Out of the past: Lucy R. Lippard talks about Eva Hesse with Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson.
While I originally wanted to do a "smooth" edit of this text, Holt and the editors of Artforum persuaded me to leave it "rough," as a kind of (embarrassing) time capsule. And so it stands.
LUCY LIPPARD: Mel [Bochner] mentioned a summer when you all saw a lot of each other.
ROBERT SMITHSON: I think it was '66, because that was when I wrote my article "Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space," where I included Eva.
NANCY HOLT: It's true. We saw each other about four, sometimes five times a week. We went to Max's [Kansas City] a lot, ate a lot at an Italian restaurant with Sol. I remember by the end of the summer Bob didn't want to see an Italian dish ever again.
LL: When did you meet Eva? Do you remember?
RS: I think it must have been '66. Sol introduced me to her.
NH: I remember exactly when: It was that January, a week after she broke up with Tom Doyle. Sol brought her over to our place, and I remember discussing with her, you know, how difficult it was to make that transition, when you've been with somebody all the time, and then suddenly being on your own.
LL: But, Bob, you talked to her mostly about her work?
RS: Yeah. I was impressed when I first went over to her studio. It had a strong impact on me. I know I was preoccupied at that time with a kind of counter to the prevailing Minimal situation myself. She seemed to have some of that in her work, but it seemed to derive from a biological-organism kind of view of things. In other words, it was like mummifications to me; it did have a rather funereal quality to it. But at the same time, it also had a kind of dark sense of humor. And then on another level, she was into sort of subverting the more geometric aspects of things. So she would work with essentially a regular shape and then violate that in some way. The part of the article that I wrote and put her in, I think it's called "The Vanishing Organism," something to that effect. It seemed to have to do with petrification, in other words, a kind of Beckett-like realm. She seemed to like Beckett, too, and she also had an interest in writing. She admired that quality, but she couldn't quite bring herself to do that, to articulate those things. The very last time I saw her, actually, she was talking about writing. She was always interested in my writing in that respect. It always seemed to be a counterpart in her work. It never seemed to assert itself as a single gestalt; it was always something there, a tension between the gestalt and the something splaying itself out.
LL: Did you think of it as a dialectic?
RS: Well, I would put it that way. I would say perhaps she did that, and it was there in the work. It was sort of an emerging thing. I noticed that there were lots of works that were sort of doubles. Like Metronomic Irregularity . It was like a nucleus was splitting. There was less interest in that "specific object" notion. In other words, it seemed more a critique of the positivism that Judd had been putting forth, and even LeWitt on that level. Her work seemed to be critical of that kind of realm.
LL: You're talking in a very objective way, like you're writing something ...
RS: Well, that's how I was writing about her work; that's how I wrote about it in '66, although it had more to do with the energy. In other words, she was using curving, rounded forms, too, in juxtaposition with the more angular ones. But there was this sagging kind of situation.
LL: You mean the wrapped forms as sagging?
RS: Well, these were fairly sagging. As I remember, drooped. And she'd always present them in an ensemble. They'd always be set up, in a group situation. She never really showed them one at a time. Somehow, they were always there, a whole bunch of them all together, which I thought was interesting. There were these relationships.
LL: Do you remember what she was working on the first time you went to her studio?
RS: Ishtar . She was working on that, and that was the piece I used in my article. That's the one that remains in my mind; I've thought about that one the most.
NH: She had the painted clothbound frame with the protruding tube.
LL: Hang Up .
RS: That I saw up at the Graham gallery ["Abstract Inflationism and Stuffed Expressionism," March 1966]. That was the first time I saw any of her work, I think. I didn't know her that well. I just went to that show and Sol was there. My immediate impression at that time of her work was that there was this kind of synthesis of Johns, Lucas Samaras, and also Robert Morris.
LL: Really, did you have that impression? That's a Pincus-Witten idea. She never talked about Johns at all to me.
RS: Maybe more Morris.
LL: Mel says she talked about Johns to him, because he was talking about Johns. So I still don't know whether she was that interested in Johns. He certainly was a monochromatic possibility, with the gray.
RS: The gray was there; you couldn't help but think that.
NH: I don't remember her talking about Johns.
LL: Certainly she talked about Oldenburg.
NH: Oldenburg and Samaras. And Judd, Judd in particular, because he liked her work. She was interested that Judd liked her work and Oldenburg's work, and had just bought a Samaras.
LL: Oh, really? That's interesting.
RS: Well, Judd always used to say he liked odd things.
LL: Judd's and Dick Bellamy's tastes are very alike.
RS: Odd. But I think it's more than just eccentricity or oddity. There was what I would call the seed of the dialectical situation in her work. It's going back to the idea of my Enantiomorphic Chambers , which is a similar kind of double thing. There were always two things in combination. That's what I talked to her about once. Like those buckets she made [Repetition Nineteen I-III, 1967-68]; they always seemed to be buckled, or punched in. The things had a stress factor, and a tension, on that level.
LL: Do you think the two of you saw her work differently?
NH: Well, I'm sure we must have. I remember thinking of it in terms of its organic-ness, and coming out of an organic matrix that existed inside her. I had a more psychological interpretation.
LL: That was her interpretation too. She was always psychological about her work.
NH: The psychological tension produced an organic fusion. But strangely enough, it was a very prophetic thing: I can remember saying to her once, [as] she was sitting there making these tumorlike forms, I said, jokingly, that tumors were a bad symbol. Now it seems to fit into the organic-growth principle. It's almost as if there might have been an internal generation as well as an external manifestation.
LL: It's funny, because when I went through the show with Anita Bell, Charles [Simonds]'s mother, who's a psychoanalyst, she said, at one point--I can't remember what piece it was in front of--"Did she know about her sickness then?" And I said no, as far as I knew she didn't know. Anita said she'd had patients who had had bad dreams of being choked, and they turned out to have breast cancer, two years before anything was detected--prophetic dreams of physical disasters.
NH: That was the same kind of feeling I had too.
RS: That's the desiccation of the organic. I've always been kind of a psychoanalytic type. I don't think one can exclude that from the actuality. In other words, I think decisions are made based on one's physio-psychological needs.
LL: I think so too. I'm very torn ... working on this book ... I have no idea what I'm going to do, because I never know until I sit down in front of the typewriter what's going to come out. There are a lot of decisions to be made about how to deal with this aspect of Eva. I want to be able to put it all into the work, rather than, say, make a commentary on her sexual and emotional life outside of her work. I think it can be just about her work, without my having to "tell all" about her outside life.
RS: I think all perception is tainted with a kind of psychoanalytic reading. In other words, somebody who's having Oedipal problems, it's going to come out in the perception, or it's going to come out in the making, the kind of work they choose to do. I got into a sort of psychoanalysis of landscape perceptions in that [Frederick Law] Olmsted piece.
LL: Yeah, true. You go back in, in order to come back out--the labyrinth.
RS: It was almost as though Eva was trying to restrain, or tie up, these forces.
NH: In something like Metronomic Irregularity [there's] integration, high-tension integration ...
RS: A subconscious bondage fantasy seems to exist as well.
NH: What did you say?
RS: Bondage fantasies.
NH: There may be castration fantasies, too. I think there is something to that. In women artists' fantasies, I think there is a little bit of acquiring a penis when you start to do your work; when you finally get to a point where you are actually doing your own thing, there is a fantasy factor. It's like having a mystical penis. [Laughter.]
RS: I think it would be very fruitful to get into the psychology of bondage. It's like having a control over the objectness, when you have an object and you're really binding it. It's a kind of submission, the dominance of the object.
LL: It's the artist's general attitude: You're going to dominate the object.
RS: Eva never really had that in her makeup; in other words, she never seemed to inflict that on anybody, because it was so intensely in her work. [There was] a degree of sublimation involved in that.
LL: That's not true. She was very clingy when I first met her, to Doyle.
NH: And she always had that side.
RS: Maybe it was more toward women.
NH: Well, no, I think it was probably toward men too. But the vulnerable side, the clinging side, was totally counteracted by the more aggressive intellectual side. Strangely enough, I think a lot of people looking at her work now don't realize how intellectual she was. They think of her as sensate, manipulative, tactile.
LL: Everybody I've talked to about her has said that: "Try to emphasize the intelligent side of Eva," which is perfectly right.
RS: It was a psychic intelligence.
NH: It was an aggressive intelligence.
RS: Her philosophy tended more toward a kind of existential absurd notion. See, that could be questioned.
LL: Do you think that had to do with the way she was understood by the art world? That was very old-fashioned at that point, very '50s--to be involved with existentialism. Eva's real sense of what an artist is--and I identify with this because it was mine too--came from the '50s people. She was really brought up as an artist at Yale, with Abstract Expressionism, with Al Held, people involved with that idea of risk.
RS: Yeah, there was a very strong existential kind of thing there; that would give it the existential psychoanalysis on a certain level. But I still think the more interesting thing would be the rites of bondage fantasy. That seems central to a lot of things to me. In other words, a kind of need to stabilize something.
NH: Also, it was the nets; it wasn't just the binding, but it was the placing of things in nets, like imprisoning spheres, black spheres.
LL: Yeah, holding something, pulling it in to you and making it real to you.
RS: So there's a tension between the looseness and the tightness. In other words, your work wouldn't be any good if you just went one way. There was always this tension between a need for liberation and a need for constraint, so that you have this tension which makes it interesting. It's sort of ritualistically carried out. She uses grids and square containers. She went to the same fabricator that I did, Arko Metals; it used to be right on ... either here on Prince or on Broome. This is interesting because there were a lot of Jews basically who had been in concentration camps, and the whole atmosphere of the place was very, um ...
LL: Very what?
RS: You know, they had numbers on their arms, and it was a very gritty kind of place. There's a photograph of it in one of the Arts Magazines [March 1967]. It was an article by John Perreault called "Union-Made," and it showed a picture of me in the place with all the workers.
That tubular piece, the box with the little tubes in it [Accession II, 1967/1969]--that was made at Arko. I think a lot of her metal containers and things were.... That one I know for sure was made there, because it was a little wobbly and she was worried about whether it was strong enough. I had a lot of pieces made there, and the Arko guy used to talk about her all the time. She had those kinds of references to Carl Andre's work as reminding her of concentration camps. So there was an undertone.
LL: That was the first thing that Anita Bell said when she saw the show. I made her see the show first, and then I went through it with her. She said, "Concentration camps, all that repetition and all that grayness." And I said, "No, no, that's just Minimal art. That was from the art scene; that has nothing to do [with concentration camps]."
RS: No, I don't think you can avoid that, because she said it herself in the interview. And I remember her saying it directly in relation to Carl's work. There's a kind of squalor there that sort of appealed to me.... [But] it was getting expensive. I stopped going there because he started overcharging me. He thought it was going to turn into a big business. Then Eva went over there to Staten Island. I went over there too, but I had no success with those people [Aegis Reinforced Plastics]. She worked better, I think, with them on the fiberglass. I made one fiberglass thing with them and had it destroyed. There was an ambience about those places that was quite ratty. I think Arko Metals moved uptown.
NH: I think the magnets might have come from there too. I mean, she was informed about them there.
RS: Well, that I think maybe Carl did, because Carl did a piece with magnets. But there again she sort of assaults the whole. She's interested in subjecting the materials to some sort of, how could you call it?
LL: Compulsive activity.
RS: Well, I think ... it's almost sadistic.
NH: But it's also a cradling, you know, like suspending things in nets, and lining them up, bound children. My interpretation was always a psychological one, because at that point in my life, that's what I was into. I was reading psychology books, and my interpretations of relationships and people were coming out of that.
LL: She had been into analysis all her life; Eva was steeped in that kind of reading for herself, and it couldn't have helped but inform her work.
RS: I think it's wrong to try to make her into some sort of formalist.
LL: Oh, so do I. What I mean when I say I want to talk about her work without her life is not that I want to take the psychological or the biography out of it, but that I don't want to get into who she was sleeping with, what her gynecological operations were--all the National Enquirer bullshit.
RS: No, I think it was all objective; it was her worldview. It had nothing to do with her personally. That's where the intelligence comes in. The systems strike me as rather attenuated. They don't seem to be out to prove anything in particular.
LL: I think that what they did for her was that she could put her emotions in a framework of some kind and control them somewhat.
RS: She gave herself a basic order, whether it be a checkerboard, or whether it be a grid, or a lattice, and then she would go at that thing.
LL: That was Sol's influence too, to have a basic order. Then when she went at it, it was different.
NH: I think her attraction to Sol, her need for him, was based on a lack in herself. One always seeks out what one doesn't have.
RS: He sort of provided a certain armature.
LL: He was also an art father figure. Sol was that for me too; I recognize the syndrome very well.
NH: You're saying that Eva seemed extremely vulnerable, or that she needed nurture or hung on or something. I think that everyone is just about that much in need of nurture, but that she had no compunctions about showing it.
RS: She was always preoccupied, too, with her diaries and her parents' diaries and things like that, I recall. That seemed to always be the thing: She would bring out her diary.
LL: Her parents' diaries? You mean things they'd written?
NH: She had that little log of her life. I can't remember a time when we were at her place that she didn't bring out a memento of her past. Generally, quite a large section of the evening would be spent, at least a half an hour to an hour, would be spent looking at some log, or a diary, or pictures of her parents or her stepmother or something. And generally, at least one story about the past, and then fragments of the past, mementos, other than pictures and writing.
In between her operations, I went to see her in New Jersey, and I brought a friend. Since the friend had never been initiated into Eva's past, she went through showing all the things to her, and talked again about how she thought her present was connected to this past history, into childhood, which was very involved. It was one of the things that kept her going, in a sense; she fed off of that material. I guess maybe it was because she had those voids in her life, gaps, and that physical presence of the material maybe gave those gaps a reality.
RS: In this Ishtar work here, there's like this extension of the nipple region into a kind of extended ...
LL: Well, you can also see that as somebody sucking out, extending from ...
NH: That's right, or desire for the Mother.
RS: But there are a lot of these dangling things, these tubers coming out of these turgid masses.
LL: But they aren't penislike tubers at all--they're the threads to people; they're umbilical cords. Penises are a different shape and feel.
RS: I'm talking about a kind of undifferentiated sexuality, in other words, where any kind of extension ...
LL: The danger in her work, and probably one of the beauties of her work, is that you can read all this into it. Your emotions get tied into hers very soon. She binds you to her work. I wrote in an article something like ... even if you didn't know Eva, you'd know more about her than you realized from looking at her work. Because you've been connected somehow. That's one of the beautiful things about her work is that it does really reach out and make a connection.
RS: I think the contrast between the threadings and that kind of dangled participle of her work ...
NH: She worked from this under-region; it's out of the guts, out of the irrational matrix. She just doesn't appear to the mind. That's what I think you've just meant by saying that when you saw the work it reached out and bound you in ways that you can't even mentally conceive of.
LL: In a much more powerful way than work that just binds by the mind, because our memories may be lousy, but our visceral memories are tremendous.
RS: If you get into Lucas Samaras, who I do think she liked, there's certainly the same kind of fetishistic offering ... there is something very attractive. It's like that play I just saw called The Tooth of Crime. Interesting play. And I don't usually like plays. It's by Sam Shepard. Catch it; it's on Wooster Street. There's this one guy in the play who's playing an adversary. It's very much about the problems of heroic identity. It's more for men, actually, than women, probably, but it's still involved in a certain kind of fetishism. There's this very, very attractive guy who's wearing a leg brace. He's in rather ordinary clothes, but just to wear this leg brace gives it a whole other ambience. So the attraction is immediately to get that. In other words, I don't know whether it's an Oedipal or fatal element or what. Those kinds of things are interesting to me.
NH: The saints were always being bound.
RS: One book I'm very interested in is called the Dialectic of Enlightenment, by Horkheimer and Adorno. It's really about Kant and Sade, and it sort of plays them against each other, and they're both products of rationality. And I would say that her work was very rational, but at the same time, there was this struggle of the irrational forces threading through it.
[Lippard flips the tape and the discussion resumes.]
RS: Where were we?
NH: Are there any themes that we haven't discussed?
LL: No, no, I'm really more curious to know what people are thinking about Eva and so forth. I'll come back and ask specific questions if they come up. This is very useful. Just keep talking.... I've never done a book like this before, this way, but it makes sense, because for once I know all the basic information very clearly. I know about Eva. It's mostly about just hearing some of the things coming in from the outside. I'm curious about what you remember about going to the studio and how you talked to her about the work.
NH: We talked of many things related to her work--art, film, psychology, philosophy, but I was more of a personal friend.
LL: So was I. But professional, too ...
RS: I used to just talk about her work. In a sense, in my own work there was a certain kind of what you might call a crisis of abstraction. I couldn't really accept the Reinhardtian dogmas. To a certain extent, there was a kind of turbulence. She herself wasn't [turbulent], but she seemed to comprehend it as objective forces. Her notion of the absurd, and that sort of thing. I had developed in the "Alogon" series the absurd state, which Beckett keeps referring to, where things don't hold up in terms of a given abstraction. We would talk about I guess that contradiction, most of all, in her work, and contrast, and playing one thing off the other, rather than just sort of making gestalts.
LL: Did you take her seriously as an artist when you first saw her work?
RS: Yeah, I did. I mean, otherwise I wouldn't have written about her. Actually, I used the Laocoon, the actual ancient sculpture, in reference to one of her pieces, with all the snakes writhing around the figure. And she seemed to have a kind of interest in that kind of realm [Laocoon, 1966].
NH: I remember her saying to me that she felt Bob didn't have any problems accepting women as artists, that she felt that might just be the younger generation, which I don't really think is true now. She did mention that to me, that she valued her relationship with Bob, that she felt that she could talk to him as a fellow artist, and there wasn't any sexual problem, like he wasn't putting her down because she was a woman.
RS: I was mainly interested in her perception.
NH: She felt that was true with some, but there was an age thing with the older male artists that she knew.
LL: That they were after her?
NH: Not that they were after her, but they didn't take her seriously.
LL: Right, because they could be after her. Somebody told me that a critic had said that he couldn't take her quite seriously because he had dated her at one point, years and years ago. And so forth.
RS: Well, I never was involved with her on that level.
LL: No, and I think most of the people she valued weren't. And then a couple of people were. But for the most part she really valued not being taken on that level. I think all of us have that feeling. I certainly have valued the people that I haven't been sexually involved with too. For a woman it's a matter of respect: If somebody can take you seriously and not try to fuck you, it makes a big difference. And Eva was of course very, very attractive and very into dressing up and being a very beautiful girl. And that was a hard transition to make.
RS: I think I was really interested in, most of all, her perception of the world, or just her outlook ... I mean, there was a kind of understanding, as I say, of these more troublesome areas of things. It was a kind of mutual comprehension of the problems of the world, but not being sentimental about them, just sort of facing them. I never really had that idea that it was ugly art. That seemed to be too much of a one-sided view, it seemed to me. There was this whole thing with you [Lucy] for a while there about "ugly" art.
LL: I always used the word ugly in terms of "unexpected." I meant that people didn't want art to be ugly until they accepted it to be what they wanted art to be--and then it became beautiful.
RS: There's more of a moral thing, probably, not so much between ugly and beautiful but more between evil and good and those two interlacing elements. She seemed to respond to that.
NH: She was very conscious of reacting to "tastefulness"--you know, she always tried to go against it, in a very, very shrewd and honest way ...
LL: Yeah, like if somebody liked it immediately. I don't think that she was very worried if none of us liked something.
RS: But I never felt she was overwhelmed by that. I mean, I never felt she was coming on to me, you know, making demands on me. I could always come up with my responses, and she would have responses back that were just about the work. It wasn't about "Gee, why don't I get a show?" or "Why am I being put down?" I never found any of that.
LL: She rarely did that.
RS: She never did that. But I find a lot of women artists who use that on me.
LL: That's just the women's movement, pointing out the injustices in the art world.
NH: It's also a distortion of values; it's not just the women's movement. I find a lot of artists, men and women, have a distortion of values.
LL: I've found that for years with men, so it doesn't strike me as odd ...
NH: Rather than emphasize their fellow artists' response to their work, they emphasize these extraneous things, like galleries and museums ...
LL: And critics.
NH: And critics, yes. And the most important thing is the effect that you're having on other artists and on yourself and on your own work. Eva never erred in that direction.
RS: Her consciousness was the most interesting thing about her. Her consciousness of what she was and what she's been through and what she's making. I myself, I don't like to really be suckered into some kind of personal demand, you know? She always had a nice dignity and a level of discretion, and I like that. But at the same time, she was able to deal with these difficult emotional states and manifest them objectively in a rational way. The rationality always allowed for an awareness of the irrational. At that time, I think there was a certain, I would say, dialectical thing, more on the level of one's own consciousness.
NH: I remember--getting back to this urge toward getting into galleries and doing shows and everything--I remember her saying that when [Fischbach] decided to take her into the gallery, that it happened in the best possible way. And that way was that both Marilyn [Fischbach] and Donald Droll had had good responses to the work, and had related to her, and that it all happened on that level of emotional intimacy, so she felt comfortable about the whole situation. It hadn't been a harsh political kind of thing.
LL: Donald does that very well. That's his great gift in that sort of a situation. He knows how to be intimate with people, and he understands women very well. He likes women and he knows how to deal with them in a nice way. And Marilyn, too. Certainly Eva's professional career wasn't half as hampered as most people's are. Thank God it wasn't, because it turns out there were only five years of it. So it's damned lucky she didn't go through all the bullshit that most people do.
NH: I think she went through quite a bit.
LL: She did only in the sense that she didn't expect ... her self-confidence was such that she really didn't expect to be taken into a gallery right away, and she was. It was all exciting for her; the steps were exciting.
RS: The art world right now is in a critical situation. It seemed--and I'm talking now from my own point of view--that there were things developing that were different than the art world right now. I don't think the art world's a constant. I think the art world's in a different kind of critical situation. Also, I do think that her influence is tremendous.
LL: Talk about that. How do you think it's tremendous? Just that feeling for and ability to be personal about things? Or the way things looked?
RS: I see a lot of work that seems based on what Eva was doing.
LL: Until the Guggenheim show, people really didn't know what she did. There had been that one show. Very few people really had a good sense of what she was doing.
NH: Whether the influence is direct, or whether people arrive at something she arrived at a few years later, it doesn't matter. The people who have arrived at those solutions, and who haven't investigated her work, ultimately they have to be held responsible for not knowing about it. Unfortunately, some people are going to go down the path Eva has already created. There are going to be people who have staked a lot on their work, and then it's just going to be canceled out.
RS: There's where I would say the thinking has more to do with the overt appearance of the work--in other words, the intelligence of the dialectic. The influence might not necessarily produce works in the same materials. I find that fascinating, actually. I think it's the comprehension and the consciousness that's more affecting and influencing. It's like the consciousness of Pollock on a certain level.
LL: But I know when I went to choose the "Eccentric Abstraction" show [Fischbach Gallery, New York, fall 1966], I had something in mind that had been suggested by Sol, in a sense. I said, "I'd like to do a show, and it has to do with Eva's work and Frank [Lincoln Viner]'s work." But when I went around looking at things, I found my consciousness, and what I was looking for became very specific. And I looked at lots and lots of work here and on the West Coast--it was the first time I'd been on the West Coast--and I looked and looked and looked and I knew exactly when this was it and this wasn't it. There was a real focus in on a certain kind of materials, a kind of sensuous aspect ... and I've always wondered whether that was my aesthetic or whether it's a female aesthetic. I certainly wasn't into women's work then. But I found endless women who were doing things that I liked, that I was looking for, and there were, what, three women in the eight-artist show [Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, and Alice Adams], which was a lot of women for then.
RS: That was a very fertile period. Sixty-six seems to have some sort of ...
LL: I found that when I decided to start the book [Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (1973)] in 1966. It really felt like a year that all kinds of things started turning around, the Earthworks, and Conceptual art ... all kinds of things. Bob, you did a couple of things in '66 that I date Earth art from.
RS: The Tar Pool and Gravel Pit . Earth art coalesced, I would say, in '68.
LL: Sixty-eight was when it was named. Sixty-six is when all this energy was there.
RS: I was trying to do that airport project, where you have a very funny combination of artists--LeWitt and Morris and Andre.
LL: Now it doesn't sound so funny.
RS: No, but it was. Sol actually asked to do something for that. He asked me, because I didn't think he'd be interested. But that was the buried-cube work.
LL: Which he executed a couple of years later.
RS: But in a sense a lot of the pieces of that show have been executed. My original piece was a kind of spiraling piece.
LL: What was Morris's? An observatory?
RS: A kind of earth-mound thing that was derived essentially, he said, from the outer fringes of Stonehenge. Carl was crucial to that, but it was a very hard thing to get him involved in it. But Eva's thing there again was so psychological--there was no external notion of a world outside.
LL: There was no way of getting Eva to work in the outdoors. I mean, she never was even interested in it at all, was she?
LL: Did you ever try to get her involved in that?
RS: No. I never did, actually, because I never thought of it.
LL: Just in the sense that you talked about working outdoors all the time, you may not have tried to get her involved, but certainly she was exposed to a great deal of talk about it, and thinking about it, and she really had a very clear notion that that wasn't who she was.
RS: I saw her as a very interior kind of person. I saw her really as making psychic models, you might say. It just didn't occur to me that she'd be disposed toward that.
LL: When she came up to Maine for two or three weeks in 1967, she wasn't exactly into the landscape either. She's not an outdoor person. She was a city-bred girl, the protective aspect of the city.
RS: I think it comes out of her body.
LL: Yeah, I think there's a sense of having tall things around you, being wrapped into ... I took a babysitter up to Maine when Ethan was quite little, who'd been brought up on Sullivan Street in a little two-room apartment with her parents and three sisters. And she went up to Maine and she stood on the deck of the house and she looked out, and she said, "Where are the people?" And I think Eva, in a funny way, did too, and was very lost in that much space.
RS: When I first started doing the non-sites, which in a sense were explorations into or investigations of the landscape ... the actual non-site is sort of like some matter that's been bonded to create this situation that points to a more diffuse situation. I consider the non-sites to be bonds; after going out into these wastelands and experiencing them, then I had to bring them back and sort of bind them in a certain containment so that it seemed interesting to me. Also, that book The Hidden Order of Art [by Anton Ehrenzweig (1967)], which was about containment/scatter.
LL: The either/or thing.
RS: Yeah. People were sort of getting into that range of the bonded and the scattered. That seems to be based very much on psychoanalytic theory. He seemed to be the only critic at that point who was dealing with that. I know that Robert Morris borrowed The Hidden Order of Art, and Richard [Serra] was interested in it. Eva, I think, was sick at that time.
LL: When was that?
RS: Sixty-eight, maybe.
LL: Yeah, late '68.
RS: But my intense involvement was, I believe, in '66 or '67. Then there was sort of this thing where that whole circle of people broke up for a while.
LL: Nancy, did you have a particular relationship with her as a woman? You weren't making art publicly then. Did you find that she didn't take you into consideration as a person?
NH: No. That was not the case at all.
RS: If I can say this, I think Nancy was involved in comprehending her own being. But I can remember that you [Nancy] did that crossword puzzle piece [Crossword Work, 1966] that was really based on Metronomic Irregularity, and on the "Eccentric Abstraction" show.
NH: It was also a bit of an edge against the LeWittian way of being in the world, too. It wasn't an affirmation of that; it was a play off of that. I can see, if it was pursued, and if I had a different attitude toward it, it could be some kind of an artwork, but to me it was an exercise.
LL: I felt like it was an artwork in a sense. I felt like, when you sent it to me, it was a preparation for a certain kind of activity ...
RS: Well, it was almost critical.
LL: I remember thinking, "Ah, Nancy's thinking about a lot of things that I didn't know Nancy was thinking about." Yeah, it was critical. It was very nice. In a way, it was like what I was trying to do in my text for the "Information" show [at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 1970], writing a kind of oblique criticism without being judgmental.
RS: It's interesting. It's an interesting little bit of concentration.
LL: I remember being impressed at how much work was involved.
NH: I think that because I've always had the ability to do things like that, I could have turned out lots of things of that ilk. Because I know I can do it, I'm not so attracted to art like that. But anyway, be that as it may, there are lots of artists around who are just doing work like that. It's self-gratifying; and it's mentally stimulating at the same time that you're doing it. There's a certain degree of compulsiveness; it's an escape that led me out of the world I didn't want to think of. I did a lot of that, more than people saw.
But getting back to Eva, at the time that I knew her, I was very concerned with being. I thought being was the essential thing, and that you didn't have to manifest this being in an image in the world, that you could just turn, in an interior way, into this inner world. You didn't have to put things into forms that showed that you were doing that, although there was an incredible amount of pressure to do so, because otherwise people didn't believe that you even existed.
RS: Carl's theory of product.
NH: But Eva, I think, had a way of accepting people for what they were and as they were. She didn't have to make lots of demands. She didn't feel that you had to manifest yourself in the world, or that the world had to accept you on any kind of level for her to accept you. That's why she could be friendly also with the guy at Arko Metals.
LL: She had a lot of funny friends she was very loyal to.
NH: She understood that people themselves can be works of art. And that was very beautiful. So that's why I had a relation with her. She was one of the people at that time who would talk to me.
LL: She'd been through that dimension. I think she developed a kind of feminist consciousness in some small way before the women's movement. Eva was my first sense of that, in a way, because I'd been an artist's wife [married to Robert Ryman] and I'd been through that, and had at times been infuriated by it, but had no consciousness about it. I was just mad that I wasn't taken seriously because I was just the artist's wife ... but I didn't know how to deal with it.
RS: It's also the way artists are used too. Men are used too; there's a certain kind of alienating aspect.
LL: Artists are used, but it's a very different situation. I realized at one point that I'd been dealing with people in a way that I personally hated to be dealt with. You know, the Golden Rule turned over. Eva, before she went to Germany, she was a very clingy, very possessive person. She was always bursting into tears, and I thought, "That is not the kind of woman I am interested in dealing with." Before the women's movement, I divorced myself from that kind of female. Then she came back from Germany. I was nice to her, of course, but I didn't take her seriously at all. But she had this workbook with her, which I looked at and I thought, "Fuck, something is definitely going on here." She was the first woman I saw that happen with. Eva's work before that was good, but uninteresting. It was turning into something that was really quivering. I'd seen that happen with Sol, but I'd never really thought about it. With Eva, it made me think ...
NH: Many of us had to reject our own mothers; our fathers were usually the strong ones who were doing things and going places.
RS: But then I think that women identify with that situation. They had to take their fathers' role. I'd say that was in '63 to '66.
LL and NH: No, it's much longer than that--it was the '50s. The '30s to the '70s.
RS: No, when women started coming onto the scene as art critics and artists, to a certain extent.
LL: Oh, there were always women art critics and artists. I was always aware that women made art. But still, it's very different, a role in your social life and a professional role.
RS: But my high school art teacher said to me that the only people that become artists are women and cripples.
LL: So you have to stand up as a cripple!
NH: On a high school level, I think that men do undergo a kind of leveling process ...
RS: Society at large has a kind of flattening effect in terms of its rationality, the kind of rationality that more or less keeps things going. It's very totalitarian, because it flattens everything out. We're sort of witnessing that now with the Watergate situation, or that's breaking down. There's a kind of real artlessness about those people; they're really people without art. They control. The artist is in some other realm; the artist is involved with some kind of enchantment. In the other world, that whole enchantment is crushed with some kind of efficiency, and that efficiency now is sort of catching up with itself.
LL: Except that I think that the art world is caught up with itself; it's crushing the art by its efficiency, too.
RS: Well, it's locked in; it's an alienated group. The whole art world is an alienated world from the world of actual function.
LL: Yeah, but the world of actual function is obviously also an alienated world. Watergate is showing us how alienated those creatures are. Every world is alienated.
RS: They have a different consciousness. They're going on a different economic notion. Although, in other words, I or anybody might have more practical solutions to some of the problems right now, but they only know certain ways of doing it, so they carry these things out. They're very rigid.
LL: Don't you think that goes for the art world too? I find the art world equally rigid.
RS: As the art world multiplies itself in a rather unnecessary way, as more and more galleries open up without the necessity for those galleries, to use a rather Kublerian term, aesthetic fatigue sets in.
NH: I don't think, though, that the art world is as rigid; that's one thought I had that came out of that book The Art Crowd [by Sophy Burnham (1973)]: All the conflicts of interest, all the complexities that she spoke of, that one person can represent three or four different interests, that that exists because nobody wants rigidity in the art world. Economic relationships, and all relationships in the art world, exist on more intimate personal terms, more human terms, so that all these complexities exist within a single person or within an institution.
RS: But they're victimized by that too.
NH: It would be harder for that to exist in a government.
LL: I bet the government runs just that way.
NH: Even with Watergate being as complex as it is, I think the art world seems to be the most complex interacting body.
RS: Those people have no comprehension of their desires; it's unbelievably apsychoanalytic, for one thing. Those people seem to just be motivated unconsciously by some kind of abstraction. Let's say that it's hard to confront-it's just difficult to live with a full knowledge of what it means to live. You can't really afford that on a certain level.
LL: If anybody can afford it, it's supposed to be artists.
RS: Naw, they're just people.
LL: Maybe that's all idealistic romantic nonsense, but the fact remains: What the hell is the point of art, if not that?
NH: I think the more awareness you have, the more difficult it gets. Part of the motivation for smoking dope or drinking is to dull what
can be seen, felt, and perceived, and I'm sure that that extends into other areas of life. I'm sure that we're all blocking off large segments that we can't deal with in any given moment. We might open up to it in the next moment. It might be like a dimming in and dimming out.
RS: There's a kind of terrorism involved in the whole situation. How much can you take? I thought it would be very interesting if tornadoes came into New York and ripped it up. But I think the art world is sort of a tribal society with its totems and taboos. No human being can withstand too much emotional stress. Talking about Eva, that stress is sort of objectified into this totem.
LL: Don't you think you'd be thinking about her very differently if she weren't dead? How would you be seeing her work?
NH: I think the work would still have the same kind of impact.
RS: I disagree. I think people's lives are affected by how long they live. And that creates an ambience. The mythology of an artist is another thing.
Edited by Lucy R. Lippard with Nancy Holt. (See Contributors.)
RELATED ARTICLE: POSTSCRIPT
The Logic of the Double
FEW ARTISTS ELICIT so proprietary a response as Eva Hesse. Her work "binds" us to it, as Lucy Lippard observes; it demands interpretation. Hesse's compelling story--Holocaust refugee, transformative sculptor, death at thirty-four--mediates her reception. "I think people's lives are affected by how long they live," Robert Smithson remarks prophetically, his own life cut short a mere six weeks later. "And that creates an ambience." The literature is indeed crowded with many "Evas." The Hesse allied with Sol LeWitt infuses her German reliefs, at her friend's encouragement, with "weird humor." The Hesse admired by Mel Bochner pairs a given, ordered structure with elements of disorder. The Hesse described by Robert Pincus-Witten is an art-historical Hesse, mindful of Pollock, of Johns; the Hesse of a younger generation of scholars, of Briony Fer and Mignon Nixon, is a molder of part objects; the semiological Hesse of Yve-Alain Bois "neutralizes" semantic opposition--the selection of one signified over another, of meaning as such. The Hesse of Lippard's magisterial 1976 monograph is all of these and still other Hesses.
Who is Smithson's Hesse? And Nancy Holt's? (They are not the same.) Holt recalls that they met her in January 1966. It was a "most strange year," Hesse recorded in her diary that December--her annus horribilis and mirabilis at once. (One is reminded of her remark to critic Cindy Nemser in a 1970 interview that "my life never had anything normal or in the center. It was always extremes.") Hesse and her husband, the sculptor Tom Doyle, separated; her father died that summer. Fortunately, Hesse "had a way of accepting people for what they were and as they were," Holt recalls--which is to say she had a talent for friendship. She soon found herself at the center of two very different scenes. She befriended the artists Michael Todd, Paul Thek, and Joseph Raffaele and the writer Gene Swenson, all identified with a neo-Surrealist tendency. At the same time, she became an intimate of those friends of Le Witt's--Smithson, Holt, Bochner, and Dan Graham (the "serialists")--who were then exploring the possibilities of repetition in art. Hesse saw this circle "four, sometimes five times a week" over the next two years, Holt recalls. "No day went by when two or more of us didn't see or talk to one another," Bochner confirms. "We visited each other's studios, or went to the movies on Forty-second Street, or had dinner at Puglia," the Little Italy restaurant Holt also mentions. Hesse's journals record many such meetings. As well, they testify to the support of these colleagues, at the time the primary audience for her work. "It's wild," an undated entry reads. "I have many critics (writers) believing in me and my work before I have really shown. Lucy, Mel, Gene, Smithson, all want to write about it.... Mel says he has heard much talk about my work." Another entry describes a party at the home of the artist Ruth Vollmer: "Smithson and Mel described and highly praised my work. Necessary because (1) I am relatively unknown (2) am woman. Am sure that exists for all, however."
These connections were not unambivalent. The laconic entry of September 9, 1966, describes the opening of Smithson's first show at the important Dwan Gallery. "Smithson hardly knew us," Hesse writes acerbically. "He is solo in Dwan." Her friend's success grates. She rues her inability to break into Dwan's all-male roster, which also included Doyle and LeWitt and, soon enough, Carl Andre. "My whole world is in Dwan. She [Virginia Dwan] does not even accept me as an artist.... Tonight again, same crew. Dinner at Smithsons. I am again non-artist, amongst Virginia." Lippard remarks how "lucky" it was that Hesse "didn't go through all the bullshit" faced by most of the women artists they knew. "I think she went through quite a bit," Holt replies firmly.
Her fortunes changed rapidly. A participant in the preposterously titled "Abstract Inflationism and Stuffed Expressionism" at Graham in March 1966, she was one of the stars of Lippard's "Eccentric Abstraction" at Fischbach that autumn. The show was installed down the hall from "10" at Dwan, a show that refined the canon of Minimalism, till then a bit of a hodgepodge, to a select few. "Eccentric Abstraction" marked a different inchoate impulse. (Smithson, who cocurated "10," speaks of a "nice interplay of consciousness" between the exhibitions.) Lippard recalls in her monograph on the artist that she had initially conceived of "Eccentric Abstraction" in response to Hesse's "organic" sculptures (Ingeminate, 1965; Several, 1965; and the like) and the apparently comparable practices of Frank Lincoln Viner, Louise Bourgeois, and Bruce Nauman, among others. But in the intervening months--the summer of all those Puglia dinners--Hesse had reinvented herself as a serialist. More precisely, she had "systematized" this aspect of her practice, which preceded her encounter with Smithson and Bochner, as the 1965 Ishtar and Untitled ("Purple Piece"), a deliciously "dumb" lilac plank with screws of progressive length, suggest. (It was these works, Smithson and Bochner recall, that won them over to Hesse's art.) Lippard, in her book, notes that she was vaguely disappointed when Hesse appeared at the gallery with the materials for the "Minimalist" relief Metronomic Irregularity II, 1966, a work that no longer matched the show's biomorphic conceit. The multilayered Crossword Work that Holt completed at the time is a critical commentary on all this. Arranged in a doubled format reminiscent of Hesse's Metronomic Irregularity I (also 1966, and the extraordinary model for the Fischbach piece) and Smithson's Enantiomorphic Chambers, 1965, the puzzle is a testament to the Hesse-Smithson-Holt exchange at the height of its intensity, and to the fact that both Hesse and Smithson were then producing "doubles" (a point to which we'll return). As well, Holt subjects Lippard's catalogue text to the systematic rigor of a common diagrammatic format. Crossword Work is a critique of the very notion of "an eccentric abstraction," a concept to which Hesse's latest, serial practice in any case failed to conform. We are asked to consider what an exhibition text is, the work it does, its fumbling search for a new critical language ("perverse," "flow") and new discoveries ("Frank Lincoln Viner"), and, most of all, the desire of the critic to define an emerging "tendency," even as the artists so described may fail to "fit" the definition.
"Eccentric Abstraction" was a turning point for Hesse, and in the fortunes of the serialists. Bochner praised Hesse in a review, and Smithson discussed her practice in his "Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space" (both articles appeared in the November 1966 issue of Arts Magazine). Hesse and her friends traded works, another sign of mutual regard. In the exchange between Hesse and Smithson, he got the better end of the bargain, the pathbreaking Metronomic Irregularity I. She received Untitled (Ziggurat), 1966, a capable metal-and-mirror evocation of a crystal. With his discovery of the non-site in 1967, Smithson abandoned this practice of mimetic schematization. The abstract polygon, he realized, need no longer be made to resemble a crystal or snowflake: It could be a container of actual rocks, a locus of information, a vector of a site. Untitled (Ziggurat) is not an outstanding Smithson, but it is a talismanic work of that moment. It is this sculpture that appears in the bizarrely genial photograph of Smithson at Arko Metal Products, a fabricator Hesse also used, that Arts Magazine ran with John Perreault's article "Union-Made" in March 1967. There is more than meets the eye in this jaunty image of the Arko workshop and staff--"a lot of Jews, basically, who had been in concentration camps," Smithson recalls matter-of-factly. "You know, they had numbers on their arms." He delivers this bomb in that indifferent tone with which he described just about everything, from the decaying pontoons of the Passaic riverside to the destruction of the universe. He recalls that the "Arko guy"--the man standing at the front of the picture with the strained, "Say cheese!" grin--was "very involved" with Hesse and her work.
Smithson's recollections are important. It is an old saw that American artists of the '60s enlisted fabricators to realize objects they could not build themselves--works so impeccable they appeared to lack any trace of the subjective self. Smithson restores the workshop to the discussion of Minimalism, and of Hesse. He wants to relocate the fabricated work from the white cube--the site of aspiration--to the setting where it was made. For each of these shops, he insists, was a place; it existed; it had an "ambience." Arko--located at 494 Broome Street in SoHo (a specialty food shop now occupies the space)--was a "gritty kind of place." It had a "squalor" that Smithson liked. It was a place that Hesse was also apparently drawn to. Smithson suggests that there existed between the young artist and the "Arko guy" a degree of intimacy. He implies--he does not state--that Hesse and her fabricators shared a common memory, a mutual recognition.
"The artist who influenced Eva the most," Doyle once recalled, "was Adolf Hitler." His remark appears deliberately provocative. Yet it is worth remembering that Doyle accompanied Hesse to Germany in 1964-65 (she had not returned since escaping a Nazi pogrom, with her sister, Helen, at the age of two), and that they paid a visit to her hometown of Hameln, where the occupants of the family house refused to let her inside. The impress of the Shoah on Hesse's work, like any biographical detail one may point to, is not easy to pin down, not least because her art is a concerted refusal, a negation, of iconological and symbolic allusion. Her most famous comment on the matter--that she felt "close" to Andre's work because it was "the concentration camp," "those showers where they put on the gas"--is not at all as transparent as Smithson would have us believe. He is, however, adamant on this point. He insists there was such an "undertone" in Hesse's work (a "dark" humor, as he puts it, a gallows humor, which is not the same thing as the "weird" humor admired by LeWitt), and this had to do with the fact, heretofore never revealed, that the pieces she made at Arko (the great Accession II, 1967/1969, among them) were built by concentration-camp survivors. There is a contradiction in Smithson's discussion, a contradiction faced by anyone who attempts to write about Hesse (and explored most deftly by Anne Wagner): the presence or nonpresence of the artist's "life" in her work. Smithson claims that Hesse developed "psychic models" that have "nothing to do with her personally," adding, "It was all objective; it was her worldview." Then he suggests that her early trauma laid the ground for this worldview. Holt, too, recalls that visits with Hesse involved paging through family photo albums and reciting stories from the past. The turn to fabrication and "new materials" during the mid-'60s, advocated most strenuously by Donald Judd, was consonant with an ambition to purge the artwork of feeling and memory. Smithson reminds us that behind every one of these objects is a place and a history--and the hands of those who built the piece.
I have elsewhere described Minimalism as a "field," which is to say that there is no Minimalism but several (the "minimalisms" of Andre, Dan Flavin, and so on) and that these practices came to mean in relation to one another, as so many dialogues and disputes. (The positions of Judd and Robert Morris were notably opposed: Even now, Morris attacks his deceased rival!) Post-Minimalism is more conspicuously varied than Minimalism's geometric idiom: Denoting a loose configuration of anti-form, Conceptual, and land-based practices, and a crossing of these endeavors by artists like Smithson (who, unconstrained by an allegiance to medium, unleashed our "postmedium condition"), the post-Minimal field is unruly, resistant to mapping. It marks a slippage of the rigorous modernist field into the current scenario of formal multiplicity, of stylelessness, of proliferation. Dialogues nevertheless exist within "post-Minimalism." The friendships of Hesse with LeWitt, with Bochner, with Andre, and with Richard Serra are significant exchanges. The partnership of Holt and Smithson is another. The association of Serra and Smithson--an antagonistic relation in the end, as the subsequent histories of their practices suggest--is yet another.
None of these dialogues was more intriguing than the exchange between Hesse and Smithson. What could the sculptor of Accession II possibly have in common with the author of Spiral Jetty? Smithson insists he was less interested in Hesse the person--the "Eva" warmly remembered by Lippard and Holt--than in her "perception." Understandably, for their meeting occurred in the fruitful months after Hesse's return from Germany, when she was in the middle of arguably the most salient transition of her career. No longer the talented maker of colored reliefs of the German sojourn, the Hesse encountered by Holt and Smithson during the winter of 1966 was the creator of Ingeminate and Ishtar, of Hang Up and Laocoon, both 1966, a Hesse who had covered the walls of her Bowery studio from floor to ceiling with sticky black balls, pendulous sausages, and nets improbably stuffed with plastic bags, a Hesse who knew exactly what to do. It is these works that inspired "Quasi-Infinities." Lippard remarks that the article "may say more about Smithson's aesthetic ... than Hesse's." This is a general principle of Smithson's art criticism: His writings on other artists' works are mirrored distortions; as distortions, they bring to the surface and exaggerate perceptual qualities and latent meanings the maker may not have "intended." (His observation that Judd's Plexiglas boxes are perceptually "uncanny" has inspired an entire literature.)
Smithson recalls that he was initially struck by the "funereal quality" of Hesse's work. "Quasi-Infinities" is indeed larded with mortal allusions. Hesse's sculptures "seem destined for a funerary chamber that excludes all mention of the living and the dead," Smithson writes. The armature of Laocoon is "skeletal," its serpent coils "devitalized," its surface desiccated, "dry" (Hesse had slathered the work in papier-mache). Hesse's works reek of putrefaction, yet "human decay is nowhere in evidence." What does Smithson mean? The Hesse of the "part object" scholars evokes a repertoire of anatomical allusions. Smithson insists that Hesse "avoid[s] the anthropomorphic": "Her art brings to mind the obsessions of the pharaohs, but in this case the anthropomorphic measure is absent." Smithson's Hesse builds, and builds obsessively, like the pyramid architects. But she resolutely avoids the anthropocentrism of Egyptian art. In the Egyptian system of representation, every figure is proportioned according to his or her "measure," his or her relative status in the pharaonic order, in which the afterlife is one's eternal and duly anticipated reward. Ordinary souls are smaller-scaled than the pharaoh; animals are smaller still. Even the gods take on the ruler's facial and anatomical attributes.
"Quasi-Infinities" is among Smithson's most dizzying fabrications. The central column of text is encircled by a swarm of footnotes and illustrations. The "argument" is nonlinear, cross-referential--and fiercely polemical. The target of his article is biology, for Smithson the anthropocentric science par excellence. Biology establishes the human organism as the measure of other life-forms; it posits the living body as the culmination of organic process, of history as such. The biological metaphor has had a pernicious influence in art history ever since Vasari, who narrates the progression of Italian style as a cycle of "growth, decay, and death," as Hans Belting has observed, and finds in Greenberg's modernism a belated avatar (the "decline" of the School of Paris leads to the "rise" of the New York School, and so on). Smithson aligns his practice with the inorganic sciences: geology and crystallography, to be exact. Whereas the timeline of biology is teleological, anthropomorphic, the temporality of geology is nonhuman, entropic, as Jennifer Roberts and Pamela M. Lee have suggested: The distant future and far past collapse into a recursive continuum beyond human comprehension.
Smithson does not even attempt to present Hesse as a fellow geologist. (He reserves this honor for Judd.) He says that Hesse evokes organic life and then denudes it of vitality. The Hellenistic masterpiece Laocoon depicts the dramatically "perfect" moment of the ancient myth. Athena's serpents encoil the Trojan priest and his sons, who writhe and toss just before the moment of doom. There is no more active representation of death in Western sculpture. In Hesse's work, the figures are missing. Abstract, limp coils hang lifelessly. Her forms are remnants of life, carapaces; they evoke death without pity. Whereas the original Laocoon evokes the pathos of its dying figures, inducing a spectator's empathy (Laocoon's "anguish pierces our very soul," Lessing observes), Hesse's Laocoon captures the "absurd state" of Beckett--a world of pointless human actions and meaningless lives. "We discover an absence of 'pathos,'" Smithson writes. His Hesse is the coroner of Abstract Expressionism, a style both artists had adopted and rejected more or less concurrently by 1962. "The metaphors of anatomical and biological science linger in the minds of some of our most abstract artists," Smithson writes disapprovingly. "In the paintings of both Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, one may find traces of the biological metaphor." Hesse's Laocoon summarily dispenses with the entire tradition of pathetic representation dating to Hellenistic art, expressionism's origin.
Hesse's art is not at all odd or "eccentric." It is more structured than that. The "flowing ... soft and fluid" coils of Laocoon are contained within a "dry, skeletal tower"--an inorganic structure, Smithson notes in "Quasi-Infinities." Her work betrays the "intelligence of the dialectic." She enlists rounded and angular shapes, bounded and unbounded forms, looseness and restraint. She combines a gestalt, a discernible form, with something "splaying itself out," something else. Smithson refers to this method as the "double." ("There were lots of works that were sort of doubles.... It was like a nucleus was splitting.") And he explicitly associates this model, in Hesse's case, with a sadomasochistic impulse. (Another "exaggeration," perhaps: Let us recall that Smithson's doodles of leather-clad hot-rodders and The Witches of Belsen, 1962, that grim photomontage of the sadistic guards of Bergen-Belsen, well precede his encounter with Hesse's work.) Hesse doesn't simply wrap the geometric form, he insists. She "assaults" it, binds it. She punctures the grid. She takes a structure (a checkerboard, a lattice, a cube) and "go[es] at that thing."
The double is one of Smithson's obsessions. It is announced in the Enantiomorphic Chambers, those matched mirror constructions, and developed in his non-sites, which stage dialectical relationships to actual sites. Smithson's Hesse is the Hesse of Metronomic Irregularity I--the most "Smithsonesque" of all her works, a work that points explicitly to his Chambers. (Both works consist of two panels separated by an interval of wall.) Smithson completed this relief in 1965. Hesse no doubt knew it well, and not only from studio visits: It was Smithson's contribution to the first of the seminal shows of serial art mounted at Manhattan's Finch College the following spring. Hesse completed Metronomic Irregularity I that summer (the "Puglia summer" of '66). Not only did she trope his double (double his double, as it were), she fashioned a work that confirms--that exaggerates--his perception of her work. As omnivorous of other artists' ideas as was Smithson himself, she reworked her friend's signal contribution up to that point, the staging of enantiomorphism, for her own use. The "trade" between them had already occurred. With the gift of Metronomic Irregularity I to Smithson, Hesse handed Smithson's concept back to him as a Hesse.
It is here that we begin to grasp the differences between their practices. For Hesse's double is not, after all, the same thing as enantiomorphy, predicated on the presentation of two forms--hands, for example, or ears or crystals--that are both identical and reversed. Both artists assault Minimalism's tautological premise, espoused by Frank Stella, that what you see is what you see, that A is A and nothing more. For both Smithson and Hesse (and for LeWitt and Bochner, for that matter), the issue is not just the presence of two terms, A and B, but the gap between them. For Hesse, the breach is a pretext for connection, conjunction--A and B. She runs a surgical hose between the plump sausages of Ingeminate, and a riot of cotton-covered wire between the panels of Metronomic Irregularity I. She stretches the two ends of Vinculum II, 1969, between wall and floor (vinculum: "link, that which binds; bond, tie, connecting medium"). Hesse's forms are complementary, Lippard observes in her "Eccentric Abstraction" catalogue essay. They have a relation, "absurd" as it may be. For Smithson, the breach is a breach. The Enantiomorphic Chambers are uncannily alike and sharply opposed. The halves of an enantiomorphic crystal may never meet. There only exists a fissure between them, a splitting. ("There is not one split," Smithson once wrote, "but ten splits. The split between the eyes. The split between the idea of unity. The split between me and you.... The split between the split.") Smithson stages paradox, a queasy incommensurability: His mirrors reflect what they are not. In his later work, entropy rules the day, and the "opposition" itself breaks down. The pre-entropic state devolves into an entropic situation, order into disorder. Which is to say that the "doubles" of Smithson and Hesse are radically dissimilar.
One senses that Hesse appreciated the difference. In one of the remarkable portraits of the artist by Hermann Landshoff from this period, she lies on a chaise longue beneath Smithson's Untitled (Ziggurat) and what appears to be an Andre poem. The image forges an association between her body and the curious sculpture, which projects over her from the wall. Its cruciform center points several inches into the room and downward--over and down to Hesse--and left and right, from the tips of her feet to her forehead. Her arms stretched, her palms flattened, her eyes lined in kohl, her body shrouded in unruly clumps of string, she is a mummy unfurled, a mummy in decay. She smiles sheepishly. The joke is on, or rather with, Smithson. She "performs" his reading of her work tongue in cheek. She is the pharaonic artist of his imagination, his "Hesse."
JAMES MEYER IS A PROFESSOR OF ART HISTORY AT EMORY UNIVERSITY IN ATLANTA. (SEE CONTRIBUTORS.)
JAMES MEYER ON EVA HESSE AND ROBERT SMITHSON
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|Author:||Lippard, Lucy R.|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2008|
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