October 20, 2018

Documentary shines light on Eva Hesse and her art

Eva Hesse first became known in the New York art world of the 1960s by making colorful abstract-expressionist paintings, but it was her departure from the art scene and a lengthy return to her native Germany that led her to begin making the abstract sculptures that would earn her global acclaim.

The first full-length documentary about this original and prolific artist, simply titled “Eva Hesse,” opens at Laemmle Monica Film Center on May 13. It offers an intimate look at her brief life, which ended in 1970 when she died of a brain tumor at age 34. The film features excerpts from Hesse’s journals (read by actress Selma Blair) and from her correspondence with close friend and mentor, minimalist artist Sol LeWitt, as well as interviews with artists Richard Serra, Robert Mangold, Nancy Holt, Dan Graham and more. It also offers a fascinating glimpse into a pivotal moment in American art.

“She was a great artist, and she looked at everything. She was very well-read, and she was very well-informed about everything that was going on,” Marcie Begleiter, the film’s director, said in a phone interview. “She wanted to be a part of the conversation. There’s pop art going on; there’s minimalism going on; there’s people over on the side there doing some surrealist work. It was all happening at the same time, a multitude of ideas. And she pulled from all of them that interested her.” 

Begleiter spent five years working on the film. After seeing reproductions of Hesse’s work, she sought out the first book written about the artist, by Lucy Lippard, an art critic and a friend of Hesse’s. It was first published in 1976 but was long out of print. Although the book isn’t a biography, it provides basic biographic material, describes Hesse’s work process, talks about her friends and colleagues, and quotes extensively from Hesse’s unpublished journals.

“I thought it was a really interesting book and a great story about the 1960s and this amazing woman who was a feminist before anybody used the word,” Begleiter said. “It had all these amazing pieces to it, aside from the fact that the work blew me away. It was so original; it was so material, it didn’t look like anything else. It was emotional; it was intellectual. It’s just ineffable, the way great art is.”

About a decade ago, Begleiter mentioned her interest in Hesse to a friend who happened to be an arts librarian. She in turn mentioned that Hesse’s archives are stored in a little museum, the Allen Memorial Art Museum, in Oberlin, Ohio. The archive contains more than 1,300 items. The museum was the first to purchase a sculpture by Hesse, in 1970. After the artist’s death, as an act of gratitude, her sister, Helen, donated the artist’s notebooks, diaries, sketchbooks, photographs and letters to the museum.

Atelier, a collection of various sculptural objects, 1968

At the time, Begleiter was teaching film and art. She applied for a grant and went to Oberlin, where she donned white gloves and sifted through hundreds of pages of Hesse’s writing. At the end of a week, Begleiter said, “I had really fallen for this person who was extraordinarily complicated and ambitious and intelligent.”

Begleiter, who is also a playwright, wrote a play about Hesse that was produced in Los Angeles in 2010. A producer, Karen Shapiro, saw it and brought it to a bigger theater. Shapiro ended up producing the documentary film, as well.

Hesse’s sister, Helen Hesse Charash, told Begleiter that other people had expressed interest in making a documentary about her sister but had never followed through. Begleiter realized that many of Hesse’s contemporaries were nearing the end of their lives.

“It felt like if we didn’t do it at that moment, it would never get done,” Begleiter said.

The film is a German-American co-production, fitting because Hesse was born in Hamburg, immigrated to the United States, and then found her artistic voice when she returned to her homeland for a yearlong sabbatical. A year after her first solo exhibition, German collector Arnhard Scheidt invited Hesse and her husband, Tom Doyle, to work in an abandoned textile factory in Kettwig.

Hesse felt conflicted about returning to Germany. In the 1930s, her father, Wilhelm, an attorney and observant Jew, was barred from practicing law under Nazi rule. Three weeks after Kristallnacht, in 1938, her parents put their two daughters, Eva, 2 years old, and Helen, 5 years old, on a kindertransport to Holland. A few months later, the family reunited and immigrated to New York. Hesse’s uncle and grandparents died in concentration camps. 

Hesse had a difficult childhood. Her parents divorced and her mother, Ruth, after battling what is now known as bipolar disorder and depression, committed suicide when Hesse was not yet 10. For her entire life, Hesse experienced fear of abandonment. Nevertheless, she was a talented young artist and used her mother’s German reparation money to pay for her art studies at Cooper Union and Yale. After graduating and moving to New York in the 1960s, she became frustrated by the fact that men dominated the art world.

“She was a woman who defined herself by her own terms,” Begleiter said. “She was really extremely thoughtful about who she wanted to be and how she wanted to be in the world.”

Hesse spent her first nine months back in Germany moping and feeling bad about her career. Then a letter from LeWitt, now famous for its sage advice (“Stop it and just do!”), lifted her confidence and led to a burst of productive sculpture making in 1965. She began incorporating coiled rope and other objects she found on the factory floor into her canvases and made more than a dozen pieces over the next three months.

“So things started coming off the canvas. It started breaking through from side to side,” Begleiter said.

Hesse returned to the U.S. and rose to become a star in the New York art world. Her abstract sculptures seem fragile and impermanent. She used unconventional industrial materials, including latex, rubber, fiberglass and polyester resin to create sculptures that hung from walls or ceilings or filled the floor of a room. She defied conventions about sculpture and helped establish the post-minimalist movement, with an emphasis on tactile process and studio technique. In 1970, the year she died, she exhibited pieces in more than 20 group exhibitions. Today, her work is in the collections of many major museums around the world.

“Sans II” (1968)

There seems to be a revival of interest in Hesse right now. She’s had many posthumous retrospectives, from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., to the Tate Gallery in London. Two of her pieces from 1968, the latex and canvas “Augment,” which rests on the floor, and the four-piece “Aught,” which hangs from a wall, are included in the show “Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016” at the new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel gallery in downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District. And in May, Yale University Press will publish a 900-page volume of Hesse’s previously unpublished diaries. And Begleiter’s documentary is likely to attract more fans to the artist’s provocative and remarkable body of work.

“Eva Hesse” opens May 13 at Laemmle Monica Film Center.