the paper unsealed, giving the impression that what is being presented here is a detail or section of a larger biological or machine-like assemblage. The relatively large scale of the sheet (459 x 610 mm) means that the ink lines, while emphatically material up close, look spare and distilled from a distance, articulating a satisfying distribution of formal openness and concentration across the page.
This drawing takes its place within a series that Hesse produced toward the end of her fifteen-month residence in Kettwig an der Ruhr, a small industrial town near Essen. The sculptor Tom Doyle (b. 1928), then Hesse’s husband, had been invited by the German collector and manufacturer Friedrich Arnhard Scheidt (1916-1999) to work in his disused textile factory, and Hesse came along too. They arrived in June 1964 and were back in New York by September the following year, often leaving Kettwig to make trips to other parts of Europe, where they visited museum collections, contemporary exhibitions, artists, curators, and friends. Hesse kept a regular journal during the trip, which was her first return to Europe after having escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 as a toddler on the Kindertransport with her sister Helen. This much-discussed private document testifies to a difficult period of self-questioning, marital strife, and artistic self-doubt, as well as less frequent moments of exhilaration. Hesse also kept datebooks, which offer a more extensive record of the art she saw, the people she met, and the books she read during that time.
The Tate drawing most likely dates from July or the first days of August 1965, when Hesse had entered a particularly intense period of work in preparation for a solo exhibition in Düsseldorf (6 August – 17 October), which would mark the end of her stay in Germany. In her datebook entry for 1-3 July she wrote, ‘Worked like crazy’; at the end of that month she had ‘14 objects + 14 new terrific drawings,’ and on 4 August, two days before the Düsseldorf show was to open but the day after it had been hung, she again wrote ‘worked like crazy,’ adding ‘did 5 more groovy drawings.’ A few months earlier, Hesse had released herself from the need she felt to work in oils, instead exploring related concerns by means of drawing and relief sculpture. The ‘mechanical drawings,’ as these sheets have become known, were made alongside her now celebrated series of fourteen reliefs on particle board, which involved the bolting of bits and pieces of abandoned machinery into absurd, eroticized, and suggestively ‘indecent’ constructions. While those reliefs are now regarded as pivotal in the career of one of the most important sculptors of the post-war period, they were left in Germany after the Düsseldorf show, being too expensive to transport back to New York.
The connection with the reliefs has been a predominant concern in the literature on the drawings. This has come together with suggestive accounts of the relationship between drawing and sculpture more broadly in Hesse’s practice, with commentators looking forward to crucial works such as ‘Hang Up’ (1966), ‘Metronomic Irregularity’ (1966), and ‘No Title (Rope Piece)’ (1970) to think about the role of the literalized line in Hesse’s sculpture. My concern here is not to disagree with this emphasis, but to augment the discussion with a consideration of the mechanical drawings in relation to the conventions of drawing itself and, more speculatively, to explore new relationships between Hesse’s drawings, thinking, and poetry. In this, I want to focus on two terms in particular: liquidity and compression. Asking questions about the role of liquidity in Hesse’s mechanical drawings brings into focus the relationship between her work and a powerful tradition in modern drawing that associates the liquid line with subjective expression and an erotics of the female body in particular. Indeed, Hesse’s line is both metaphorically fluid, recalling the work of modern masters such as Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and Henri Matisse (1869-1954), and literally liquid, with Hesse staging a material truancy very precisely here.
‘They had wild space, but constant, fluctuating and variety of forms, etc.’—Eva Hesse
Hesse’s late mechanical drawings are sparse and distilled compared with the series of works on paper that she made earlier on during her stay in Germany. I thus also want to explore the idea of formal, aesthetic, and conceptual ‘compression’ in the drawings of 1965, a word that is more familiar to poetic discourse than to writing on visual art. Whereas later in the 1960s Hesse would develop strategies of self-imposed formal constraint in her drawings (her graph paper works from 1967 being the most obvious example), the idea of compression is more apposite in this specific context. Writing on the poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-1866), Cristanne Miller asserted that ‘compression’ denominates, ‘whatever creates density or compactness of meaning in language. It may stem from ellipsis of function words, dense use of metaphor, highly associative vocabulary, abstract vocabulary in complex syntax, or any other language use that reduces the ratio of what is stated to what is implied.’
The word ‘compression’ also has a strong material connotation (the Latin verb comprimere means ‘to press together’), and the elegant formal compactness of Hesse’s late mechanical drawings sets up a compelling dialogue between technical control and material leakage, concentration and dissipation. Hesse’s drawings have more in common with the compressed, disruptive poetry of Mina Loy (1882-1966), for example, than with the flooding loquaciousness of the character Molly Bloom created by James Joyce (1882-1941). In their combination of restraint, truancy, and disjunction, the mechanical drawings constitute an early model of what a dessin feminine might look like.
EVA HESSE IN 1965
In a much-quoted letter to her friend Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), written on 30 March 1965, Hesse separated the progress of her recent work on paper into three stages. The more distilled mechanical drawings succeeded two relatively discrete series from late 1964 and early 1965. The first series comprised more riotous and gestural sheets, such as ‘No Title’ (1964) in a private collection. These also included collaged elements, and, as Hesse wrote to LeWitt, ‘They had wild space, but constant, fluctuating and variety of forms, etc.’ This ‘wild space’ was one opened up under the influence of Abstract Expressionistic artists, in particular Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Arshile Gorky (c. 1902-1948). De Kooning himself had famously made use of what Thomas Hess called ‘Procrustean’ collage techniques in his 1950-53 Woman series, and the influence of such methods can be inferred in the drawings that Hesse exhibited in New York at the Allan Stone Gallery in 1963. (De Kooning would show a retrospective of his own drawings at the same gallery in February 1964.) The second series consisted of a group of ‘contained forms,’ which Hesse characterized as being ‘somewhat harder often in boxes and forms become machine-like, real like, and as if to tell a story in that they are contained.’ As Mignon Nixon has argued, these drawings have an important relationship to the drawings and painted boxes that Hesse made while offering tuition to the Scheidts’ children.
Hesse then described a third series of drawings in this way: ‘drawings – clean, clear – but crazy like machines forms larger, bolder articulately described so it is weird they become real nonsense.’ These drawings were made on smaller sheets of paper (all roughly 210 x 300 mm) and were displayed together pinned to a board in a rather makeshift exhibition that took place in an old greenhouse on the grounds of the Scheidts’ estate in March 1965. As Renate Petzinger has argued, these drawings may have a direct relationship to Doyle’s sculptures, which Hesse often colored herself, Doyle recognizing her particular skill in that regard. While it is difficult to date these more formally compressed sheets precisely, it is likely that they followed the smaller black ink drawings and were those made over the early summer months, about which Hesse wrote so enthusiastically in her datebooks.
It is similarly difficult – and perhaps of only limited value – to attempt to locate material, artistic, and conceptual influences gathered by Hesse when producing the mechanical drawings, but she nevertheless left a record of a constellation of interests that seem relevant in accounting for their arrival. Firstly, it is important to note that at this time painting was still for Hesse a presiding concern, albeit one with which she was ‘agonized,’ and from the heavy burden of which she was increasingly attempting to release herself. On 5 February 1965, for example, she wrote, ‘If painting is too much for you now – fuck it –/quit –/ if drawing gives some pleasure – some satisfaction/do it – go ahead/it might also lead to a way other than painting, or at least painting in oils.’ Hesse’s dialogue with painting would continue throughout her life, and in 1970, talking with writer and editor Cindy Nemser, she would ask, ‘Where does drawing end and painting begin? I don’t know if my drawings aren’t really paintings except smaller and on paper. The drawings could be called painting legitimately and a lot of my sculpture could be called painting.’
In the same interview, Hesse discussed her early attachment to De Kooning and Gorky. De Kooning’s star had been waxing inexorably through the 1950s, and before Hesse’s departure for Germany he had mounted two exhibitions in New York, one of new paintings at the Sidney Janis Galler, and the above-mentioned presentation of drawings at the Allan Stone Gallery. While in Europe, Hesse did not record detailed responses to the exhibitions she saw, but in her datebook entry for 8 November 1964 she noted having seen the exhibition of Gorky’s drawings in Essen. This would have included works similar to Untitled (1945), in the Kolodny Family Collection (Fig. 3). She described the show as ‘great.’ A month or so earlier, on 3 October, Hesse had also singled out the works by Fernand Léger (1881-1955) seen in Basel as ‘lovely, excellent.’ (She also saw Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh there.) On 5 September she had recorded seeing ‘Room of great Léger’ and the Brancusi studio at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris; a day later she visited the Musée Rodin, and she would see more of Rodin’s work in Meudon the following week. Indeed, soon after her arrival in Germany, Hesse had visited Documenta III in Kassel, and on Boxing Day 1964 she noted having visited the exhibition ‘Neue Realisten und Pop Art’ in Berlin. This is just some of the art Hesse encountered while in Europe, but enthusiastic comments like those expressed for Gorky and Léger are unusual in her notes. Indeed, some exhibitions given prominence in the literature on Hesse, for example hat of the work of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) held in Bern in October 1964, which presumably she saw when she was there, go without mention.
At the same time, Hesse also left a record of films that she saw and of her wide reading. Particularly important amid the former, according to Werner Nekes, was Yõgi Kuri’s animated film AOS (1964; Figs. 4a-c),30 which Hesse saw on 25 February 1965. Here, the machine-like imagery, surreal bodil forms, and dark sexual atmosphere take on a relationship with the mechanomorphic turn that Hesse’s work took in that spring. During the time that she saw the Gorky show, Hesse recorded (10 November) that she was reading both Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), as well as John Malcolm Brinnin’s biography of Gertrude Stein (1959). The former she quoted at length in her diaries; the latter she did not mention again. These texts take their place within some eclectic reading, which also included books by Mark Twain, to whom she responded enthusiastically, as well as James Baldwin’s Giovanni Room (19 April), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (29 January), and Henry Miller’s Sexus (26 March).
The mechanical drawings have already been subject to some suggestive analyses, beginning with Lucy Lippard’s detailed account in her indispensible 1976 monograph. For Mignon Nixon, the drawings present ‘a corporeal plumbing’ by way of a ‘fluid expository line.’ Briony Fer describes an encounter with ‘strange articulations reminiscent of the magnified joints of a crustacean,’ achieved with varyingly colored outlines that ‘seem almost negative imprints or immaterial doubles of the awkward protruding bulk of the reliefs.’ Indeed, the drawings connect with the reliefs very powerfully; their shared conjunction of bodily and machine-like forms, each consisting of absurd, eroticized, swelling, and dangling lines, aligns them quite explicitly. In ‘Top Spot’ (July 1965) in the collection of Chara Schreyer, Tiburon, CA,for example, three differently colored ropes buckle and writhe across a section of particle board painted a cool but crazy green. The cords coil and twist in and out of plumbing sockets, brackets, holes, and connectors. A phallic piece of piping points downward from the bottom of the board, and from it extends a length of cord that snakes down to rest listlessly on the floor. In the extravagantly entitled ‘Oomamaboomba’ (May, 1965), in the Ursula Hauser Collection, Switzerland, the kind of color transitions characteristic of the ink lines of the mechanical drawings are given flagrant and intense physical presence by a striking curve of cord-wrapped wire, along the length of which a pale rose hue quickly gives way to hot pinks and a dark purple and its upper end.
Eva Hesse, ‘Top Spot’, July 1965 © The Estate of Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse, ‘Oomamaboomba’, May 1965 © The Estate of Eva Hesse
In its metaphorical liquidity, the fluid ink line of Hesse’s mechanical drawings evokes a set of powerful precedents in the history of twentieth-century art. Perhaps most prominently, a line that responds to the curving, sinuous motion of the hand in this way has long been associated with the representation of desirable femininity and the erotics of the studio, a conventional structure that Hesse’s drawings both connect with and reconfigure. Perhaps the most famous exemplar of this tendency is Auguste Rodin, whose pencil and wash drawings were prominently exhibited alongside his sculptures in 1900, lending weight to the erotic charge of his studio practice. Indeed, this scene would gain mythical dimensions in the public imagination, and Rodin continued to produce increasingly explicit drawings in subsequent years. In one such sheet, Chimère/Monade of c. 1900 in the Musée Rodin, Paris (Fig. 7), some swift, sinuous pencil lines describe the form of a nude woman bent backwards with thighs wide apart, expressing an exaggerated insistence on sexual access. A pinkish wash fills in the form of the contorted body, and, once that wash had dried, the whole figure was then immersed in a dense, modulated pool of blue-gray fluid. Below this strange orb is the pencil inscription, Chimère/monade/avant la creation.
Rodin, together with his mythic status as priapic originator, was an important model for Henri Matisse. Early in the century, Matisse had also produced drawings that combined spare linear fluency with eroticism, concerns that he developed with particular intensity and economy from the mid-1930s onward. In his celebrated suite of drawings, Dessins: Thèmes et variations (1941-42) – for instance, Thème D, Variation 5 in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca, NY (1941; Fig. 8) – Matisse comported himself in a manner significantly more decorous than that of his predecessor, and tempered the more explicit sexuality of his own drawings published in Cahiers d’art in 1936. Here the model is clothed, yet the billowing, unbroken movements of the hand are nevertheless eloquent of a brimming sensuality as the line constructs the curves of female bodies with voluptuous languor and tremulous desire. Here the line operates as a semi-autonomous element, shaping and distorting the contours of the depicted model’s body under the sway of an expressive momentum.
The rhetoric implicit in such supple, libidinally charged lines was deflated early on by Dada artists Francis Picabia (1879-1953) and Marcel Duchamp, who advanced an alternative model of a wry, mechanomorphic eroticism while also abandoning ‘la patte’ (or ‘paw’) of the Fauve painter. The priority placed on spontaneity and voluptuous sensuality was countered by more comic and bathetic visions of an onanistic and mechanical eroticism, as in the drawings, such as Voilà Elle, that Picabia published in 291 in 1915 (Fig. 9). Here the kind of energetic variability of the line is disciplined by a more detached, industrial facture. If Matisse’s drawings, in their apparent bypassing of analytic reflection in favor of manual spontaneity, especially from the 1930s onward, could be read in terms related to Surrealist automatism, then Picabia presented instead a vision of automation at the heart of the most fundamental aspects of human desire. In 1900 Henri Bergson wrote that ‘The attitudes, gestures, and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine.’ Whereas Matisse would affirm the profound divergence of the truly human from the machine, Picabia and Duchamp embraced their conjunction, to irreverent and humorous effect.
Benjamin Buchloh has aligned Hesse’s work on paper with a mode of abstraction initiated by New York Dada. In a powerful Adornian account of twentieth-century drawing, he described as ‘diagrammatic’ this mode that prioritizes pre-existing systems of constraint and control in opposition to the ‘heroic chorus’ of utopian, liberatory, and spiritualist claims for abstract art. In the mechanical drawings, Hesse’s synthesis of biomorphic and mechanical forms is distinctive, however, the artist ‘alternating between meticulous botanist and mad engineer.’ Crucial for Buchloh is the way in which Hesse inserted repetitive details and small staccato marks to interrupt her flowing lines, and along with them any fantasy of non-alienated bodily plentitude: ‘Their linear elegance and sinuous pulse,’ he argued, ‘become all the more discomforting because the machanomorph’s animation instills a deep sense of the withering body.’ On this account, the trajectory of Hesse’s work on paper is toward an every-increasing evisceration of bodily pleasures and freedoms. Insisting on the negation of any residues of corporeal plentitude or psychosomatic release, Buchloh argued, Hesse would eventually stage drawing’s ‘endgame’ in the graph paper works of 1967, which register the total administration and domination of subjective experience under advanced capitalism.
Although Buchloh brilliantly elaborated the work of negation in Hesse’s drawings, both their alignment with such a bleak diagnosis and their Duchampian emphasis can be overstated. While Hesse surely was aware of Duchamp’s work, an while the diagrammatic dotted lines and mechanomorphic forms have something in common with both his paintings from the early 1910s and the part-object logic of much of his practice more broadly, her priorities were a long way from the ‘aesthetic indifference‘ also characteristic of his attitude, and have even less in common with Picabia’s persona as dandyish negator. Hesse’s mechanical drawings do counter the language of gestural spontaneity, but their linear elegance, chromatic subtlety, and material seepage have an enlivening effect. This has to do with the non-human strangeness of the forms rather than serving to secure any ideal of bodily wholeness; yet it nevertheless does not jettison a register of bodily desires and ludic pleasures.
As mentioned, the very spare, fluent line often gets modulated in hue as the inks run into each other on their meeting, emphasizing their physicality in a minimal, but powerful way. This was most likely achieved with the use of Pelikan’s technical Graphos pen. These pens have interchangeable nibs and reservoirs, which might account for the nature of the extended bleed within the lines themselves. Another of Hesse’s mechanical drawings, ‘No Title’ (1965) in a private collection, dramatizes such dynamics more powerfully still. In it, an elegantly awkward piece of piping is outlined by way of a slender, even, yellow ink line. From it hang a gently sagging vessel and a taut, pendulous bag to the right. Snaking across the sheet, Hesse’s line is again clean and sinuous. There are tiny poolings where the pen has turned more abruptly, and the artist employed different colored inks that are sometimes allowed to bleed into one another at the points at which they meet. There is the suggestion of a yielding softness in this strange, incomplete machine, of give in relation to gravity, and the barest evocation of weight and volume. This gives a greater sense of having been the result of observation; perhaps Hesse was looking at a piece of machinery from the disused textile factory that she was using as a studio at the time, or perhaps even at part of one of Doyle’s painted metal sculptures. In any case, such mechanical fragments have now been divested of their bulk and heft; their curves, kinks, and bulges have been translated into a very spare graphic language characterized by slender extension and minute seepage.
The corporeal connotations of the formal and material aspects of Hesse’s work have indeed been crucial to many of the most suggestive commentaries on her sculpture. Shortly after returning to New York in 1965, Hesse began a celebrated series of works made by laying papier-mâché and winding cord over balloons and other hollow and inflatable objects. The surfaces were then coated with either black or gray-scale enamel or acrylic paint, a significant departure from the riotous and garish colors of the Kettwig reliefs. However, the hanging, flopping, sometimes bulbous forms of this monochrome series continue to evoke the body in its absurd and sexual moments. In ‘Ingeminate’ (1965) and ‘Several’ (1965), for example, both of which were included in Lippard’s 1966 exhibition ‘Eccentric Abstraction’, affective qualities of detachment and opacity result from the sheen of enamel, by their unyielding abstraction, and by the discomforting absence of the satisfactions of color. These works, like the mechanical drawings before them, do not offer up any continuous or replete circuit of bodily empathies. Indeed, in their compressed sculptural syntax, as well as in their refusal of false consolations concerning sexuality and the body, Hesse’s work recalls the poems of Mina Loy. In Loy’s celebrated ‘Songs to Joannes’ (1917), for example, sexual frankness is joined with wry pessimism:
In which a wanton duality
All the completion of my infructuous impulses
Something the shape of man
To the casual vulgarity of the merely observant
More of a clock-work mechanism
Running down against time
To which I am not Paced
Hesse used the odd consistency of latex to introduce a kind of excessive materiality into her sculpture: to make objects that are ‘beyond objecthood’…
In Hesse’s work, as in Loy’s poetry, to which I will return, there is nothing like a resolved or familiar body.
The purchase of Hesse’s work on the (desiring, vulnerable, unstable) body intensified in 1967, when she adopted latex as one of her principle sculptural materials. The riotous colors and often blatantly erotic part objects of the 1965 reliefs had already given way to gray scale, and this continued, often combined with serial modes of arrangement. In this way, the tactility, softness and translucence of synthetic materials such as latex, resin, and fiberglass come into focus in the most precise and powerful way. Beginning with the works such as ‘Schema’ (1967-68), Hesse used the odd consistency of latex to introduce a kind of excessive materiality into her sculpture: to make objects that are ‘beyond objecthood,’ to use Fer’s phrase. The sheen of freshly applied latex conjures a wetness that has, as a number of commentators have noted, a very visceral quality. Latex combines a number of attributes that were of crucial interest to Hesse: it could be dry, white signaling wetness; it is malleable and can be subtly and precisely controlled in its layered application, yet it also bears a contingency and unruliness; it can be made beautiful or repulsive; and it evokes the organic and fleshy, while maintaining contact with the industrial materials adopted by other artists to whom Hesse was close at that time.
In the late 1960s, Hesse married the liquidity of resin and latex with webs of physical lines suspended in space. Together with artists such as Fred Sandback (1943-2003), Rosemarie Castoro (1939-2015), and Gego (1912-1994), she brought drawings to the condition of sculpture and ‘literalized’ the line to articulate three-dimensional space, a move that has had powerful consequences for contemporary practice. Hesse’s suspensions are remarkable in their conjunction of fragility and viscerality: the shimmering, resin-coated glass fiber cord of ‘Right After’ (1969) leaning toward the former, and the heavier, more glutinous mass of the latex-covered ropes of ‘No Title (Rope Piece)’ (1970) in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (Fig. 11), toward the latter. In his account of No Title (Rope Piece), Alex Potts suggested that its configuration of ‘tightly drawn connections and … limp collapsings and twistings’ might echo an awareness we have of our own body, and specifically of its insides; in opposition to the visual images we have of the body’s interior derived from medical illustrations and diagrams, however, Potts ventured that Hesse’s work comes closer to figuring ‘what we feel our insides to be, whether vaguely locatable twinges of sensation and pain, or some amorphous, flexible connectivity between one part of the body and another.’ This idea of the art work as the concretization of an awareness of the body’s inner articulations might also be helpful in thinking about the mechanical drawings, although perhaps from the opposite direction. If the late ‘rope piece’ can be described in terms of the feeling of thought that is directed toward bodily sensation, then the mechanical drawings might be conceived as figuring the purchase of the body on thinking itself.
One way of articulating the relationship between drawing and thinking has been to consider how the former signals the artist’s decision-making process. Erasures and pentimenti trace a dynamic and contingent activity and seem to bring the viewer closer to the movements of the artist’s thought. For example, preparatory drawings have often served to enable art historians to infer the evolution of compositional ideas toward their final realization in painting or sculpture. Here, however, I am interested not so much in the way that Hesse’s drawings might allow us to retrieve changes in specific compositional ideas, as in the way in which the completed art work looks back at the viewer with the force of the embodied mind’s maneuvering. This has less to do with the tracking of particular aesthetic decisions and more to do with the conception of the completed art work as a figure of thought – thought from which the body has not been expelled.
Elaborating an approach to poetry that has productive implications for visual art, Simon Jarvis has argued that verse both depends and acts on the organization of consciousness itself. He described a line of verse as a ‘cognitive artifact’ and asserted that the poets he discussed – Shelley, Blake, and Wordsworth – matter ‘precisely because of the intensity of their absorption into the verse material itself and the specific interferences, distortions, mutilations, and mutations of thinking which that absorption made possible.’ Although hardly unique to Hesse, the intensity and experimentalism of her approach to making means that a focus on such an absorption in the working of aesthetic materials is productive here.
Drawing has long held the pressures of material practice and cognitive abstraction in tension, a tension already at work in the dual meaning of the Italian word disegno, referring to both manual drawing and mental design. Much art theory produced in sixteenth-century Florence, for example, which later helped structure conceptions of the role of drawing within the various European art academies (e.g., in Madrid; see pp.295-312), stressed the capacity of line to bring the sensible particulars of the world under general concepts produced in the mind. More recently, in the 1930s, the French art historian Henri Focillon asserted that,
One might reasonably suppose that there are certain techniques in which matter is of slight importance, that drawing, for example, is a process of abstraction so extreme and so pure that matter is reduced to a mere armature of the slenderest possible sort, and is, indeed, very nearly volatized. But matter in this volatile state is still matter, and by virtue of being controlled, compressed, and divided on the paper – which it insistently brings to life – it acquires a special power.
In Hesse’s mechanical drawings, the care and precision governing her later circle and grid works is combined with a more fluent and unsystematic manual action. The clarity and evenness of Hesse’s line might immediately suggest a process of abstraction as it circumscribes objects, or parts of objects, within a continuous contour, separating figure from ground and retaining only formal identity and not material qualities. However, while suggestive of drawing’s conventional capacity to ‘volatize’ both the material reality of its medium and its support, Hesse’s drawings also affirm the literal presence of both. While the intertwined and overlapping machine parts frequently suggest recession in depth, at the same time the tendency to forget the material properties of the liquid marks on a physical surface is consistently checked. Extending to at least one edge of the sheet, the ink line never fully seals the forms it describes, and so does not allow them finally to recede away from the picture surface into the virtual space of representation. The way in which the inks continue their transactions within the line before it dries out, moreover, insists on that line as a material thing that accommodates rather than purges the singular accidents of nature.
In her essay ‘The Mechanics of Fluids,’ the philosopher Luce Irigaray associated fluids with both a material reality that is irreducible to any cognitive abstractions and, in a related way for her, to femininity, which operates in excess of the symbolic order. An ability to model and manipulate ‘theoretical fluids’ – where singular instances are again brought under the structure of general concepts – has meant that ‘a certain relationship to the reality of bodies’ has been lost. Commingling femininity and liquidity, Irigaray asserted the qualities of an écriture féminine against the alienating solidity of ‘monosexual,’ phallogocentric language:
Yet one must know how to listen otherwise than in good form(s) to hear what it says. That it is continuous, compressible, dilatable, viscous, conductible, diffusible …. That it is unending, potent, and impotent owing to its resistance to the countable; that it enjoys and suffers from a greater sensitivity to pressures; …that it allows itself to be easily traversed by flow by virtue of its conductivity to currents coming from other fluids or exerting pressure through the walls of a solid….
This is a resonant list of properties for thinking about Hesse’s work and serves also to bring the gendered stakes into view more immediately. Hesse worked hard to avoid the production of ‘good forms’ in favor of something eloquent of absurdity; the elegance of her work always contains an awkwardness, its coherence is crossed by a disobedience. As with Irigaray’s conception of fluidity, Hesse’s art has been interpreted as figuring specifically feminine qualities of experience and modes of embodiment. Hastened by her inclusion in Lippard’s ‘Eccentric Abstraction’ exhibition, Hesse’s soft and vulnerable materials came to signify in terms of a repressed feminine other to the dominant masculine language of Minimalism: its durable metals and plastics, quasi-industrial fabrication processes, and hard-edged geometric forms. However, while the powerful and long-standing association of liquidity with femininity is still operative, such connotative structures might be thought of more in terms of conventional and ideological association rather than ontological givens.
Although Hesse made radical use of liquid materials in both her drawings and her sculpture, her method of doing so is very far from a borderless flooding or oceanic outpouring. Molly Bloom’s unpunctuated soliloquy in ‘Penelope’ episode of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ stands as a powerful projection of a male imaginary onto the screen of representation. This is a female flesh that, as Joyce put it, ‘always affirms,’ and which has been taken up as a model for the transgressive articulation of feminine desire. Referring to this last chapter of Ulysses in Finnegans Wake, Joyce described ‘the vaulting female libido of those interbranching ogham sex upandinsweeps sternly controlled and easily persuaded by the uniform matteroffactness of a meandering male fist.’
Without wishing to draw too close a parallel, something of Joyce’s virtuoso presentation of unbridled feminine carnality aligns with the vigorous, pulsatile energy of De Kooning’s figures, from his celebrated Women series of the early 1950s to the radical liquefaction of his ‘Figures in Water’ from the early-mid 1960s, such as ‘Clam Diggers’ (1963) or ‘Woman, Sag Harbor’ (1964) in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC (Fig. 12). These arresting presentations of a desublimated femininity also stress the manual work of the male painter, with Joyce’s meandering ‘fist’ transformed into the gestural swerves and sweeps of the painterly forearm. The ‘I’ of De Kooning’s hand is not just confident, but abandoned to both its technical mastery and to the infantile pleasures of full immersion in the fluid materials and bodily forms of his painting.
As Anne Wagner has argued, early comparisons between Hesse and American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) are less than helpful. This is not just because Hesse was not suicidal, however, or that her work is not explicitly confessional. Perhaps more importantly it is because Plath’s poetry shares little with Hesse’s art on a formal level. Characterizing Emily Dickinson’s poetry as ‘elliptically compressed, disjunctive, at times ungrammatical,’ Cristanne Miller asserted that her language ‘could almost have been designed as a model for several twentieth-century theories of what a woman’s language might be.’ While conforming in several respects to modes conventionally framed as feminine, Dickinson also countered, as Adrienne Rich argued, dominant ideological codes of ‘womanly feeling’ and sentimentality, a work of renunciation that would be performed more explicitly in Mina Loy’s avant-garde project. Loy – before arriving at the end of 1916 in New York, where she quickly became intimately involved in the city’s Dada circle – had already penned her ‘Feminist Manifesto’ (1914) and ‘Parturition’ (1914), a poem that offers a graphic and transgressive rendering of the experience of childbirth. Loy’s formal disjunctions, mixing of lexical registers, construction of opposed binaries, and resistance to smooth formal resolution all align her work with Hesse’s, although there is no evidence that Hesse was directly aware of Loy’s achievement.
Loy first published all thirty-four parts of her ‘Songs to Joannes’ (originally known as ‘Love Songs’) in 1917, the same year as the scandal of the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Independents and Duchamp’s porcelain urinal entitled Fountain (surviving only in replicas), and it remains her most celebrated sequence. In his short, but suggestive analysis of the ‘Love Songs,’ Peter Quartermain examined the preponderance of imagery connected with bodily fluids and body parts, which is nevertheless emphatically dissociated from conventional romantic and metaphysical associations. Instead, Loy sets a series of binary oppositions in train that never achieve resolution. Quartermain also noted a mixing of lexical registers in the sequence, combining words that have clinical or laboratory associations, such as ‘infructuous’ (II), ‘spermatozoa’ (IX), ‘climacteric’ (XXVIII), or ‘eclosion’ (XXXI), with colloquial and conventionally ‘poetic’ language. Indeed, in Song XXV, Loy casts a famous Homeric metaphor amid the ‘humid carnage’ of human sexual life:
Licking the Arno
The little rosy
Tongue of Dawn
Interferes with our eyelashes
We twiddle to it
Round and round
And turn into machines
While Hesse did not share Loy’s frequent acerbity, this mixing of lexical registers combined with syntactic disjunction and sexual frankness has affinities with Hesse’s mechanomorphic eroticism. For Quartermain, Loy’s poetry achieved an ‘irony without detachment,’ a refusal to resolve the poetic material into good forms, and a distancing of the poetic voice that affords a sense of the ‘absurd’’ the Songs are ‘deliberately graceless,’ he argued.
The issue of grace and beauty in Hesse’s work is an important one, and one that she negotiated with distinct skepticism. It may well be that whereas in the mechanical drawings she had recourse to her skill as a draftsman and colorist – perhaps falling back on the security of her training with Josef Albers (1888-1976) during a period in which she was riven with artistic self-doubt and emotional turmoil – she ultimately rejected the kind of skillful, sinuous, elegance characteristic of the late mechanical drawings. And again, at the end of her short career, Hesse would reject the ‘beauty zone’ of ‘Right After’ (1969), in favor of the more lumpen and, she felt, potent ‘No Title (Rope Piece)’. Talking to Cindy Nemser, Hesse exclaimed, ‘I can’t stand romanticism. I can’t stand mushy novels, pretty pictures, pretty sculpture, decorations on the wall, nice parallel lines – make me sick. Then I talk about soul and presence and guts in art. It’s a contradiction.’
The force of negation in Hesse’s art is powerfully felt; but in saying ‘no’ Hesse also says ‘yes,’ opening up space in artistic language for new emphases and priorities.
One index of an encounter between an artist fully immersed in her or her aesthetic materials and the force of his or her creative impetus is that conventional structures organizing those materials are not allowed to remain smoothly intact, but are subject to the distortion and interference of a new artistic agency. In the diary entries written during her stay in Germany in 1965, Hesse articulated the impact of gender identity on her ability to feel at home in the languages of ambitious art, surrounded as she was by a culture that overwhelmingly applauded the achievements of male artists alone, and a symbolic order that continued to present a powerful incompatibility between feminine subject positions and full intellectual and artistic commitment.
‘No,’ Emily Dickinson wrote to Otis Lord, ‘is the wildest word we consign to Language.’ Hesse aimed at an art released from the dominant coordinates she had already assimilated: in late 1969 she famously wrote, ‘I remember I wanted to get to non art, non connotive, non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort. from a total other reference point. is it possible?’ As in Loy’s verse, the force of negation in Hesse’s art is powerfully felt; but in saying ‘no’ Hesse also says ‘yes,’ opening up space in artistic language for new emphases and priorities.
The force of this opening, as it was achieved in the 1965 mechanical drawings, turns on the compelling relationship of liquid flows and radical compression. ‘Dichten=condensare,’ Ezra Pound stated, and while he increasingly framed poetic achievement in terms of masculine energies, Hesse’s work uses this principle in a way that aligns her with alternate poetic traditions. With a mixture of what Hubert Damisch in the context of a discussion of Matisse called ‘geometric reverie’ and ‘chromatic rigor,’ the mechanical drawings are poised between wayward eroticism and distilled abstraction, between refined elegance and a studied resistance to good forms.
While the metaphorical fluidity of Hesse’s lines is suggestive of the lingings, vessels, and inner parts of bodies, its literal liquidity offers precise moments at which manual control gives way to the independent life of matter, seen, for instance, in ‘No Title’ (1965) in a private collection, New York (front cover). As Jean-Luc Nancy has written, ‘The weight of a localized body is the true purely sensible a priori condition of the activity of reason.’ By way of very compressed formal means, Hesse stressed the liquidity of her line to signal the purchase of the body on thinking; the body constitutes the material limit of thought, its waywardness providing abstraction’s ground and its spur.
Ed Krčma is a lecturer in the history of art at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. A selection of Hesse’s drawings feature in the travelling exhibition ‘Forms Larger and Bolder: EVA HESSE DRAWINGS’. The show continues from Hauser & Wirth, 69th Street to mumok in Vienna, where it’s on view through 16 February 2020.