German-born artist Eva Hesse’s short life belies a prodigious output that influenced Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, and abstraction. She worked with latex, fiberglass, cheesecloth, and wax, among other materials, creating organic, naturalistic luminous forms and transforming industrial waste products into high art. Marcie Begleiter’s new documentary paints Hesse as a charismatic, alluring figure in the 1960s New York art scene, who challenged Minimalism’s formal concerns with geometry and always pushed against major trends. Hesse’s story is substantially presented. It’s also quite moving.
Born Jewish in Hamburg in 1936, Hesse and her family immigrated to New York City in 1939. Her father had lost his position as a criminal attorney when the Nazis rose to power. He sent Eva and her sister Helen to Holland, not knowing if he would ever see them again. Begleiter incorporates much of Hesse’s own words into the mix, relying on journals and letters read in voice-over by Selma Blair. Interview subjects including art historian Lucy Lippard and artists Nancy Holt, Richard Serra, and Robert Mangold are in service to the narration, providing a context for Hesse’s words. Film footage and photographs enlivened by a musical score capture the zeitgeist of the 1960s, and Begleiter keeps the music and imagery — dominated by views of Hesse’s artwork — flowing at a lively clip.
“She had gutsiness right from the get-go,” said Helen Hesse Charash, Eva’s sister. At the age of sixteen, Hesse attended Pratt Institute and was put off by its staid academic style of instruction. She found Cooper Union to be a better fit. She then went to Yale and studied under Josef Albers. For someone who once stated that “only painting will see me through,” today she is best known for her sculpture.
In New York, she developed a close friendship with conceptual artist Sol LeWitt (voiced by Patrick Kennedy and Michael Che Koch). Hesse married sculptor Tom Doyle, whom she met at a party in 1962, cleaning him up after he got in a fistfight with another guest. With Doyle, she went to live and work for a time in Germany, a difficult decision because of her family history. Hesse’s life was marked by tragedy. Her aunt, uncle, and grandparents died in concentration camps, and her mother committed suicide in 1946. According to Helen, it was Eva’s art that got her through, even when the rest of her life was falling apart. Doyle and Hesse divorced in 1966 when their relationship grew distant. In 1969, at the height of her career, she was diagnosed with brain cancer and was dead within a year at the age of thirty-four. Begleiter treats this chapter with the emotional weight it deserves, and the closing sequences are heart-rending. Hesse continued to work, giving birth to new sculptures even when she herself was close to the end. The film is a satisfying portrait and a testament to her influence, and more so, to her spirit. — Michael Abatemarco