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Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College
87 North Main Street, Oberlin, OH 44074
440.775.8665

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Eva Hesse Archive

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Eva Hesse Archive Eva Hesse in her Bowery Studio, New York, NY, ca. 1968. Gift of Helen Hesse Charash, 1977.52.72.27

Best known for her audacious Postminimalist sculptures, Eva Hesse is widely considered one of the most important and influential figures in postwar American art.

Eva Hesse was born in 1936, in Hamburg, Germany, to Jewish parents. The family fled the Nazi regime, first to Holland in 1938 and then 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. After graduating she returned to New York, where her debut exhibitions, including her first solo show at Allan Stone Gallery, focused on her drawings.

Hesse’s first sculptures date from 1964, during an 18-month stay in Germany with her then-husband, the sculptor Tom Doyle. Her first solo show of three-dimensional work, held in 1964 at the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen in Düsseldorf, consisted of 36 drawings and 14 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—Laocoön, Metronomic Irregularity, Ennead, and Hang-Up—were completed in 1965-66, and her work appeared in two 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 onward, Hesse 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, and the important exhibition When Attitudes Become Form at the Kunsthalle Bern that same year.

Hesse became ill with cancer in the late 1960s, and died in 1970 at age 34. She kept a diary from childhood, the contents of which have inspired many accounts of possible parallels between her often traumatic life and her work, including the 2016 documentary Eva Hesse, directed by Marcie Begleiter, which relied heavily on materials in the Eva Hesse Archive. Hesse’s work has been closely associated with Minimalism and Postminimalism, and though her mature career lasted only five years, she is regarded as a critical figure in the art of the 1960s, who has had a lasting, wide-ranging influence on subsequent generations of artists.

Hesse at Oberlin

The AMAM is honored to be the repository of the Eva Hesse Archive, which contains more than 1,200 items related to the late artist Eva Hesse (1936-1970), including notebooks, diaries, datebooks, sketchbooks, photographs, exhibition-related ephemera, postcards, and letters. These materials join more than 300 artworks by Hesse in the AMAM collection, constituting an indispensable resource for scholars and a living testament to the artist's boundless creativity and determination.

The museum’s exceptional holdings are due to the extraordinary generosity of Hesse’s sister, Helen Hesse Charash. Over a number of years, Charash donated both archival materials and artworks by Hesse in recognition of the keen, early interest in Hesse's work shown by Ellen Johnson, Oberlin's professor of modern and contemporary art, and Athena Tacha, the AMAM’s first curator of modern art. In late 1967, Johnson invited Hesse to Oberlin as a visiting artist; on her arrival for a two-day visit in January 1968, Hesse took out a stack of recent drawings that so impressed Johnson and Tacha that they conceived immediately of an impromptu exhibition, which was installed in the halls of the Art Department with Hesse’s assistance.

Tacha had first heard of Hesse through artists Sol LeWitt and Mel Bochner, and vividly recalls visiting her in her studio in New York, where she first saw Hesse’s monumental sculpture Laocoön (1966). At the urging of Johnson and Tacha, the AMAM acquired this work (facilitated in part as a gift from the artist and Fischbach Gallery) in 1970, shortly after the artist’s untimely death. The confidence and enthusiasm Johnson and Tacha showed in Hesse’s work inspired Charash’s exceptional donation, several years later, of her sister’s notebooks, diaries, correspondence, teaching materials, sketchbooks, photographs, and other visual and biographical materials. Together, these items provide crucial insight into Hesse’s working processes, her thoughts and ideas, her relationships with other artists, and the critical reception of her work, all of which provides a basis for research, teaching, and exhibition.

The materials in the archive span in date from the 1940s to the early 1980s; the majority of items came to Oberlin in 1977, followed by additional donations in 1982, 1983, and 1998. All of the materials have been digitized and are searchable through the collection database; interested scholars can also consult the archive’s finding aid, which provides a detailed overview of the archive’s contents. Portions of the archive have also appeared in print: Yale University Press published facsimile editions of two of Hesse’s datebooks from the period when she lived in Kettwig-on-the-Ruhr, Germany (Eva Hesse Datebooks 1964/65, 2007); while Hesse’s diaries have been transcribed and published in full by Hauser & Wirth (Eva Hesse: Diaries, 2016).

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