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When an artist's bio matters

 Eva Hesse in her Bowery Studio, circa 1967
Eva Hesse in her Bowery Studio, circa 1967 Photo: Herman Landshoff

When it comes to the viewer experience, artists' bios seem irrelevant. Either the work resonates or it doesn’t. An exception may be sculptor Eva Hesse, whose back-story adds an unquestionable layer of appreciation.

An exhibit of Hesse’s work from her last years, which end today in her native city of Hamburg, comes to mind because her last years were her early ones. She died at age 34 from a brain tumor and the work she did then was so extraordinarily free and original that one may wonder if artists, unshackled by expectations – theirs or others - let loose as their end nears.

I’m thinking of Norman Rockwell, who agonized in his journal before he died, “I was doing this best-possible-world, Santa-down-the-chimney, lovely- kids-adoring-their-kindly-grandpa-sort of thing. And I liked it, but now I'm sick of it."

Between 1966 and 1970 when she died, Hesse explored non-art-associated materials to show the contrast between the logical and the absurd. She also sought to erase the divide between painting and sculpture to capture the look of change and organic growth in static sculpture.

“Hang Up” exemplifies that erasing of the divide between painting and sculpture. What you see is a six foot by seven foot rectangular frame painted in several colors with a malleable metal rod looping from it. The line is Hesse’s equivalent of a drawn line, except it’s drawn in space rather than on a picture plane. And the pigments on the frame stand in for painting. “Hang Up,” then, becomes a kind of off-the-canvas artwork.

“Ennead” shows dyed strings hanging down from plywood, with some strands landing on a nearby wall and others cascading to the floor in a heap. Again, Hesse’s multimedia approach is an effort to mix painting and sculpture.

Her kind of work is called “process art.” The artist sets a process in motion and awaits the results. Hesse used malleable materials like fiberglass and latex to create abstract forms that appears to spring from the instability of the materials, as if they are slowing decomposing over time.

“I always work with contradictions, which is my idea of life. The whole absurdity of life, everything for me has always been opposite.

Hesse’s life was not easy. She escaped from Nazi Germany, had a mentally ill mother, an ailing father, a step-mother she detested and a fatal brain tumor. And for all that, she felt freer than most to take chances:

“I have no fear. I could take risks…it’s total freedom…I’m willing really to walk on the edge…maybe because my life has been so traumatic, so absurd…“There wasn’t one day of security and it never really got any better. So that gave me whatever strength I have.”