Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

October 3, 2016

A New Look: Eva Hesse at Cornell Cinema

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Watching Eva Hesse, I felt almost certain that I had seen artist Eva Hesse’s work somewhere. The latex and fiberglass sculptures, the thrown-about ropes and the arrangement of her shapes seemed to me incredibly modern, given that Hesse had worked primarily during the sixties. Perhaps it’s just that by now, Hesse is well-known in context of the modern art movement, with several posthumous exhibitions. For example, following her death in 1970, Hesse’s work was displayed in a grand exhibition at the famous Guggenheim Museum — weird, absurd sculptures that had never been quite been seen before Hesse were gathered together and in the exhibit, five years’ worth of her work completely filled the floors of the Guggenheim, a remarkable feat given the size of the museum and Hesse’s deteriorating health prior to her death as her friends note in the new 2016 art documentary Eva Hesse.

Eva Hesse does more than simply recounting the life of an artist, or discussing an art movement — it explores and examines the complex interconnections between Hesse’s art and her life, detailing the development and fluidity of her times. Mainly following Hesse starting from her college years, the documentary is automatically set to discuss the art of the ’50s and ’60s, a particularly volatile and shattering time of art norms as modernist movements really came into swing with postmodernism, pop art, minimalism, and so on. At the forefront of one of these radical shifts was Eva Hesse, a young and talented German-Jewish woman whose family had managed to escape the horrors of Nazi Germany to the United States during the late ’30s.

Divided into clear delineations of stages of Hesse’s life, the art documentary at first unconsciously tricks viewers (those who don’t know much about Hesse) into thinking Hesse’s life is tidy and that her art was simply a part of a greater movement; we start with her going to art school, eventually going to Yale and becoming a quick favorite. However, as the sections of the documentary progress, we delve deeper both into Hesse’s future and her extremely traumatizing and scarred past, both in Germany and sometime afterwards, which deeply affects her mindset, art and ability to live as she wishes until the end of her life.

To this end, in general Hesse’s trauma and pain is often seen as inextricably tied to her art and her search for art—as the documentary implies, the common rhetoric today is that Hesse’s constant need to develop a definitive and revolutionary style was reflective of her need to create an identity for herself, to assuage her painful feelings of isolation and trauma through recognition as a great artist and to express her emotions and memories through ideas. While that may certainly be true, we also find part of Hesse’s mindset is also attributed to the artists’ spirit of the era, a time when art was done for art’s sake in the spirit of some sort of artistic revolution that demanded to break down any existing rule possible.

The art documentary paints a fuller picture. While the audio is most arguably the most important part of the documentary, as the documentary could actually be completely understood with the visuals, the collage of images and depictions of Hesse’s experiences give insight into the world of Eva Hesse — we have pictures of her throughout her life, her writing, her art and the people who worked with and loved her. It becomes easy to see Hesse’s evolution of breaking free from solely painting into the realm of sculpture that made her famous, from her early modernist drawings and schoolwork paintings to unconventional organic twists of ropes and wires, and shapes of resin and fiberglass molded personally arranged in neat displays.

Through the combination of a compelling and well-arranged narrative and these such visuals, Eva Hesse tackles the notion that Hesse’s art was solely an expression of her trauma and fear. It tackles the notion that her art was the expression of Hesse at all. Rather, as the documentary shows through a careful examination Hesse’s evolution, development, and relations, Hesse’s art were mere results of her art process of creation, which was really how Hesse faced and tackled the issues she saw in her life, going beyond just her fears into how she engaged the world and the way the world was changing. Through her art, she sought to explore the new, to make art that was meaningful for her — subsequently, her individuality and strong stances in the ’60s tied to her post-minimalist art movements in her unique style, the sexual revolution in the unidentifiably intimate character of her work, and the feminist movement in her rare position of a successful female artist in the art world. Hesse’s art followed her doggedly until her death, jumping medium to medium and constantly absorbing everything about the world around her. As an art documentary Eva Hesse gives a compelling and fascinating story — it doesn’t give us a bland narrative or overview, but digs deeply into the life of a woman whose art was a means of life and survival, and who, through exploring her own self in art, met the end of her tragically early end having overcome her past demons.

Eva Hesse will play at Cornell Cinema this Thursday, October 6, and Saturday, October 8.

Catherine Hwang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at 

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