I’m not saying Eva Hesse wasn’t a great artist. Her unique mashup of Minimalism, Arte Povera, Surrealist Biomorphic Abstraction, Pop and Process Art brought humor and pathos to a field that was threatening to disappear up its own ass in a frenzy of high-serious math-geek reductivism, and has proved to be a powerful and positive influence on subsequent generations of object makers — if only for the adoption of the respirator as a standard art-making tool. Hesse died of brain cancer at 34 after half a decade of unmediated exploration in highly evaporative sculptural materials like fiberglass and resin. In the last five years of her brief life, almost clairvoyantly integrated into the burgeoning discourse-dominated mainstream art world, she produced more remarkable sculptural pieces than most sculptors manage in a lifetime — certainly enough to justify her position as a major contributor to the history of late-20th-century art.
The problem is that even if I were to say Eva Hesse wasn’t a great artist, and back it up with all the rhetoric I could muster, it wouldn’t make an iota of difference — so entrenched in the canon as the important woman artist of the ’60s is she, so unassailable in her role as art martyr (a female Robert Smithson!), that my carefully argued opinion wouldn’t leave a scratch in the artist’s pristine, shrink-wrapped reputation. As a critic, I find this highly objectionable. But perhaps even more pertinently, it simultaneously renders Hesse a token and a sacred cow — neatly undermining both her significance as an artist regardless of gender and her impact as a rallying figure for challenging sexism in the art world.
If Hesse’s artwork had been identical but from a provenance of, say, some third-generation Irish-American postmenopausal fat chick from Illinois instead of a Holocaust-escaping, mother-suiciding, die-young stay-pretty art-babe Yalie, not only would she never have become the figure of veneration that launched a thousand term papers, her art would be rotting in some basement in Chicago. It’s an even creepier form of art celebrity than when a no-talent schmoozer gets elevated to superstardom, because in Hesse’s case there’s something of substance actually at stake.
It’s also a form of art celebrity that results in exhibitions like “Eva Hesse Drawing,” co-organized by NYC’s Drawing Center and Houston’s Menil Foundation, and currently on view at MOCA’s Grand Avenue facility. Trimmed of its extraneous ephemera by two-thirds, “Drawings” is a small jewel of a show, compiling the artist’s loopy, colorful, cartoonish, off-kilter abstractions alongside her contemplative monochrome ink-wash geometries, her tweakerific ink-on-graph-paper noodlings, and sumptuous late-’60s gouaches into a compelling analogue of her more substantial primary oeuvre.
Unfortunately, that jewel is buried in a mound of caca — student exercises, second-rate sketchbooks, and a numbing plethora of carefully matted and framed pages torn from dime-store notebooks wherein Hesse describes, in unremarkable graphic shorthand, possible color schemes or suspension hardware for works that aren’t even included here as photographic reproductions. It’s the equivalent of one of those Beatles bootlegs with 27 false starts and instrumental takes of “And I Love Her” surrounding the version of “What’s the New Mary Jane?” with Syd Barrett and the a cappella “Because.” As far as the filler goes, I believe the phrase is “for completists only,” and the appropriate venue eBay or some similar reliquary for celebrity droppings.
While already-fans of Hesse’s work will welcome the chance to sift out her very accomplished graphic side (especially if they missed the definitive 2002 retrospective at SFMOMA, which included most of the same material), the slim chance that this show could serve as a neophyte’s introduction to a (in my opinion) great artist is derailed by an embarrassing academic fetishism. Genuflecting to scraps of foolscap is not la gente’s idea of a good time.
Over at LACMA, a small survey of works on paper by Richard Pousette-Dart offers an interesting corollary to the Hesse show. A first-generation Abstract-Expressionist painter who fled Manhattan and broke with the Clement Greenberg herd at the price of relative obscurity, Pousette-Dart kept working until his death, in 1992, at age 76. He is still considered a quirky footnote player in the history of the New York School’s reinvention of Modernism, but at least his laundry lists aren’t being put on public display.
Instead, LACMA — in consort with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Cincinnati Art Museum — has assembled a pithy sampler of what are in essence small-scale examples of all the artist’s major painting styles. Obviously a bit of a graphomaniac, Pousette-Dart deployed his obsessive, luminous mark-making with equal attention across paper, canvas and printmaking surfaces. The works here — while lacking the physical presence of the major pieces — are expressions of the same spiritual/aesthetic continuity that underlies their more monumental cousins, and look just as good. Spanning more than 50 years of artistic practice, “Transparent Reflections” follows Pousette-Dart in mining the same loose-handed Gottliebesque mythological symbolism as the young Jackson Pollock into a more pulverized (almost Outsider) spiritual vision typified by oscillating moiré-fields of shimmering dots coalescing into tunnels, orbs and all-over screens of quivering hieroglyphics.
Pousette-Dart’s insistence on the fundamentally spiritual nature of his own practice — and of artistic practice in general — helped marginalize him from mainstream art-world culture, but equally endeared him to acidheads and closet Jungians. On the other hand, the flat opticality and compositional virtuosity of his geometric abstractions kept him in the conversation — Manhattan-wise — well beyond the expiration dates of many of his AbEx comrades. Riding a rising tide of interest in pictorial semiotics and early-20th-century spiritualist abstraction, Pousette-Dart experienced a renewal of currency in the mid-’80s, and subsequently realized some of his most vigorous work.
As gifted visual linguists emerging in contradictory periods of critical context, Pousette-Dart and Hesse share more than they (or rather, their champions) would like to admit. Maybe the oddest correspondence between the two is the formal similarity of their work, supposedly created out of such critically divergent worldviews. In spite of the polar-opposite rationalizations they’ve been used to illustrate, and the essential difference that purists insist they perceive, their pictures raise the question: When Martians discover the ruins of our civilization in 50 years, will they be able to tell the concentric rings of Hesse’s Post-Minimal Systems from the concentric rings of Pousette-Dart’s AbEx Psychedelia? If not, why not?
Eva Hesse Drawing | MOCA, 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown | Through October 23
Transparent Reflections: Richard Pousette-Dart, Works on Paper, 1940–1992 | LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles | Through September 17