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Daphne Merkin

Two Artists’ Divergent Roads to Eros

This article appeared in the New York Times.


Eva Hesse / Hannah Wilke: Erotic Abstraction

An exhibition at Acquavella Galleries


The erotic, or what we think of as the erotic, is a slippery concept, partaking of everything and nothing; it can be nebulous and atmospheric or granularly specific, depending on its historical and cultural context. In the 19th century, a glimpse of a woman’s ankle could send the cad Rodolphe’s heart fluttering in Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.” In the post-1960s, we required stronger stuff, like the blatant, sustained nudity of the two main characters, played by Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, that marked Bernardo Bertolucci’s groundbreaking “Last Tango in Paris.”


On the face of it, “Erotic Abstraction,” the name of the powerful show at Acquavella, featuring over 20 works made from 1965 to 1977 — including sculptures, drawings and videos — by Eva Hesse and Hannah Wilke, would seem to be a contradiction in terms. Much as one can point to the work of, say, Barbara Hepworth and Louise Bourgeois for patent instances of erotic abstraction — or to contemporaries of Hesse and Wilke, like Lynda Benglis and Carolee Schneemann — the typical viewer is not inherently inclined to attribute sexual content to, say, a structure made of steel tubing and acrylic, or a grid of rubber washers, or ceramic boxlike forms.


Eva Hesse and Hannah Wilke were near-peers; Hesse was born in 1936 in Hamburg, Germany, and Wilke (nee Arlene Hannah Butter) was born in 1940 on New York’s Lower East Side. Although this is the first time the two artists have been shown together, according to the gallery, they are in some ways a natural pairing. Both women shared an interest in employing novel materials, such as fiberglass and liquid latex, and both made use of the strategies of repetition and seriality. Both made their reputations — Wilke more controversially — before dying young, Hesse at 34 of brain cancer and Wilke of lymphoma at 52.


Both also came from Jewish backgrounds that were lived under the shadow of the Holocaust — Hesse’s more explicitly so. (They may or may not have ever met or had an influence on each other but a great novel could be written along these lines.) Hesse’s family was religiously observant and in 1938 she and her older sister were part of one of the last Kindertransport that took children out of Nazi Germany. (The family eventually reunited and ended up living in New York City.) Although Wilke’s family was more assimilated than Hesse’s, she would make the issue of Jewishness part of her identity as an artist even if not as an explicit theme. “My consciousness came from being a Jew in World War II,” she observed in a 1989 interview. “I was born in 1940, and I was a Jew. I realized what it would be to be annihilated for just a word.”


One of the most intriguing questions this show poses, along with the current exhibit of Joan Semmel’s nude self-portraits at Alexander Gray and the ongoing Alice Neel retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is what constitutes erotic art as perceived by the female — as opposed to the infamous and haplessly objectifying male — gaze. (Wilke referred to the female gaze as a “sparkle.”) To be sure, both Semmel’s nudes, bathed in shafts of color and possessed of a kind of ungrandiose majesty, and Neel’s cleareyed yet loving portraits of pregnant women, which depict enlarged breasts and nipples as well as distended bellies, could only have been painted by women. But once one has said that, what else is one saying?


Since the beginning of the 1970s, with the advent of second-wave feminism and a heightened awareness of the sins of the patriarchy, there has been a great deal of theoretical conjecturing about female artists — that they prefer curves and circles to linear forms, wavy lines to straight ones, sideways allusion to frontal statements. Whether these theories illuminate much about the actual ways in which individual works come into being is debatable, but they are certainly an attempt to establish some ground rules. Having said that, it is probably best to look at “Erotic Abstraction” with as few preconceived notions as possible. Neither Hesse nor Wilke fit comfortably into recognizable taxonomies like “post-Minimalism,” “process” art, or, indeed, feminist art. One might say that they emerged from certain movements or categories without being of them.


In the gallery, each artist has been allotted her own room, and it quickly becomes clear how their paths diverged. Although neither artist’s work is visually alluring in any immediate sense, Wilke’s is by far the more provocative, almost disconcertingly so; it is characterized by her signature sculptures whose forms were both abstract and suggestive of female genitalia, made variously from lint, clay, kneaded erasers and, most comically, chewing gum. (“I chose gum as the perfect metaphor for the American woman,” Wilke explained in an interview, “— chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and pop in a new piece.”)

To come upon her teasingly suggestive groupings of glazed white ceramic or pale pink terra-cotta folded constructs for the first time is to be met with, if not pushed into, visual punning at its most intense. In the way of all charged sexual scenarios, one hardly knows where to look.

This in-your-face effect applies to everything she touches and shapes, from her watercolors with their delicately rose-tinted sequence of indeterminately sexual shapes, to the vintage postcards dotted with kneaded erasers in vulval forms in plexiglass boxes, to the rows of kneaded erasers on painted boards with titles like “Needed-Erase-Her #4.” There are two strange but compelling pieces made of latex, acrylic paint, push pins and metal snaps, titled “The Orange One” and “Ponder-r-rosa.” The latter works take the notion of the organic, of folding and layering, to another level -— intimating, well before art about feminist themes became a requisite part of the conversation, at a “female” suppleness and pliability held in by a “masculine” impulse to order and constrict.

On the surface, at least, Hesse’s work appears to derive from different origins and impulses than Wilke’s; she identified more with male artists like Jackson Pollock, Claes Oldenburg (her favorite) and Carl Andre than with other female artists and argued that her use of circular forms didn’t have “a sexual geometric atmosphere.” In a certain sense, then, Hesse resisted the attempt to characterize her artistic intentions as either erotic or even feminine. This stance may have had something to do with the fact that she created her most ambitious work on the cusp of the feminist era, when women artists were still viewed as being of secondary importance. (Hesse did not receive a one-woman show until after her death.)


Unlike the saucy transgressiveness that informs Wilke’s vision, Hesse’s pieces are marked by an unfussy and spare aesthetic that seems intellectually rather than emotionally driven — and certainly doesn’t overtly aim to titillate or shock. In an interview with the feminist art critic Cindy Nemser in January 1970 while Hesse was within months of dying, she elucidates her approach: “… I have confidence in my understanding of the formal,” she said. “I … can solve them beautifully.” Notwithstanding her insistence on the cerebral underpinnings of her art, Hesse also refers to the fact that her feelings are a vital part of her creative process. This tension between her visceral instincts and her academic training — she studied under Josef Albers while at Yale and was under the spell of Abstract Expressionism — helps explain the underground, almost furtive sexuality her sculptures exude.


Both “Study for Sculpture” (1967) and “Iterate” (1966-67) exemplify this tension, softening the edges of a Minimalist ethic and in the process anthropomorphizing materials — varnish, Liquitex (an acrylic pouring medium), metal, cord and Masonite for “Study” and acrylic, cord, wood shavings and Masonite, among others, for “Iterate” — that might otherwise seem to belong in a hardware store. The hanging cords suggest flaccid penises, if one chooses to look at them that way, or a kind of exhausted and discontinuous dangling of once-energized body parts. What the critic Clement Greenberg once described as the “lack of visual incident” in the work of Barnett Newman (meant as praise) can also be ascribed to Hesse’s work. This pared-down quality has the effect of igniting the wish for an intimate discourse with both the creator and her creations.

Hesse’s belief in the eloquence of the circle, whatever her demurrals, is evident in nearly half of the 11 pieces exhibited. There are four works, all called “No title,” which present a circle or circles, whether in ink wash on paper or in three dimensional versions made of cord, papier-mâché and wood. Though breast-like they also resist implication of cushiness, testifying to Hesse’s ambivalence about gendered distinctions.

“Ringaround Arosie” (1965), which was Hesse’s first sculpture and is arguably the best piece in the show, demonstrates no such conflict about sexual identification. An electrifying piece in its assuredness and poise, “Ringaround Arosie” calls on a bevy of materials — acetone, enamel paint, ink, cloth-covered electrical wire, among others — in the service of two circles, a smaller sitting on top of a larger one, both rimmed in bright red. Although both have nipple-like protrusions in their centers, the pinkish protrusion in the larger one is more defined, almost swelling as though aroused by someone just out of sight.


“Ringaround Arosie” conveys all there is to say about the paradox of erotic abstraction and the way female artists imbue the idiom with a pulsating humanity. Questions about the steamy possibilities inherent in nonfigurative art, as well as the specific nature of the female gaze — that “sparkle” Wilke allude to — will continue to be argued over for years to come. Meanwhile, we have the bold and indubitably eccentric examples of Eva Hesse and Hannah Wilke, both of whom flouted aesthetic strictures and flirted with the idea of the absurd. (Of her piece entitled “Hang Up,” Hesse wrote “It is the most ridiculous structure that I ever made and is why it is really good.”) The two articulated their own experience of entrapment as women in a world of men, all the while providing glimpses of liberation in their unconventional artistic offerings.