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Simone Weil


Eva Hesse

The writer Simone Weil died in 1943 at the age of 34. In spite of her short life, her legacy is a rich one, spanning a variety of métiers including philosophy, Christianity, theology, social justice, mysticism. And even though her life’s work was from her point of view of a god-centered believer, the atheist icon Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times.”

Another young German woman, the artist Eva Hesse, also died at the age of 34. Like Weil, her short life had more than its fair share of difficulty and suffering. Also similar is the world’s steadily increasing interest in her body of work. With only a ten year career, Hesse was influential in the move from Minimalism to Postminimalism. Writing about a recent retrospective of her work, art historian Arthur Danto addressed “the discolorations, the slackness in the membrane-like latex, the palpable aging of the material…Yet, somehow the work does not feel tragic. Instead it is full of life, of eros, even of comedy…Each piece in the show vibrates with originality and mischief.”

I am amazed by the legacy of both of these women even though their work is not similar in nature or outlook. Each achieved extraordinary depth during lives that were improbably and tragically shortened. Spending time with either body of work is a sober reminder that suffering is perennial and life is short. That what you do each day is what matters most.

“It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy in order to find reality through suffering,” Weil wrote.

Christian Wiman, also an admirer of Weil, responded to this statement in his essay Love Bade Me Welcome:

I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable…I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.

That last line is a Taoist-like insight: the need, every day, to break ourselves apart and start fresh. That is a concept that speaks to me deeply.

But is it true, as Wiman claims, that it is not possible to be conscious and comfortable? Maybe it is the word comfortable that leaves me looking for some wiggle room. What about being conscious and accepting, in the spirit of Wendell Berry‘s admonishment to “be joyful though we have considered all the facts.” Still finding my way through that one.


Eva Hesse, No Title, Oil on canvas. 20 x 20 inches. Verso on upper stretcher ‘August 1960 eva hesse Top.’ On lower stretcher ‘eva hesse 1960.’ Private collection, New York. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

I need to take one more thinking lap with the paintings by Eva Hesse on exhibit at the Hammer Museum. (I wrote briefly about this show in an earlier post.) Thanks to the Hammer’s regular vetting of blogs and online reviews (they do a better job of tracking the penumbra of responses to their exhibits that than just about any arts institution I follow), I found my way to a thoughtful and insightful response to the Hesse show by Michelle Plochere on Nancy Cantwell’s excellent blog, The Times Quotidian.

From Plochere’s post:

These are paintings, as suggested by the exhibition title, that are literally haunted by process. The brushwork is free and expressionistic; the forms and faces are stripped to their essentials: wraith-like figures with round hips, bellies and breasts, and skull-shaped heads with globular eyes and insistent slashes for mouths. Given that she had been in psychoanalysis for 3 years prior, it is tempting to read the works purely in terms of investigative self-portraiture, with multiple selves and emotional states represented, and the didactic panels in this show take full advantage of this opportunity. But the paintings feel more like excisions, a shedding or ridding of representation in their subject/ object play. They are vital in their “undoing-ness,” their “painting out,” and this vitality in the un-knowing, un-painting, un-making of what in her sculpture she called “nothings, ” remained a through line in her work to the end. In her 1970 catalog notes for her final piece, tellingly entitled “Contingent, ” she writes:

“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? …. How to achieve by not achieving? How to make by not making? It’s all in that. It’s not the new. It is what is yet not known, thought, seen, touched but really what is not. And that is.”

This struggle is one most artists know about, but articulating that longing and search in language is hard to do. When couched as it is here, I couldn’t help but recall that perfect piece of poetic genius, The Snow Man, by Wallace Stevens:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

California is, for me, a complex brew. I grew up in the Bay Area so visits to that childhood domain are laden with the peculiar confluence of emotions that most of us carry, consciously and unconsciously, from our early life and family of origin. But California is also a harbinger of the future tense, offering glimpses into a number of versions of where attitudes and lifestyles might be headed. There are lots of possibilities, and the essential tension between the past and the future is visceral, poignant and personal. Overlaid on top of all of that deep tissue vibratory sensation is my ongoing search for aesthetic resonance, wherever that might be found. And there were some fine high points for me. Here are a few.

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Untitled, by Eva Hesse. Ursula Hauser Collection courtesy of Hammer Museum

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Annie Philbin, director of the Hammer, is on my all time greats list for conceiving of the utterly brilliant and perfectly timed Charles Burchfield show. Curated by artist Bob Gober, this show unveiled the brilliance at the core of an artist I had, out of ignorance, moved to the stadium seats. Never again. Burchfield was a visionary and a nature mystic, and his paintings have to be seen in the flesh to fully comprehend the scope of what he was doing. (I wrote about the Burchfield show at the Whitney Museum here.)

Currently on view at the Hammer are two shows worth seeing: Paintings by Eva Hesse (I was surprised by their existence too) and Mark Manders’ conceptually provocative installations. While Hesse’s paintings do not convey the brilliance that played out in her later sculptural works, seeing this body of work enriched my understanding of what she was struggling through when caught in the tangle of irreconcilable differences between her two professors at Yale, Rico Lebrun and Josef Albers. In her journal she wrote, ” “To hell with them all. Paint yourself out, through and through, it will come by you alone. You must come to terms with your own work not with any other being.”

But the highlight of my visit to the Hammer was seeing two paintings from the collection that were on view: A wall sized work by Mark Bradford, and an equally commandingly sized painting/collage by Elliott Hundley. Bradford’s piece is the most lyrical and exquisite rendering of his signature style of surface distress and sociological implication. I can’t stop thinking about its swirl of energy and passion. Hundley’s piece, a sea of pinned on images over a highly layered surface, is playful and engaging.

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Resnick Pavilion, LACMA
Renzo Piano’s massive addition is reminiscent of the Robert Irwin-renovated (with OpenOffice) arena that was once a Nabisco factory and is now Dia: Beacon. The natural light, intoxicatingly lush, was a wonderful way to see the Olmec collection on view. (Two other shows, in more traditional controlled light galleries were of less interest to me.) I don’t think I’ve ever seen Olmec objects in daylight, and I have been searching and studying this Pre-Columbian culture for 40 years.

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Getty Gardens
They never tire for me. Every season is a revelation. Robert Irwin, once again.

And the views of Los Angeles from the Getty Center at sunset are spectacular. You just can’t not celebrate the light.

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Tivoli Gardens, by Judy Pfaff, Braunstein Quay Gallery, San Francisco
More breathtakingly engaging work by the one and only Judy Pfaff. (I wrote about her recent New York show here.) I will spend more time on Judy and the Tivoli Gardens show in my next post. Fecund, fantastical and ferociously fun.

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Eva Hesse. She’s one of those artists in the Influencer Pantheon who just keeps giving. Her work lights up my dashboard again and again. And how I wish I were going to be in Edinburgh in October rather than November—50 works by Hess, never before seen in public, are being featured in a show as part of the Edinburgh festival. It runs through October 25.

Here is an overview from Laura Cumming in the Guardian:

When the New York Times famously announced that Hesse was “at the outset of a brilliant career” in 1970, its prediction was shockingly mistaken. Not because she had already established herself as a great sculptor by the age of 34, but because she had recently died of cancer.

This anecdote is bitter proof for those who still insist upon Hesse as the Sylvia Plath of art: a refugee from the Nazis, her mother a suicide, her marriage ending in desertion just before the tumour was discovered. But the life is entirely divisible from the art, as these marvellous creations testify. Every little thing here, from the “painting” made of washers to the ribboning scroll of mesh that holds itself nonchalantly aloft, is vivacious, dynamic, surprising, droll – by all accounts, like the artist herself…

To speak of these sub-objects (as they are described in the superb catalogue) as vessels is to miss out all sorts of other nuances of shape. And that’s the joy of it – Hesse hits just beyond verbalisation. It is part of her gift to evade analogy and association and make things so eccentric and awkward they look like nothing else, or nothing else before them. For sculptors have been trying to emulate Hesse ever since.

Eva-Hesse-Studiowork-1968-003
Eva Hesse Studiowork, 1968, Courtesy of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive. Photograph: Abby Robinson/Courtesy of the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh