On ViewGuggenheim Museum
July 8 – October 16, 2022
Would she have used less ephemeral materials if she had known that she was going to die at thirty-four? The current exhibit of Eva Hesse’s Expanded Expansion at the Guggenheim begs that question. Excavated from storage after nearly thirty-five years, meticulously if minimally repaired, the latex-dipped cheesecloth hung between fiberglass poles has stiffened and darkened with age. From a 1969 photograph of Hesse posed in front of Expanded Expansion, we can see that what was originally translucent and even playful in effect has become instead monumental and rigid. Death has taken Hesse, and so too has time aged this work in a way that makes latex-covered cheesecloth seem skin-like, all too human.
Life is short and art is long, but Hesse told Cindy Nemser in an interview during her final illness, “Life doesn’t last, art doesn’t last.” She insisted until the end upon the materials that achieved the effect she wanted in the present rather than compromise for the sake of longevity. Expanded Expansion indeed does suggest with its finite expansion how very human, even silly as Hesse herself said, our belief might be in our capacity to extend into a measureless future. To view Expansion at the Guggenheim now in its darkened and fragile state is to see more clearly the opposite, how the past expands behind us pole after pole, the fabric of our history growing ever more rigid, less easily repaired. Hesse has made her point, perhaps more effectively than she could have ever guessed.
The ironies of history can seem to stretch ad infinitum in Hesse’s case. Born a German Jew in Hamburg in 1936, she survived because her parents managed to get her and an elder sister to the Netherlands, where they were sheltered by Catholic nuns until their parents rescued them. The family eventually made their way to New York. The extended families were lost to the Holocaust, though, and Hesse’s mother committed suicide when she was ten. It was in Germany, however, on an extended artist’s residency in a defunct textile factory that Hesse turned seriously to sculpture. Plagued by nightmares, especially at first, and often struggling with anxiety and depression, she used abandoned materials to begin making her mature work. She had found her way, and she knew it too. “I do feel I am an artist—one of the best,” she wrote in a 1965 diary entry once back in New York. Such is the strength of her character that this assertion does not feel bravado or consolation, but a belief she was coming to allow herself.
Couldn’t she have changed her mind, a curator asks Hesse’s studio assistant Doug Johns in a film about the project as they debate how to repair the original work while also creating a facsimile, which presumably could eventually have been displayed. He asserts that we only have her intentions, as they were, not as an infinite expansion. Even then, the work was not quite what Hesse intended, but what was possible. “I thought I would make more of it,” Hesse is quoted as saying in Lucy Lippard’s seminal 1976 book on the artist, “but sickness prevented it.” Relic, requiem, monument? Expanded Expansion allows us to entertain all these possibilities as we see it from our own distressed moment, climate change and political strife reminding us ever more urgently of the fragility of life…and art. As for Hesse, we can’t know if her refusal to work in more permanent materials was humility or arrogance or an insistence upon the finiteness of human existence.
The Guggenheim’s curators Lena Stringari, Richard Armstrong, and Esther Chao have taken every care with this one-object exhibit, providing a rich context through video, audio, and photographs for Hesse’s work as well as an exacting, sensitive curatorship of a significant but deteriorating object. It is the rare exhibit that rewards both a viewer seeing Hesse’s work for the first time and one more familiar with her brief but productive career. Despite her family’s traumatic history and the anxiety and sadness that often plagued her days, Hesse worked with the pickings of Canal Street’s hardware bins in a joyful, even ecstatic vein. Such is her work’s allure that I saw several museum-goers surreptitiously touch Expanded Expansion as if to see if its magic could be felt. Luckily, the museum has provided several samples of the material, one new and one deteriorated, to feel. Held between one’s fingers, latex-covered cheesecloth can seem as compellingly alive as a baby’s hand. No wonder, Eva Hesse couldn’t resist it. Nor should anyone able and interested resist the chance to see this sublime work.