Eva Hesse is a critical Minimalist and post-Minimalist figure whose artistic legacy of approximately one hundred sculptures and innumerable drawings has defined the shape of postwar art. Her work is often overshadowed by the dramatic details of her life, which inflect every aspect of her aesthetic trajectory. Born in Hamburg in 1936, Hesse was sent to a children’s home in Amsterdam in 1938 with her five-year-old sister. Her parents joined them three months later, and the family moved to New York. Almost all of Hesse’s extended family died in the Holocaust, and her mother, plagued by depression, committed suicide when Eva was ten.
Hesse knew early that she was drawn to visual art and design, and studied at the High School of Industrial Arts, Pratt, Cooper Union, and Yale. Though she trained as a painter, she felt constrained by the medium and began making collages. She found her calling during a fifteen-month stay in Germany, where a textile manufacturer had invited her then-husband, sculptor Tom Doyle. As Hesse detailed in her diary she was plagued by extreme anxiety and fear over returning to Germany, her feelings compounded by a dissolving marriage. Nevertheless it was during this visit she turned to sculpture, finding her artistic voice in the very country that had tried to exterminate her.
Hesse’s early work incorporates everyday objects, and tends to be frontal, meant to hang on the wall like a painting. Fascinated with randomness, she came to define her work as absurd, citing Marcel Duchamp, Yvonne Rainer, Jackson Pollock, Carl Andre, and writer Eugene Ionesco as influences. “Mushy novels, pretty pictures, pretty sculpture, decorations on the wall, nice parallel lines—make me sick,” she said. Her sculptures began to incorporate unusual and oftentimes ephemeral materials such as latex and cheesecloth, as well as sturdier elements made from fiberglass and polyester resin. To avoid being inhibited by the limits of her own ability to construct the objects she envisioned, she used outside fabricators to produce her later work.
Hesse was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1969, and that year—in which she underwent three operations—produced six major sculptures, including Contingent. In an interview given after her diagnosis, Hesse said,
Art is the easiest thing in my life and that’s ironic. It doesn’t mean I’ve worked little on it, but it’s the only thing I never had to . . . I have no fear. I could take risks. I have the most openness about my art . . . It’s total freedom and willingness to work. I’m willing really to walk on the edge and if I haven’t achieved it, that’s where I want to go. But in my life—maybe because my life has been so traumatic, so absurd—there hasn’t been one normal, happy thing . . . But I feel so strongly that the only art is the art of the artist personally and found out as much as possible for himself and by himself. So I am aware of connectedness—it is impossible to be isolated completely—but my interest is in solely finding my own way. I don’t mind being miles from everybody else.
She died in 1970, at the age of thirty-four.