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Artist Eva Hesse in London

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Hauser & Wirth London, 23 Savile Row, South Gallery, An Ear in a Pond, April 1965Hesse showed artists how to distill conceptual references down to a set of essential forms and contours.

Eva Hesse, whose work is currently being exhibited in London, was among the first artists of the 1960s to experiment with the fluid contours of the organic world of nature, as well as the simplest of artistic gestures.

She explored by way of basic materials how to suggest a wide range of organic associations, psychological moods, and what might be called proto-feminist, sexual innuendo.

She also experimented with expressing semi-whimsical states of mind rarely explored in the modern era until her all-too-brief debut.

Thus Hesse arrived quickly at a new kind of abstract painting, as well as a kind of so-called “eccentric”, freestanding sculpture.

Some observers see in these qualities latent, proto-feminist references to the female body; others find in Hesse’s languid forms expressions of wit, whimsy, and a sense of spontaneous invention with casually found, or “everyday” materials.

Eva Hesse was born into a German-Jewish family in Hamburg in January 1936; after the November pogrom or “Kristallnacht” of 1938, she and her sister Helen were sent to a Dutch children’s home.

Reunited with her parents in England, she moved with them to New York where she attended New York’s School of Industrial Art , today the High School of Art and Design.

While interning at Seventeen as an 18-year-old, Eva was chosen as the subject of a feature article in which she described her artistic calling in no uncertain terms, saying, “For me, being an artist means to see, to observe, to investigate.

“It means trying to understand and portray people, their emotions, their strengths and faults.

“I paint what I see and feel to express life in all its reality and movement.”

Hesse and her husband, sculptor Tom Doyle, left New York to work in Dusseldorf in 1965, and Hesse immersed herself in the German art scene, which was dominated by abstract sculpture.

Turning to materials found in a converted studio-factory, she began to explore working with plaster and string, while continuing to produce variations of the grid in her paintings and drawings.

The time Hesse spent in Germany amounted to much more than a period of artistic experimentation.

In Germany, Hesse was afforded the freedom to exercise her unique ability to manipulate materials, creating captivating, enigmatic works which would form the foundation of her emerging sculptural practice.

The results of this German trip – for example ‘Ear in a Pond’, shown here – are being exhibited by Hauser and Wirth at 23 Savile Row in London from 30 January until 9 March.

For a preview of her work, click here.

Hesse’s work itself was very much part of an equivocal and unique era in history, when artists were seeking new modes of expression in the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism.

Her answer to that problem continues to defy easy categorisation.

Hesse’s oblique references to the human body succeeded in breathing new life into a former Surrealist current in Europe and the United States in the pre-World War II period; thus Hesse’s work demonstrated to a new, postwar generation how to distill feelings and conceptual references down to a set of essential forms and contours.

The languid lines of her signature shapes, at once playful and full of gravitas, are apparent in a wide range of work by late-twentieth century American painters and sculptors, among them Brice Marden, Anish Kapoor, Louise Bourgeois, Martin Puryear, and Bill Jensen.

She died in May 1970, at the age of 34, arguably at the very height of her career.

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