Although her career lasted little more than a decade before she died of a brain tumor at age 34 in 1970, Eva Hesse had a large, lasting impact on the art world. Famed for her work that helped usher in the post-minimalist movement, she’s regarded today as an important, influential figure whose flame burned out too quickly. Eva Hesse, Marcie Begleiter’s intimate documentary now receiving its world theatrical premiere at NYC’s Film Forum, serves as a valuable primer about her life and artistic legacy.
Hesse’s early life was tumultuous. Born to German-Jewish parents in Hamburg, she and her sister Helen (extensively interviewed in the film) escaped via the Kindertransport and eventually reunited with their parents in New York City. Their mother, who suffered from manic-depression, committed suicide when Eva was just 9 years old.
After an internship at Seventeen magazine, Hesse attended Cooper Union and Yale University and shortly thereafter embarked on her artistic career. “I will paint against every rule,” she wrote in her diary, copious excerpts of which are read in the film by Selma Blair.
In 1962 she married Irish sculptor Tom Doyle, a rising star in the art world and a notorious rake. She accompanied him to Germany when he received a fellowship from a wealthy German industrialist, but their relationship suffered because of his cheating. Nonetheless, the international sojourn proved beneficial for Hesse, as she began incorporating three-dimensional aspects into her artwork, which previously consisted only of painting.
Interviewed in the film, Doyle talks frankly about their relationship, admitting his indiscretions and heavy drinking but also commenting, “She was very high maintenance.”
Upon the couple’s return to New York City, her star began to rise even as the marriage ended. The film paints a vivid portrait of the thriving and exciting cultural scene in the city, which was then still affordable for struggling artists. Her sculptures, which often incorporated such materials as latex and fiberglass, began attracting critical acclaim in gallery exhibitions, and she fell in with a crowd that included such notable artists as Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt. She and LeWitt became particularly close, but while many of their friends thought that she was the love of his life, she was never interested in him romantically.
According to Andre, she told him, “You don’t go to bed with your brother.”
Although her career was thriving, Hesse still struggled with a climate that was not welcoming to female artists. Complaining that she was having trouble breaking gender barriers, she wrote, “Excellence has no sex.” She also began suffering debilitating headaches, and was eventually diagnosed with the brain tumor to which she would succumb. Several of the subjects interviewed in the film speculate that the tumor might have been caused by the industrial materials with which she worked.
The film also includes interviews with Hesse’s friends and fellow artists, including Carl Andre, Richard Serra, Dan Graham and many others. Offering incisive commentary about her work are such figures as Whiney Museum curator Elisabeth Sussman and Nicholas Serota, the director of London’s Tate Museums.
The documentary relies a little too heavily on its narration voiced by Blair, Bob Balaban as her father, and Patrick Kennedy as Sol LeWitt. We hear only a brief audio snippet of Hesse’s own voice, with her New York accent contrasting with Blair’s more elegant tones. But the copious photographs and brief film footage of the artist make vividly clear her beauty and ebullient personality.
One of the film’s most poignant moments occurs at the end, with a brief shot of Hesse’s gravestone. It was designed, we’re informed, by Sol LeWitt.
Production: BDKS Productions
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
Director: Marcie Begleiter
Producers: Marcie Begleiter, Karen S. Shapiro, Michael P. Aust
Executive producer: Lawrence Benenson
Director of photography: Nancy Schreiber
Editor: Azin Samari
Composers: Andreas Schafer, Raffael Seyfried
Narrators: Selma Blair, Bob Balaban, Patrick Kennedy
Not rated, 108 minutes