The story is familiar: a prosperous Jewish family in 1930’s Germany, mother, father, and two young daughters. They watch their fortunes change, the destruction of their synagogue, arrests of their neighbors. The family escapes to America. But then the story becomes singular. The mother, after struggling for years with manic depression, commits suicide. The younger daughter becomes a star of the 1960’s art scene until a brain tumor ends her sparkling career. She is 34 years old.
No wonder that many critics view Eva Hesse’s sculpture through the lens of her biography. Eva Hesse: Sculpture, the catalogue to the 2006 exhibit at the Jewish Museum, nods to this critical tradition with curator Wasserman’s “Building a Childhood Memory,” a summary of Hesse’s childhood as told through her father’s meticulous scrapbooks. Although this entry appears late in the volume, readers unfamiliar with Hesse’s work should read it first, as the remaining chapters allude to her life without explaining the events to which they refer. The other contributors address the formal aspects of Hesse’s oeuvre and the movements into which it fit. Written by scholars, for scholars, these essays will likely be incomprehensible to readers without a working knowledge of 1960’s art and art criticism.
Which brings us back to Hesse’s art and the raison d’etre of the book: crisp color images of the sculpture and drawings displayed at the exhibit. Hard and soft, rough and smooth, translucent, yet solid: the photographs capture the opposing forms that characterize Hesse’s work. We pay her the utmost honor when we respect her wish to be treated not as a woman artist, not as a Jewish artist, but simply as an artist. Eva Hesse: Sculpture allows us to do just that. Illustrated, index, notes.