Minimalist minus the quirks

ICA showcases Eva Hesse, but the small pieces on display don’t really interact with the space

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / July 22, 2011

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One of the things to like about the Institute of Contemporary Art is the intelligent continuity in its programming. It’s not just a case of “Who, or what, can we show next?’’ There’s logic, and evidence of long-term thinking at work.

Over the last few years we have seen, interspersed with other shows, exhibitions devoted to contemporary artists from Mexico (Gabriel Kuri, Damián Ortega, Dr. Lakra), political street art (Shepard Fairey, Dr. Lakra again, the upcoming Swoon), and post-minimalist sculpture (Anish Kapoor, Roni Horn, Tara Donovan).

So one can easily see why the ICA would want to take a traveling show of work by Eva Hesse. Without Hesse, a German artist who was based in New York and died in 1970, it’s very hard to imagine the innovations of Donovan, Kapoor, and Horn (or, for that matter, scads of other contemporary artists).

Unfortunately, the one-room show, organized by The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, is not so much an introduction to Hesse as a display of relics taken from her studio. It is the kind of show that presupposes a familiarity, if not an infatuation, with Hesse’s work, and even then risks triggering disappointment, so small, so unprepossessing, and so hermetic is the result.

Hesse was just 34 when she died (she had a brain tumor). But she was, without doubt, one of the most influential artists since World War II. After struggling for several years to find her artistic voice, she settled into minimalism, the prevailing aesthetic in the 1960s, and gave it new life.

Even better, she gave it an afterlife. She introduced materials (latex, rubber, paper, plastics) and forms (stretched, hanging, curled, crinkled, folded, floppy) that are now all but ubiquitous in contemporary art.

The leading figures of minimalism - Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella - were men. And although there were secret outbreaks of luxuriant sensuality in their various bodies of work, their styles were, by and large, impersonal, reductive, severe. That was the point of minimalism, right?

From the mid-’60s until her death, Hesse stayed basically within the bounds of minimalism: She favored grids, repetition, and abstraction. But she also introduced an intensely personal note, and, through her materials, a feeling for poetic associations - particularly with skin and bodily matter - that would prove enormously influential.

What we see at the ICA is work that is intimately connected with Hesse’s larger achievements. But it does not do anything to make those connections clear.

The works - called “studioworks’’ after her death - are of uncertain status. “Neither simply preparatory nor necessarily finished,’’ as a wall label puts it, they are studio experiments, or tests, that, regardless of how we classify them, give us a strong feeling for how Hesse worked.

Most of them are displayed in four glass vitrines or on a big open table. There is also a small, square “painting’’ (it’s made from steel, wood, and a metallic putty called “sculp-metal’’) that hangs on an otherwise empty wall, and three hanging wall pieces.

Apart from two tiny wooden boxes painted pink, there is very little in the way of bright color. Instead, one is left to notice materials and shapes.

One squat cylinder filled with crumpled tubes like drinking straws or cigarettes is made from enamel, paint, cord, wire, and metal. A nearby piece with a lovely resinous color resembles a candle with a long, curling wick, but is actually made from latex, cotton, and rubber.

All these works were made between 1964 and 1970. They are humble, and that is part of their appeal. The small wall painting, for instance, is a square that could be a floor tile or an industrial sample. It’s closer than anything in the show to mainstream minimalism. But the grid of small circles protruding in light relief and the pasty surface texture make it unusually evocative, and obscurely beautiful.

The open table is covered in an array of delicate, vessel-like shapes, many of them made from papier-mâché, cheesecloth, or both. Resting on the smooth, white surface of the table their wrinkled textures and asymmetrical shapes present a pleasing contrast.

They resemble fragments of ancient artifacts, wrinkled and shaped by the ravages of time. And yet their delicacy and in some cases translucency makes you doubt whether they would last a year, let alone centuries.

A big part of the appeal of Hesse’s work, as with all minimalist art, is rooted in the way it sets off its surrounds - in her case contradicting clean, white, right-angled spaces with forms that ooze, stretch, fold, and wrinkle.

All of that is in evidence here. But the pieces are so small that they don’t really interact with the space. They are reduced, instead, to specimens safely preserved behind glass, or fastidiously arranged on a display table.

This seems a shame, because fastidiousness was exactly what Hesse despised.

At the 2002-03 Eva Hesse retrospective at Tate Modern, I remember being seduced by the humor, the mischief, the sense of absurdity, and the risk in everything this intriguing artist did. Here, I feel, all her quirks and knots are overwhelmed by an aura of preciousness.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

EVA HESSE STUDIOWORK At: Institute of Contemporary Art, through Oct. 10. 617-478-3100,

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