Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Pretty Makes Me Sick

Eva Hesse

Print Email
Eva Hesse

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.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Pretty Makes Me Sick

Eva Hesse

More on Tablet:

Rediscovering the First Woman Rabbi

By Laura Geller — Ordained in 1935, Regina Jonas died at Auschwitz. Now, she’s being honored.