Eva Hesse drawing exhibit at Oberlin College shows how her art triumphed over tragedies of a troubled life

OBERLIN, Ohio — The story of Eva Hesse’s short life and brilliant career as one of America’s greatest 20th-century abstract sculptors is saturated by tragedies that still have the power to sadden and shock.

Born in Hamburg Germany into an observant Jewish family in 1936, Hesse escaped the Holocaust as a child and grew up in New York City, where she became a pathbreaking artist in the tumultuous 1960s only to die of a brain tumor in 1970 at age 34.

In her all-too-brief journey to success, Hesse (pronounced HESS-uh) surmounted obstacles that would have defeated anyone less determined. Her parents divorced in 1945, and her mother died by suicide a year later after she learned that her parents, Hesse’s maternal grandparents, had died in Nazi concentration camps. Young Eva was 10 at the time.

Hesse’s short and disastrous marriage to sculptor Tom Doyle (1928-2016), ended in divorce, precipitated by Doyle’s drinking and womanizing, as recounted in an excellent 2016 documentary film by director Marcie Begleiter.

Overcoming these traumas through hard work, Hesse achieved breakthroughs that placed her at the forefront of the global avant-garde. She paved the way for a generation of women artists who rode a feminist wave that washed away barriers imposed by a previously male-dominated art world.

Working with industrial materials such as plastic, fiberglass, rubber, and polyester resin, Hesse explored new three-dimensional forms that married logic and chaos, sensuality and structure, order, and chance.

Eva Hesse

Untitled works by Eva HesseAllen Memorial Art Museum

She blended strikingly sexual imagery with influences from early 20th-century surrealism and the systematic orderliness of Conceptual and Minimalist art to fuse precise geometries with flowing, droopy, hairy, and soft organic forms often reminiscent of breasts, phalluses and hair.

At first disregarded by critics, Hesse quickly built a following between 1965 and 1970, earning shows across America and Europe. After starting out as a painter working on intimately scaled pieces, she mastered an ability to create compelling, large-scale works that filled the entire swirling ramp of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in an early posthumous retrospective.

Big takeaway

Given these facts, it would be easy to wallow in the notion of a supremely gifted and very beautiful young artist who grasped fame only to have her life cut short by disease. Ultimately, however, Hesse’s triumph is that the joy and discovery embodied in her work override the facts of her life.

That’s the big takeaway from a small, luminous, and revelatory exhibition that opened last month at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College.

Entitled “Forms Larger and Bolder: Eva Hesse Drawings,’’ the exhibition establishes simply that Hesse’s work is so compelling that it overcomes her biography. That’s a mark of how good she was as an artist, and why her art continues to compel attention.

On view through June 5, the exhibition focuses primarily on works on paper, charting the full span of Hesse’s creative flowering from her student days to her final months.

The show is comprised of more than 70 drawings plus sketchbooks, photographs, correspondence, publications, and other archival materials. Most of the contents were donated to the museum by Helen Charash, Hesse’s surviving older sister, in gratitude for the institution’s early recognition of Hesse’s importance.

Oberlin College's Allen Memorial Art Museum salutes artistic triumphs of Eva Hesse

Eva Hesse in her Bowery Studio, New York, NY, 1967–68.Allen Memorial Art Museum

With more than 300 drawings and 1,300 archival items, the Allen is the world’s leading repository of scholarly material on Hesse, and a place visited frequently by scholars and PhD. candidates studying the artist’s legacy.

In art historical terms, Hesse is considered a “post-Minimalist,’’ an artist who helped overturn the macho idiom of male artists who dotted urban plazas across the U.S. in the 1960s with massive constructions in sheet metal or tubular steel.

In contrast, Hesse molded a series of fleshy, translucent forms in fiberglass, and suspended skeins of latex-dipped rope from gallery ceilings. She threaded plastic tubes through a cube made of perforated steel plates, lining a hard-edged metallic shape with the industrial equivalent of hair.

Such works cleared a path for new ways of thinking about the relationship of sculpture to physical space, gravity, the body, and the process of art-making.

The Oberlin exhibition — the first major look at Hesse by the Allen museum since 1982-83 — was organized by Andrea Gyorody, the museum’s former assistant curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and the now the interim director of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University, and Barry Rosen, advisor to the Hesse estate.

It opened in February after a two-year delay imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. The Allen museum shared a different version of the Hesse exhibition in 2019 with mumok, the Museum of Modern art in Vienna, and the Hauser & Wirth Gallery in New York. The version now on view at Oberlin was previously shown at Museum Wiesbaden in Germany, in 2019.

Early progress

Organized chronologically, the two-room show opens with works from Hesse’s teen years, when she studied unhappily at New York’s then rigidly traditional Pratt Institute, before dropping out and taking a job at Seventeen magazine, which featured her early work in a 1954 article on display in the Oberlin show.

Eva Hesse

Untitled works by Eva HesseAllen Memorial Art Museum

Hesse soon moved on to the more supportive and forward-leaning artistic environments at the Cooper Union Art School, and Yale University, where she studied color with the Bauhaus abstractionist and fellow German émigré, Josef Albers.

Hesse aspired to be a painter during her college years. But her early drawings in the Oberlin show hint at the sculptural innovations that were to come. Hesse’s early still lifes and drawings of the human figure show that she was never interested simply in transcribing what she saw.

Her drawings of male and female nude models are thoughtful explorations of the hollows, curves, and structures of their bodies. Hesse used pen and ink and pencil on paper in ways that exploited the materiality of her simple tools through experiments in shading, mark-making, and line weight, or thickness.

A 1954 pen-and-ink drawing of a female nude posing on a stand explores the architectural space of the surrounding studio, with its stools, floorboards, and conduit leading to a wall outlet. These touches anticipate Hesse’s later interest in structures and space made evident in her sculpture.

By 1960, after graduating from Yale, Hesse was back in New York, producing Abstract Expressionst-style drawings in gouache and watercolor that were beautiful but behind the curve at a time when Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptual art were beginning to emerge.

Nevertheless, the drawings, which depict bony and fleshy forms that dance ecstatically across the picture plane, appear to be lighted from within in ways that hint at Hesse’s subsequent interest in the translucence of fiberglass and plastic.

Eva Hesse

Untitled works by Eva HesseAllen Memorial Art Museum

By 1962-63, Hesse was making gestural drawings and collages with pencils and crayons that evoke a sense of joy over her rising power to express emotion through abstract forms.

Her compositions by this time were dynamic and full of action, communicated through urgently scribbled and uninhibited forms that at times suggest windblown fields of wildflowers scattered among pieces of machinery.

By late 1963, Hesse’s use of watercolor became looser, more fluid, and more colorful as she exploited wet-into-wet techniques that allowed colors to blur and blend. Her use of line became even more virtuosic, from skittery incisive marks to thick, juicy loops and swirls.

Return to Germany

After her marriage to Doyle, Hesse accompanied him to Germany in 1964-65, where the industrialist and arts patron Friedrich Scheidt had offered him a residency in a vacant factory for a year in Kettwig, near the western city of Essen, in exchange for artworks and an exhibition.

Hesse, more of a trailing spouse than the primary beneficiary of Scheidt’s largesse, was depressed by visits to former residences of family members who perished in the Holocaust. Hesse struggled artistically.

Yet she slowly underwent a transformation as she studied disused textile machinery scattered in her workspace. Egged on by correspondence with her friend, the leading Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, she began drawing imaginary machines before embarking on a series of experimental abstract paintings and constructions.

“All sculptures are objects of one kind or another — don’t fight it. Go! Go!’’ LeWitt urged her in a postcard sent from New York in August 1964, that’s on display in the Oberlin exhibition.

The exhibition’s second room focuses primarily on a shift in Hesse’s approach to drawing after she returned to New York, divorced Doyle, and entered the final and most productive five years of her life.

As she turned full-time to monumental sculptures, she increasingly used drawing as a way to make working studies and notations for her three-dimensional creations. Her drawings from 1965-70 are fluent and full of elegant mark-making but function more as preparations for other works, rather than the finished creations that characterize the earlier part of the show.

Still, however, Hesse’s later drawings can be ravishingly beautiful. A 1968 sketch for a sculpture of rubber tubes cascading from a beam attached to a wall brings to mind a Leonardo da Vinci study of swirling currents in a waterfall.

Eva Hesse

Untitled works by Eva HesseAllen Memorial Art Museum

Sentimental occasion

For Oberlin, the Hesse show is a deeply special occasion, even a sentimental one. It celebrates not just the artist’s brilliance, but the college’s perspicacious recognition of it.

In the mid-1960s, when the Cleveland Museum of Art and other encyclopedic institutions like it looked askance at contemporary art, Oberlin’s art department courageously embraced the new.

Ellen H. Johnson, a distinguished professor of art history whose course on modern and contemporary art was mobbed by students in the 1960s, worked with artist Athena Tacha, who was then the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Allen, to invite Hesse to the college in January 1968 for a two-day visit.

Impressed by the drawings that Hesse brought along with her, Tacha and Johnson staged an impromptu show of the works in the college’s art department.

The visit, and the warm correspondence that followed, led to negotiations with the artist over acquiring a major example of her work, a transaction completed shortly after Hesse’s death in 1970.

The purchase, entitled, “Laocoon,’’ is considered one of Hesse’s masterpieces and was the first work by the artist acquired by an American art museum according to the Allen.

Named after the Greek legend of a father and sons crushed to death by serpents after flouting the will of the god Apollo, the sculpture is an 11-foot, grid-shaped tower of plastic plumber’s piping coated in papier-mâché and draped with snaky lines of cloth-covered rope.

Oberlin College's Allen Memorial Art Museum salutes artistic triumphs of Eva Hesse

“Laocoon,” by Eva Hesse, 1966, as installed at the Allen Memorial Art Museum.Steven Litt, Cleveland.com

Painted in an otherworldly tone of soft, gray-blue, the work anchors the Allen’s exhibition and provides a full-blown, fully-realized example of Hesse at her best. It leaves you wanting to see more sculptures by the artist, which alas was not possible within the context of the Allen’s mission to show off its strengths in Hesse’s drawings and archival material.

Nevertheless, the exhibition is a moving testament to the power of an institution to make and preserve art history by engaging with an important artist.

As such, it’s a great lesson not just for students at the college, but for anyone with a passion for contemporary art.


What’s up: “Forms Larger and Bolder: Eva Hesse Drawings.’’

Venue: Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Where: 87 N. Main St., Oberlin.

When: Through Sunday, June 5.

Admission: Free. Call 440-775-8665 or go to amam.oberlin.edu