Almost every creative work is inescapably autobiographical. We can’t get outside ourselves, so whatever’s been experienced finds expression in the work, whether consciously or unconsciously. Even formal attempts to divest the self from an artifact are an expression of the individual at that given point in history. Chance, accident, a minimalist aesthetic--these are personal aesthetic choices, ones that reveal a fingerprint of its creator that stem from the raw material of that person’s life.
This is a feeling I’ve had about art for years, and it’s one of the central concerns of the documentary Eva Hesse. The film chronicles the troubled, brief, yet prolific life of the influential artist. She was one of the few prominent women in the New York art scene of the late 1960s, and here she’s given her loving due.
Director: Marcie Begleiter
Release Date: April 27, 2016 (NYC, with future limited release in select cities)
Hesse began her career as a painter and illustrator, and her early work could be described as abstract expressionist or post-abstract expressionist. She’d later flourish by combining painting and sculpture, using texture, repetition, humor, protrusion, interruption, surrealism, and absurdity to create a style all her own. The film develops connections between the work, Hesse’s Jewish identity, and her strained or distant personal relationships, and with varying degrees of success. It’s all engaging, yet I felt the movie was in a more comfortable groove when in the thick of the art and the art scene.
Hesse’s best known works are generally her post-minimalist sculptures crafted from industrial materials like resin, fiberglass, plastic, and rubber. Many of these materials were purchased along Canal Street back when New York City was a bohemian wonderland. Like all movies about that creative boom period, the images of dangerous and affordable squalor left me wistful for a place and a scene that no longer exists. Pearl Paint was still there, today it’s no more.
Director Marcie Begleiter uses Hesse’s diaries, letters, and calendars to structure a intimate portrait of the artist and her work. Yet Begleiter is careful in her approach, suggesting connections between life and work without delving into the psychological drives or underpinnings. Writer Lucy Lippard, a friend of Hesse’s who’s interviewed in the film, even stops herself mid-answer from making any definitive psychological pronouncements about the work. It’s a careful balance, the difference between appreciation and diagnosis, and while the life is the material of the work just as much as string and resin, the work is more than just the manifestation of an irresolvable turmoil.
Hesse is anxious over a trip to Germany given her childhood anxieties and strife about her homeland, and yet she’s able to find her own voice as an artist by being there. Later as Hesse struggles with her health, her reliance on chance, gravity, and materials that degrade may suggest a kind of resignation and acceptance. As a nice correlative, Begleiter punctuates a celebration of the artist’s legacy with a memento mori straight from Hesse’s journals. Even without this knowledge, Hesse’s work has this beguiling power given its singular vision. This may just speak to the autobiographical nature of encountering artwork. It’s an imperfect Venn diagram: the life and times of the artist and the life and times of the person encountering the art meet in the middle-space of the work itself.
Selma Blair reads excerpts from Hesse’s journals with a lulled sadness, sort of like an adult Wednesday Addams, yet Blair’s croaks and pauses in delivery have bruises in them. We only hear Hesse’s real voice once in the film, and it’s totally different from Blair’s line reading. Hesse’s New York accent is thick and endearing and vulnerable in its own way. It got me wondering about the different ways we read and interpret writings aloud, and how there’s a seriousness about reading from diaries and letters that’s never quite present in our extemporaneous speech. Even when Blair’s voicing letters between Hesse and her friends, the read is more like a monologue than a conversation. Maybe even private writings are really conversational.
Whatever minor qualms I might have about form and content, it doesn’t detract from the documentary’s primary focus, which is an appreciation of Eva Hesse the artist and Eva Hesse the woman. Hesse’s life, like her work, leaves an impression, a little fingerprint on a plastic vessel, or the drip of resin on the floor of a Bowery loft.