Eva Hesse (American, Hamburg, Germany 1936 - 1970 New York)
Plastic tubing, rope, wire, papier-mâché, cloth, paint
Overall: 130 x 23 1/4 x 23 1/4 in. (330.2 x 59 x 59 cm)
Each cube: 23 1/4 x 23 1/4 x 23 1/4 in. (59 x 59 x 59 cm)
Fund for Contemporary Art, and gift from the artist and Fischbach Gallery, 1970
In Laocoön, the regular structure of a stack of cubes is invaded by a tangle of falling, looping, slithering coils. The title of the work refers to the well-known Hellenistic sculpture of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons, their bodies trapped in the grip of pythons sent by the gods.
Hesse began Laocoön in late 1965, near the end of an eighteen-month sojourn in Germany. It was during this period that Hesse first shifted her attention from drawing and painting to sculpture, and began to explore the sculptural problems that would find form in her mature works. Laocoön's juxtaposition of a geometric structure with dangling or piercing lines is already evident in the artist's small reliefs of 1964.1 Plaster, cord, and industrial tubing had been favorite materials since 1964, around the same time when Hesse discovered the repetitive procedures of wrapping and binding. These materials and processes appear in the plastered and clothbound armature and snakes of Laocoön2, and in many other sculptures throughout her career. It was also in 1965 that Hesse first visited the Vatican Museum in Rome and saw the Hellenistic sculpture Laocoön, which she would have already known from art history courses taken at Yale.
One of Hesse's rare freestanding sculptures,3 Laocoön took many months to complete. The sculptor Ray Donarski helped plan the construction of the plastic pipe armature. The pliant material permitted Hesse to cut and glue each module herself; she then covered the pipes with papier-mâché, and painted them grey. She made the "snakes"--her own term4--by wrapping wires first with cloth, and again with thinner wire before painting.5
first version of Laocoön, the grey paint was broadly graded from light to dark in opposite directions on the coils and armature respectively. To achieve a greater sense of visual unity and textural consistency, Hesse soon reworked the entire piece, wrapping the armature in cloth as she had done with the snakes, and adding more papier-mâché to the armature so that its thickness was even throughout. She painted the entire work in a single tone of light grey paint and added many more coils.6
A preparatory drawing exists for the armature.7 Hesse executed three drawings of the sculpture after it was completed: a brief small sketch on the back cover of her diary, among similar sketches of major works completed between September 1965 and March 1966; a miniscule thumbnail sketch in a slightly later diary;8 and a wash drawing in which the armature has seven modules rather than six.9
Laocoön belongs to a moment in which the precepts of Minimalism were being challenged, rejected, or radically extended by a number of young sculptors. Laocoön's armature is based on the Minimalist principle of the repeated module or grid; a set of stacked cubes, the structure also refers to the cube permutations of the conceptual artist So LeWittl, a close friend of Hesse. The rationale of the armature, however, is buried under a chaotic accumulation of tangled lines, and in lieu of the hard geometry and apparent finitude of the Minimalist object, Laocoön insists on the physical contingency of sculpture. Labor and materiality, the forces of gravity and entropy, and the viewer's bodily claims on the work of sculpture are blatant in Laocoön's forms, textures, and structural relationships. Like several other important works completed by Hesse in 1966,10 Laocoön is an early example of these new, so-called post-minimalist tendencies in sculpture, which can also be seen in AMAM works by Robert Morris, Alan Saret, Robert Smithson, and Jackie Winsor.11
The Oberlin work was not exhibited publicly in Hesse's lifetime, but it would have been seen by the many artists and writers who were interested in her work, including Smithson, LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Morris, Klaus Kertess, and Lucy Lippard. In the summer of 1966, Lippard suggested that Hesse show Laocoön in the Eccentric Abstraction exhibition organized by Lippard at the Fischbach Gallery, New York, in September, but Hesse decided that the exposed hardware of the gallery ceiling would interfere with the work.
Work reproduced with permission of Robert Miller, New York
Eva Hesse was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1936 to Jewish parents. The family fled to Holland in 1938 and to New York in 1939.
Hesse studied at the Art Students League, then at Cooper Union and Yale University, where she received her B.A. in 1959. Her many (abstract) drawings of around 1960-64 show her working with "the shapes...with which she had always been obsessed--irregular rectangles, parabolas, trailing linear ends, curving forms and circles bound or bulged out of symmetry."12
Her first sculptures date from 1964, during an eighteen-month stay in Germany with her husband, the sculptor Tom Doyle. Her first solo show of three-dimensional work, held at the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf, in 1964, consisted of thirty-six drawings and fourteen reliefs made of plaster and cord, either tightly bound or loosely hanging. On her return to New York in 1965, she began to focus and clarify her forms and to work on a large scale. That year was her first period of great productivity and achievement; her earliest significant sculptures--Laocoon, Metronomic Irregularity, Ennead, and Hang-Up--were completed during 1965-66, and her work appeared in the important group exhibitions, Abstract Inflationism and Stuffed Expressionism(Graham Gallery, New York, May 1966), and Eccentric Abstraction (Fischbach Gallery, New York, October 1966). Both exhibitions were organized by Lucy Lippard, Hesse's early supporter and most astute critic.
From 1968 onwards she worked frequently in fiberglass, producing some of her most daring attenuations of sculptural "structure," as in the hanging, tangled fiberglass of Right After (1969, Milwaukee Art Museum). She was included in Robert Morris's Nine in a Warehouse exhibition, held at the Castelli warehouse in 1969 (as was Alan Saret and Richard Serra), and the important When Attitudes Become Form traveling exhibition of the same year.
Hesse became ill with cancer in the late 1960s, and died in 1970 at the age of thirty-four. She kept a diary since her childhood, the contents of which have inspired many accounts of possible parallels between her often traumatic life and her sculpture. Her work is closely associated with Minimalism, and is now regarded as a critical factor in the varied recastings of that movement throughout the later 1960s and early ‘70s.
Eva Hesse: A Memorial Exhibition. Exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1972.
Lippard, Lucy R. Eva Hesse. New York, 1976.
Cooper, Helen A., et al. Eva Hesse: A Retrospective. Exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1992.
With Fischbach Gallery, New York
Gift/purchase from Fischbach Gallery and Eva Hesse in 1970
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1972-73. Eva Hesse: A Memorial Exhibition. 7 December - 11 February (also shown at Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery). Cat. no. 11.
Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, 1980. From Reinhardt to Christo: Works Acquired through the Benefaction of the Late Ruth C. Roush. 20 February - 19 March. Cat. no. 25.
Smithson, Robert. "Quasi-Infinites and the Waning Space." Arts Magazine 41, no. 1 (November 1966), pp. 30-31. Reprinted in The Writings of Robert Smithson. Edited by Nancy Holt. New York, 1979, pp. 34-35.
Lippard, Lucy R. "Eva Hesse: The Circle." Art in America 59, no. 3 (May-June 1971), p. 68. Reprinted in The New Sculpture 1965-75: Between Geometry and Gesture. Edited by Richard Armstrong and Richard Marshall. Exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1990, p. 232.
Pincus-Witten, Robert. "Post-Minimalism into Sublime." Artforum 10, no. 3 (November 1971), pp. 35-40. (A revised version of this essay was published as "Eva Hesse: More Light on the Transition from Post-Minimalism to the Sublime," in Eva Hesse: A Memorial Exhibition, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1972, unpaginated, cited below.)
Shearer, Linda. "Eva Hesse: Last Works." In Eva Hesse: A Memorial Exhibition. Exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1972, unpaginated.
Levin, Kim. "Eva Hesse: Notes on New Beginnings." Art News 72, no. 2 (February 1973), p. 71.
Lippard, Lucy R. Eva Hesse. New York, 1976, pp. 9, 32, 58-59, 62, 70, 84-85, 149, 187.
Johnson, Ellen H. "American Art of the Twentieth Century." Apollo 103, no. 168 (February 1976), p. 131.
Olander, William. In From Reinhardt to Christo: Works Acquired through the Benefaction of the Late Ruth C. Roush. Exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, 1980, pp. 12, 16, cat. no. 12.
Johnson, Ellen H. "Order and Chaos: From the Diaries of Eva Hesse." Art in America 71, no. 6 (Summer 1983), pp. 111, 115.
Barrette, Bill. Eva Hesse Sculpture: Catalogue Raisonné. New York, 1989, pp. 84-86, no. 31.
Prinz, Jessica. Art Discourse/Discourse in Art. New Brunswick, N.J., 1991, pp. 86-87, 89-90. Reprint and commentary on 1966 essay by Robert Smithson, cited above.
Cooper, Helen A., et al. Eva Hesse: A Retrospective. Exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1992, pp. 37-38, 66, 92, 106-7.
Schjeldahl, Peter. "A New Retrospective Annoints Eva Hesse Empress of the Absurd." Elle 7, no. 8 (April 1992), p. 94.
Nemett, Barry. Images, Objects, and Ideas: Viewing the Visual Arts. Fort Worth, 1992, p. 133.
David, Catherine, and Corinne Diserens. Eva Hesse. Exh. cat., IVAM Centre Julio González, Valencia, 1993, pp. 10, 13, 36, 44, 170, 177, 179.
Krauss, Rosalind E. <U The Optical Unconscious >. Cambridge, Mass., 1993, p. 313.
Ziesche, Angela. Das Schwere und das Leichte (Kunstlerinnen des 20.Jahrhunderts. Cologne, 1995, pp. 63-65, ill. p. 64.
The armature is formed of six separate, stacked cubes made of hollow plastic tubing wrapped in cloth, covered with papier-mâché, and painted (probably with acrylic). The piece may be broken down into two parts for travel, as the top three units fit into the bottom three. The plastic tubing is open and accessible at the top.
The rope of hanging coils (or "snakes") has been wrapped with cloth and an iron alloy wire. The coils are removable and flexible; they have a tendency to settle and straighten as they reach the bottom of the armature, which accounts for the varied appearance of the coils in different photographs of the work.
Minor paint losses on the armature reveal the brown paper of the papier-mâché. Several hairline cracks are visible in the paper, particularly in the horizontal cross-members; the cracks appear to be stable. Minor staining, the result of dust accumulation, is evident throughout the work.
1. Bill Barrette, Eva Hesse Sculpture: Catalogue Raisonné (New York, 1989), pp. 20-46, nos. 1-14.
2. See, for example, Seven Poles (1970, reinforced fiberglass over polyethylene over aluminum wire, Paris, Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou); reproduced in Bill Barrette, Eva Hesse Sculpture: Catalogue Raisonné (New York, 1989), p. 238, no. 103.
3. Hesse's first freestanding work was Untitled (Spoke Piece), September 1965; Bill Barrette, Eva Hesse Sculpture: Catalogue Raisonné (New York, 1989), p. 50, no. 15. Hesse had the work destroyed shortly before she died.
4. Helen A. Cooper et al., Eva Hesse: A Retrospective (exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1992), p. 38.
5. Helen A. Cooper et al., Eva Hesse: A Retrospective(exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1992), p. 84.
6. Lucy R. Lippard, Eva Hesse (New York, 1976), p. 58.
7. Study for "Laocoön," 1965-66, pen and ink with graphite, 43.2 x 21.6 cm (AMAM inv. 77.52.1).
9. 61.6 x 38.1 cm, AMAM inv. 77.52.2.
10. Ennead, 1966, dyed string and painted papier-mâché, private collection; Metronomic Irregularity, 1966, painted wood, sculp-metal, and cotten-covered wire, estate of Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt, New York; and the immensely successful Hang-Up, January 1966, acrylic on cloth, wood, and steel, The Art Institute of Chicago. Reproduced in Bill Barrette, Eva Hesse Sculpture: Catalogue Raisonné (New York, 1989), nos. 32, 37, and 22, respectively.
11. Laocoön is discussed in Robert Smithson's essay, "Quasi-Infinites and the Waning Space," Arts Magazine 41, no. 1 (November 1966), pp. 30-31; reprinted in The Writings of Robert Smithson, ed. Nancy Holt (New York, 1979), pp. 34-35.
12. Lucy Lippard, "Eva Hesse: The Circle," Art in America 59, no. 3 (May-June 1971), p. 68.