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Hesse, Untitled

Eva Hesse, Untitled, enamel paint, string, papier-mâché, elastic cord, 1966 (MoMA) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Video transcript

(piano playing) Voiceover: This sculpture's not usually up, but it's a great Hesse. It's sort of wonderfully awful. Voiceover: What do you mean by wonderfully awful? Voiceover: She's so pushing boundaries in so many important ways. I think in order to really appreciate Hesse, it's really important to understand what her friends, what the Avant-garde was doing at this moment. She was hanging around with people like Ad Reinhardt, with a whole series of artists that were involved in a kind of high conceptualism, where there was an attempt to create a perfection in the physical world that represented a kind of ideal. Voiceover: A kind of purity. Voiceover: A kind of purity that was incredibly cerebral, it was incredibly geometric. One has a sense when you look at that kind of work, that anything that anybody could make, that Ad Reinhardt could make, for instance, would be just sort of a platonic shadow of the truth that he was after. Voiceover: Well, leave it to a woman to bring us something down and dirty. Voiceover: I think she did that really consciously. Voiceover: I don't doubt it. Voiceover: She was a very conscious feminist in that sense. It's early for sort of that phase of feminism, but I think she was very aware of the implications of her making something by hand that was based in this old secondary tradition of handy craft that women had been saddled with. Voiceover: So she's wrapped thin rope around this semi-circular- Voiceover: ... form that's hung by- Voiceover: ... nails on the wall. Voiceover: It's actually a beautiful kind of swooping line that's created there. But the first impression you have when you look at this because it's this dark brown and it's got this waxy kind of build up, it's just incredibly organic and incredibly handmade and it feels like it's of the body. Voiceover: It feels very bodily. Voiceover: You could think about the connotations here, what does it remind- Voiceover: Pooped it out or uh- Voiceover: Yes, it's scatological, it's intestines. Voiceover: Menstrual even. Voiceover: It's menstrual or it could even be phallic right? Voiceover: Or phallic or breasts even hanging down. Voiceover: It could be sausage, right? So you've got this really uncomfortable kind of interaction between bodily functions that we don't like to have mesh. (laughs) We don't like to see these things together, but there's kind of incredible ambiguity. Actually, if you just think about the human body has been represented historically. This is a pretty radical way of dealing with the human body and the way in which we think about ourselves right, if this is food, if it's excrement, if it's our own bodies represented all together somehow, that's a pretty intense series of associations. Voiceover: That's true, but it's something that I feel like feminism is going to take up and really run with this. Voiceover: They will and I think Hesse is rightfully seen as one of the most important artists that so many people then later respond too. I can't imagine Kiki Smith's work, for instance, without Eva Hesse. Voiceover: There's also a kind of primitivism here, it looks like- Voiceover: It just looks like a fetish object in an African culture. Voiceover: It really does. Voiceover: Kind of weapon or something like that, too. Voiceover: Oh, so this seems because of it's materialality, because of it's sort of oldness and it's handmade-ness this feels like it could be in an ethnographic museum. That actually plays directly into what we were talking about a moment ago, in terms of its self-conscious secondary-ness which is embedded in this because we always think of that as not fine art, right? Voiceover: Right. Voiceover: So is she every self-consciously putting herself forward not as an artist in the highest order. It's really in opposition to what her friends were doing, what was happening in the art world. She's great. (piano playing)