Meet Cindy Nemser - art critic, theatre critic, novelist, humorist, journalist, and ardent feminist.

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Monday, February 01, 2016

My memories of Eva Hesse

4:08 PM Posted by Cindy Nemser 1 comment
Earlier today I saw a lovely tweet from a young art history student:

It brought back memories of Eva Hesse, so I wanted to share the article I wrote along with that interview, first published in Feminist Art Journal and included in my memoir Firebrand:

My Memories of Eva Hesse

After my women artists’ forum was done, I had cast about for a new subject to interview for Artforum. I asked the dealer Abe Sachs if he could recommend an up-and -coming artist. He mentioned the name of Eva Hesse who did soft sculpture. I was intrigued. I had met the artist briefly in 1968 when she was in a having a one woman show at the Fischbach Gallery, which, though not at the top of the art world matrix, was still considered a good place to find, budding art stars. Eva Hesse was a pixyish, vivacious young woman in her early thirties. She had a yielding tender face, a melting smile, and bright dark eyes that could be mischievous one moment and heart wrenchingly sad the next. Her work was made up of both pieces hanging from the walls and of freestanding cylinder shapes made of fiberglass, latex rubber, cord, and other materials. The sculptures were completely abstract, but they had an emotional quality, an aspect of reaching out for attention and love that drew me in. 
I didn’t follow up on her then, but I did meet her several times: once a at warehouse where her work appeared in a group exhibition, sponsored by the Castelli Gallery and curated by the ubiquitous Robert Morris. We spoke a while and she showed me her steely ambitions side when she gave me her shrewd assessment of the art scene. “There are only a handful gallery worth visiting or to be shown at,” she confided. I guessed she meant to be in one of them. She had gone to Yale Art School where she had not been happy, and afterwards arrived at New York and became friends with Minimalists like Sol Lewit, Donald Judd, Al Held and Sylvia Stone. Later on she also developed relationships with Richard Serra, Keith Sonnier, and Jackie Winsor, who were flouting Minimalist dogma. She longed to be accepted and taken seriously by leaders of the group who were fast getting art world attention. 
Eva had been married to a sculptor named Tom Doyle who had gotten recognition, while she went unnoticed. In those days being married to a male artist meant being looked upon as a helpmate there to help propel the husband’s career upward. Even Lucy Lippard, who, though married to the painter Robert Ryman, was an independent and respected art critic, ignored Hesse until the late 60’s, and focused on Doyle. Women’s art, for the most part, was looked upon as trivial. The marriage was not a happy one as the sculptor was a notorious womanizer and Eva was prone to depression and self-depreciation. Soon they divorced. 
The next time I saw Eva was at a museum opening She had a bandage covering the whole top part of her head, as if she had just come out of surgery, and looked bloated and ghostly pale. I spoke to her, and she told me that she had had a brain tumor that was malignant, but it had been operated on and she would be all right. She smiled wanly as she said it, but there was a look of determination in her luminous dark eyes. I decided I would come and see her work at her studio that was on the Bowery. 
When I got to the small, spare loft where she lived and worked, she welcomed me eagerly with the sweetest of smiles. She began to show me her current works, and I was touched by their beauty and uniqueness. Her forms were abstract; however they were not cold and pristine. Rather there was a tender, yearning quality they pervaded them like a woman longing for her lover. Some hung from the wall with cords plunging out of them, others used the wall as a support. The works were also sensuous and the rounded shapes that jutted off the wall suggested breasts, while the boxes with tubes growing out of the bottom and the sides evoked images of hairy vaginas. However, all the sculptures only hinted of a sexuality seeking to be expressed; none of them were literal depictions. There was nothing graphic. 
I greatly admired the gouache and ink drawings that were hung on her walls. Many of them were either of round shapes or rectangles. They were all in black drawn with a light delicate touch and the subtle shading of the forms was exquisite. I wanted to buy one of the small drawings that were composed of two dainty meticulously delineated circles. She told me it would cost one hundred dollars, but she was loath to sell it. “ Let me think about it” she said, grinning in an almost coquettish way as if she were flirting with me. I let it go much to my regret, since it spoke to something in my psyche. Later on when Eva became an art world icon, the drawing appreciated greatly in value. 
It wasn’t until January 1970 that I decided that Eva Hesse would be the next interviewee that I would suggest to Artforum. Phil Leider, the acerbic editor, gave me the go ahead. I called Eva at her the loft, but there was no answer. Someone suggested that I call Richard Serra who might know where she was. His response to my question after I told him I would be interviewing her for Artforum was, “She’s got another brain tumor—she’s dying. You’re like a vulture.” I was shocked by his response, but I was also insulted, since I had had no idea of how bad her physical condition was, and only thought that getting attention from a top art magazine would please her. But I persisted, so Serra told me she was staying at the loft of the painter Al Held and his wife the sculptor Sylvia Stone. This was not the last time Richard Serra was overtly hostile toward me. Later on I had an idea about doing an article on process art. I called him to get an interview and he demanded who else would be in the piece. I mentioned some of the artists I intended to include. He said, 
“I don’t think I want to be in the same article as those people.”
His response got my hackles up. I said, “You are a public figure and I don’t have to get your permission to write about you.” 
“Fuck off,” he yelled into the phone and then slammed the phone down.
I was furious, but now I realize it wasn’t personal. I found out Serra was rude to practically everyone. He was maintaining his savage artist persona that has helped to make him into a legend of the baleful, temperamental genius รก la Michelangelo and had the rich collectors eating out of his hand, (the hand which would smack them in the face.) His sculpture was outsized and threatening and his behavior was an extension of it. Meanwhile he got and continues to get huge commissions and has been anointed the world’s most important contemporary sculptor. 
I set up a date to meet Eva at her friend’s loft. When I told her I wanted to tape her on cassettes, she sounded hesitant since she had never before been recorded, but she agreed to do it. It was on a bright wintry day with an intense blue sky and a few cotton candy white clouds sailing on high that I met with Eva. It was a good day to be alive. The building where she was staying had two different entrances and we kept missing each other, but we laughed about it as we entered the beautiful loft. The white walled rooms were spacious, the living floors were a burnished light brown wood; the tiled floored kitchen was state of the art, and the furniture modern but comfortable. The walls displayed Al Held’s geometric paintings and simple pedestals showed off Sylvia Stone’s abstract sculptures. 
Eva settled me onto a comfortable couch with a coffee table in front of me where I could place the tape recorder, and she cuddled up, with her bare feet tucked under her, in a large cushioned armchair. I looked at her closely and I felt sad for her. Her shinning aura of dark hair was almost gone and her exposed scalp, with its covering of fuzz, gave her the look of a newly born chick. The large doses of cortisone she was being given had caused her to swell and her lovely gamin face resembled that of an overly large moon faced young child. But, her large dark eyes were as arresting as ever, and as we began to talk, they sparkled when she laughed. She told me she had just come home from the hospital after having had more chemotherapy. I asked her if she was up to doing the interview. She said, 
“I’m very nervous about speaking into a tape. Maybe you could hide it so I won’t see it.”
Then she asked, “Could I talk about myself and my background before we start talking about the work?" 
I put the recorder out of sight and she began to outline her incredible history as a German Jewish refugee from a troubled background who escaped from the Nazis just in time. She felt that nothing in her life had ever been normal and that the only time she ever felt secure was when she was doing her art. It was a moving story. 
After Eva finished giving me her personal history, she became much more relaxed. We took a break and began to chat about other aspects of her life. She told me that all the patients at Sloan Kettering were so optimistic. They all believed they were going to get well. Giggling, her eyes twinkling, she shyly told me she had a crush on a gorgeous orderly. I marveled that even with the specter of death bearing down on her, she still could extract joy from her existence. She asked me about my background. I gave her a brief sketch, and then I told her about how I had become a feminist and how I thought every woman should be one. Eva was skeptical even when I informed her how much women faced sexual discrimination in the art world. When I asked her if she had experienced sexism, she was ambivalent, 
“Maybe but I don’t know. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough. Maybe I’m not as smart as the men, not intellectual enough. But maybe emotion is just as good as intellect. There ought to be a place for it. Richard Serra came to me. I think he took some of my ideas. But I’m so insecure, yet I know I can make great art. All my life I’ve been either the cockroach or the queen.” 
I totally empathized with Eva. I too had agonized all the time that I wasn’t smart enough, that I wasn’t a true intellectual. Yet when I completed a piece of writing that pleased me, I too felt that my ideas mattered and that I was meant to have a position of power. I also believed I could make a contribution to the history of art. 
I asked Eva if she thought there were sexual elements in her art, allusions to female or male genitalia. With a wave of her small, determined hand, she denied it, and the statement that she gave me for woman artist’s article also disappointed me. She wrote “Excellence has no sex” and “The way to beat discrimination is by art.” Eva was sitting on the fence, afraid of antagonizing the male powers-that-be just when they were about to bestow their gifts on her. 
We decided to continue the interview on another day because Eva was getting tired. So I came back to see her two other times. She was more confident about speaking on tape for the rest of the interview and was extremely articulate and knowledgeable about her work. She agreed that there was an obsessive quality to her sculpture, in her need to repeat some forms over and over to exaggerate. She found her creations to be absurd saying they reflected the absurdity of her life. She had made insightful comments about other artists from Goddard to Andy Warhol. 
It was a terrific interview and instinctively I knew I had recorded material that was really valuable. I also felt that Eva and I had become friends. She was easy to like since she was charming and open and had a wry sense of humor. We talked about the difficulties women artists had being included in serious male artists’ conversations at artists’ hangouts. “If you go to an artists’ bar, you’re supposed to sit quietly in awe of the male speaker like a good little groupie,” I said. Eva nodded her head. Then we decided that we would go together to St. Adrian’s the current artist’s hot spot and enjoy each other’s conversation, ignoring the men. 
St. Adrian’s was on lower Broadway. It was a dark nondescript working class style bar with John Clem Clarke’s murals on the wall behind the bar. When we walked in a few heads turned, but no one spoke to us. I think Eva was a little letdown, as she loved to flirt. She knew no one and neither did I. I was hoping to find John Clem Clarke seated at the bar, but he wasn’t there. However we carried out our mission, sat at the bar and pretended we were having a good time. Neither of us admitted it was annoying not to receive any male attention. I was a feminist, but I was also a woman, and I liked to be admired by men. Masculine adulation shored up my confidence and made me believe that I was physically attractive and desirable. I always suffered from doubts my attraction for men even though I had won a handsome husband. It was a hold over from being a rejected by the boys when I was a youngster when we played Post Office and Spin the Bottle. That need never went away even after I read all the feminist literature and started going to consciousness raising groups. Eva too felt insecure in her womanhood, especially, I supposed, because her husband had left her. She too needed to be reassured. This mutual need cemented our friendship. 
After the interview, I didn’t see Eva again until I had the tape transcribed and I called her to let her know that it was done. She asked me to come over with it, as she wanted to read it. I brought a copy I had xeroxed to her at her own studio. The place was in disarray and I found her in bed under the covers looking small and vulnerable as an ailing little animal. “I’m not feeling well at all. I can hardly get out of bed. My sister is taking care of me,” she told me in a low voice. I studied her pasty, puffed-out face and lusterless eyes and I knew she was very sick. “I brought the transcript for you to read. It‘s terrific.” I spoke in as cheery tone as I could muster, feeling like phony. She took it from me, and looked at it in a lackadaisical fashion as if it were a pile of unimportant mail. Before she had finished the first page, she put it down. “I can’t read it now. Please let me keep it and I look at it as soon as I can”
I wanted to do anything that would give Eva some pleasure, but I was leery. Instinctively, I knew that it was not a good idea to leave a rough transcript, or a finished, but unpublished interview with my interviewee. But she was so helpless, so beaten down by her illness that I did not have the heart to deny her any request.
When the interview came out in early May, 1970, Eva was back at Sloan Kettering after having a third operation. I went to see her there and found her in bed under a white sheet looking pale and fragile with a white bandage again encasing her head. It struck me that her last great sculpture “Untitled,” consisted of freestanding forms that looked like they had been bandaged. When she saw me she managed to give me a smile and her eyes brightened a little. Phil Leider had given her the cover of Artforum, and the magazine was on the table next to her bed. She sat up a bit and boasted in barely discernible voice, “I’ve got the cover. I’m so happy.” Then she pointed to a beautiful bouquet of spring flowers next to the magazine, and said, “Do you see these? They’re from a big collector. I finally made it didn’t I?” I took her hand, and I was glad for her. I knew then and there that Richard Serra had been wrong. I wasn’t an exploiter. Not even setting out to do so, I had helped to bring a dying woman some of the acclaim that she so desperately wanted and deserved. The world had affirmed her importance as an artist; a goal had been reached. She had been validated. 
Plucking at her covers absentmindedly, Eva chatted with me for a while about her gorgeous orderly, who had welcomed her back, and how she would be doing new pieces when she got back to her loft. She was amazing, and I even half believed she would be home creating again. 
Two weeks later, I called the hospital and was told she had lapsed into a coma. I decided to go see her anyway. As soon as I entered her room, I knew this was the end. She was lying stone still on the narrow bed, totally unaware that I had come in and there was silence all around her. Small and expressionless under the blanched white bedding she was only a shell of her true vivacious self. I took her hand in mine and squeezed it and said my good-byes. As I walked out into a warm sunny spring day, with its puffy white clouds moving majestically across the deep blue sky, and felt a lovely gentle breeze brush my cheeks, I experienced a terrible sadness. Eva Hesse was only 33. What a waste of a fine talent coupled with youth and loveliness. I went to her funeral and met several women artists I knew. Nancy Grossman told me she didn’t know Eva personally, but she felt as if she was at one with her. “She speaks for all of us,” Nancy said.

1 comment:

  1. Eva Hesse is right - “Excellence has no sex” and “The way to beat discrimination is by art.”

    As was Helen Frankenthaler who divorced Robert Motherwell after her tried to stifle her art - " She never aligned herself with the feminist movement in art that began to surface in the 1970s. “For me, being a ‘lady painter’ was never an issue,” she was quoted as saying in John Gruen’s book “The Party’s Over Now” (1972). “I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.”

    Why do women artists need to be boxed in by feminism? Are male artists boxed in this way? I don't think so.

    Tracy Hoffman

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