Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 31, 2014
Veronica Roberts, ed. Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt Exh. cat. Austin and New Haven: Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin and Yale University Press, 2014. 192 pp.; 246 color ills.; 22 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780300204827)
Exhibition schedule: Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin, February 23–May 18, 2014
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Eva Hesse. Accession V (1968). Galvanized steel and rubber. 10 x 10 x 10 inches. LeWitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut. © The Eva Hesse Estate. Courtesy Hauser and Wirth.

Eva Hesse’s Washer Table (1967), a little-known and rarely exhibited work, stands in the middle of the four open gallery spaces of the Blanton Museum of Art’s exhibition Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt. Originally painted white with a gray grid, the squat, four-foot-square coffee table was constructed by LeWitt and given to Hesse as a gift. Hesse subsequently painted the table black and covered its surface in tight rows of rubber washers like those found in a hardware store. Despite the serial, orderly layout of the industrially manufactured circular forms, the pliable rubber material produces subtle ripples that lend the tabletop a gentle dynamism. Hesse later gifted the manipulated piece of furniture back to LeWitt, and Washer Table has since remained in the LeWitt Collection. Made by both artists and expressive of their reciprocity and rapport, Washer Table is a fitting element in this exhibition about artistic and personal exchange. For a table represents a site of such activity—where objects are made, games are played, meals are shared, and conversations transpire. Centrally located and visible from multiple vantage points within the exhibition space, Washer Table functions as the physical centerpiece of the show around which a generative dialogue between two highly influential artists of the postwar period unfolds.

As its title indicates, Converging Lines examines Hesse and LeWitt’s close friendship and the ways in which each informed the other’s work. Thoughtfully curated by Blanton Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Veronica Roberts, the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue feature a noteworthy selection of drawings, paintings, sculptures, and correspondence by and between Hesse and LeWitt. Viewed together, these works offer fresh insights into the relationship and practices of two distinctly individual—yet deeply connected—artists.

Hesse and LeWitt met in New York City in the late 1950s, shortly before he began working at the Museum of Modern Art, where he in turn met artists Dan Flavin, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, and art critic Lucy Lippard. They lived in close proximity in Lower Manhattan, and Hesse joined the neighborhood (which by then grew to include Mel Bochner, Deborah Hay, Nancy Holt, Robert Smithson, and others) when she relocated to 134 Bowery Street in 1963. Although Converging Lines concentrates on Hesse and LeWitt, the exhibition acknowledges the broader art-historical context of which they were a part by displaying a map identifying the many artist’s studios in Lower Manhattan in the 1960s, calling attention to the remarkably close-knit, productive, and supportive artistic community.

While scholarship has noted Hesse and LeWitt’s friendship, it has frequently positioned the two artists in opposition. LeWitt is best known for employing geometric units such as lines, grids, and cubes; for his use of systems and seriality; and for his wall drawings (five of which are in the exhibition) based on sets of instructions and executed by draftsmen. He emphasized the idea behind his work over its making, a conceptual approach made overtly clear in his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” from 1967, in which he famously pronounced: “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art” and “execution is a perfunctory affair” (Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 [Summer 1967]: 79–83). In contrast, the process of making was fundamental to Hesse, whose work almost always bears traces of the artist’s hand. Using unconventional materials prone to deterioration like latex, fiberglass, cheesecloth, and nylon, her visual lexicon connotes biomorphic forms, eroticism, and irregularity. Whereas LeWitt is linked to the Minimalist and Conceptual art movements of the 1960s, in many ways bridging the two, Hesse defies such categorization. Though her career was cut short—she died at the age of thirty-four—a number of labels have been applied to her work, including Postminimalism, Process art, and Anti-Form. In brief, scholars have sometimes formulaically associated LeWitt’s work with the rational mind and Hesse’s as guided by emotion, intuition, and inextricably linked to the body—a false dichotomy entwined with long-held stereotypes about masculine and feminine roles. Roberts unravels such binaries in Converging Lines, although the exhibition does not principally address the complex issue of how often these works fall into gendered readings.

Comparing LeWitt’s 3 × 3 × 3 (1965) and Hesse’s Accession V (1968), which are installed on side-by-side pedestals, demonstrates some of the differences outlined above. Typical of LeWitt’s constructions from the period, 3 × 3 × 3 comprises seamless open cubes stacked three long, wide, and deep. Made of wood, the bone white structure is devoid of any vicissitudes inherent in the handmade. 3 × 3 × 3 is light, skeletal, and employs a strict geometry; conversely, Hesse’s Accession V (another work she gave to LeWitt, one of several personal exchanges included in the exhibition) presents a dark, fleshy, plastic materiality. To make the piece, Hesse hand-threaded black rubber tubes through perforations in the sides of a steel cube. The soft protrusions bristling along the cube’s interior walls evoke organic matter like tentacles or cilia that impart a sensual tactility, disrupting the industrial form so favored by Minimalist artists such as LeWitt or Donald Judd.

Although Hesse’s and LeWitt’s motivations and methods may diverge, Converging Lines poses an alternative to interpretations that focus on dualities between their work—conceptual/corporeal, rigid/malleable, insistence on objectivity/subjectivity, and so on—instead conflating seeming incongruities and suggesting affinities at every turn. Material disparities notwithstanding, Roberts’s choice to position 3 × 3 × 3 and Accession V next to each other prompts viewers to recognize their likenesses. Similar in size (approximately one-foot-square), both are open cubes: LeWitt’s a three-dimensional grid, and Hesse’s missing its top. 3 × 3 × 3 and Accession V are simultaneously stable and penetrable; the tension between straightforward exteriors and multifaceted interiors incites viewers to peer into and through the works, which activates shifting perceptual fields.

So too, viewers are invited to peer through the exhibition layout of Converging Lines, which is at once intimate and open, allowing for fluid conversation between the objects on view. This is notable from the outset in the entry gallery, which displays rarely seen early work that manifests common interests. Both artists used a surprising spectrum of bright colors; they expressed a mutual preoccupation with geometric forms like cubes, boxes, and wobbly grids; and they embraced play. For example, the three arrows pointing right in LeWitt’s painting Run I (1962) are countered by the left-facing arrow in an untitled Hesse drawing hung next to it. Such dialectical interplay ricochets between the exhibition’s sight lines; LeWitt reimagines the teetering, ladder-like structures of another untitled Hesse work on paper in his Wall Piece (16 Modules High) (1988) located in the next room.

Converging Lines reinforces the visual connections between Hesse and LeWitt through text. In yet another instance of gift giving, LeWitt’s Drawing Series I/3241/A&B (1968), an important early work that gave rise to his wall drawings, bears the inscription “For Eva” in its lower left-hand corner. In addition to approximately fifty artworks on view, Roberts exhibits thirty-nine postcards from LeWitt to Hesse (as well as several from other art-world friends, among them Lippard, Bochner, and Dan Graham) and a motivational five-page letter he wrote her in 1965—which augments the personal, discursive nature of the show. However, messages from Hesse are absent within the gallery space. The words “To Eva” and “Dear Eva” recur throughout the exhibition, but the repetition of LeWitt’s handwritten words emphasizes the unfortunate lacuna of Hesse’s own, and it is unclear why her writing is not represented in either hard copy or reproduction. Although this is disappointing, the exhibition catalogue elaborates on her voice by citing her letters and journal entries. Beautifully designed, well researched, and vividly illustrated, the catalogue includes essays by Roberts, Kirsten Swenson, and Lippard; an interview between Dodie Kazanjian and LeWitt about his relationship with Hesse and her work; and a detailed chronology overlapping the two artists’ lives. While previous literature has discussed at great length how Minimalism generally and LeWitt in particular have informed Hesse’s work, Roberts underscores the impact her artistic practice had on his, thus making a much-needed contribution to existing scholarship.

As Roberts asserts, Hesse’s pivotal influence is evident in LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #46 (1970), especially when seen alongside her Metronomic Irregularity II (1966). LeWitt created the work in Hesse’s honor for an exhibition at Galerie Yvon Lambert in Paris just two days after her death on May 29, 1970. In a departure from his usual process—in which trained assistants would follow but were free to interpret the artist’s instructions to execute the work—LeWitt himself installed the piece, indicating its personal meaning. He subsequently included Wall Drawing #46 in virtually every major exhibition of his work, and it was the conceptual catalyst for this show, as indicated in both the wall text and catalogue. The work’s title contains its description: Wall Drawing #46: Vertical lines, not straight, not touching, uniformly dispersed with maximum density covering the entire surface of the wall. Drawn with pencil directly on the wall, the wiry marks pick up the slightly rough texture of the architectural surface, resembling loose strands of wavy hair meandering down the wall. This highlights physicality and inconsistency, both of which are signature characteristics of Hesse’s art. In addition to paying homage to the sinuous contours that pervade her work, Wall Drawing #46 also denotes a crucial turning point in LeWitt’s practice as the first wall drawing to feature “not straight” lines. This type of line became a recurrent motif in later work; it is the dominant compositional element in numerous works on paper and nearly one hundred wall drawings, including #219, #325, and #797, as well as his biomorphic Scribble series (2005–7)—all of which are on view in Converging Lines.

Hesse’s Metronomic Irregularity II is the inspirational force behind many integral aspects of LeWitt’s wall drawings: organic linearity, contingency, and impermanence. She made the piece for the groundbreaking exhibition Eccentric Abstraction (1966), which was curated by Lippard at the Fischbach Gallery as a response to the prevailing aesthetic discourse of Minimalism. Spanning over sixteen feet, the sculpture comprises three square, gray panels across which Hesse manually interlaced cotton-covered wire. LeWitt, who helped Hesse mount the work, was struck by its mutability; by design, the undulating filaments that flow across the panels change with each installation. Likewise, LeWitt’s wall drawings, the first of which he made two years later, are never the same twice. LeWitt was outspoken about his admiration of Metronomic Irregularity II, affirming: “It was really a magnificent piece and a way of liberation for me in my own work. . . . It had a strong and direct and specific effect on me” (Michael Kimmelman, “Eva Hesse and the Lure of ‘Absurd Opposites,’” The New York Times [May 10, 1992]).

Regrettably, Metronomic Irregularity II is no longer extant, and a dim reproduction hangs in its place on the Blanton Museum’s gallery wall. The black-and-white image is out of focus, and smaller in scale than the actual work. The sculpture’s impact is undeniable, but its representation renders the dynamic work flat and lifeless, detracting from an otherwise shrewdly installed exhibition.

Nevertheless, Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt extends a critically nuanced and enriching view of the artists’ work, one that illuminates elements of their practices that are often overlooked. In a letter Hesse wrote to LeWitt, she acknowledged the paradoxically conflicting yet connected nature of their art: “We strike some diametrically opposed balance, reacting emotionally so differently, yet somewhere understanding” (Eva Hesse, letter to Sol LeWitt, not dated; cited in the exhibition catalogue, 18). The Blanton exhibition celebrates the complexities and possibilities that emerge from such engaged dialogue. Without discounting significant differences, Converging Lines shows that it is precisely the dialectical tensions within and between Hesse’s and LeWitt’s work that endow it with enduring influence and force.

Katia Zavistovski
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, Rice University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.