The Ellipses of Eva Hesse: Reading Her Collected Diaries

Eva Hesse "No Title," 1969. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

Eva Hesse’s collected diaries begin at the end.

In the book’s last sentence, editor Barry Rosen thanks Hesse’s friend Gioia Timpanelli for discovering the diaries “on a low shelf in Eva Hesse’s studio.” After reading Hesse’s hope that “this book becomes my best friend,” you have to wonder if they should’ve stayed there.

. . .

The book is an 890-page odyssey of tumult. When your eyelids inevitably slacken, it’s hard not to float to the blue flame of crises – in love, art, family, and health. But in focusing on these salacious details, a dizzying circuit appears: if diaries document hidden truths, they also create truths in the image of socially-formed expectations. Writing in the catalogue for Yale University’s 1992 retrospective of Hesse, the art historian Anna Chave quotes Mary Kelly’s observation that for artists, guarantees of truth are “grounded in the painful state,” meaning that self-expression is thought to be incomplete, unless suffering is given equal representation to joy. Often, Hesse’s diaries reproduce a readymade narrative of self-flagellation and resentment. But she also resists.

As the book progresses across the last fifteen years of her life (cut short at age 34, in 1970), slumps into anxiety are repeatedly met with brutal self-analyses. Interspersed throughout are meditations on aesthetics, materials, and the difficult relationship between intellect and emotion, when it comes to art-making.

There are also moments of cruelty, albeit infused with the same dark humor that impelled her, both in her paintings and reliefs, to meld slippery references to the body with garish colors and hypertrophic shapes, as if so many organs were being hung in cryptic caricature. On Christmas day, 1970, while in hospital, she writes, “Miss Bitch is out for a stroll bitching … with her ugly hard pink shoes. Too fat to bend to put them on.”

. . .

Google “Eva Hesse,” now, and you’ll find a thumbnail grid in grey-scale, interrupted here and there by the amber of her aged resin and rubber sculptures. The dangling protuberances, coiled ropes, and floppy vessels for which she is most remembered, merged corporeal gravitas with the systems-ethic of Minimalism, and had no use for color. This impression of her work masks an early passion for painting – a medium that nonetheless gave her fits. She hated “the colors I use,” and wrote that “it’s amazing how this happens again and again … I am defeated by my own lack of concern.”

Now, the crimson book is sitting on my bed. It’s a brick, and puts a deep indent in the sheets. The color is seductive, but seems a mistake, its intonation too pat and morose, nodding tacitly to the tragedy that hangs over its subject. An accumulation of pink Post-it notes prevents the cover from closing, but allows the sunflower yellow of its inside page to peek out – a slight egression of chroma in a daunting mass of text. Throughout, two black pages appear each time Hesse finishes a diary, and before she begins the next. These are ligatures, which join fragments of worry and confidence previously scattered across months and years.


A scan from the collected diaries of Eva Hesse (photo by author).

Hesse’s sometimes-acerbic view of others was accompanied by an eviscerating self-consciousness. In 1955, on the last day of high school, she is anticipating work as a summer camp Arts and Crafts instructor. Her “feelings of inadequacy are dominant … everything is completely out of focus and scale” and she is “almost minus qualities …”

In the same sentence, however, a steeled intellectual distance announces itself, as she resolves to “find out why the hysterics [and] why I have so little self confidence …” Towards this mission, she spends downtime reading psychotherapeutic theory, and throughout the book, cryptic coding systems appear. She lists research, materials, friends, and the many men who fell over one another, seeking her attention. In this way, the writing fades and flickers between prose and autobiographical concrete poetry. Here, in 1955, is evidence of the voracious reading habits that bolstered her capacity for self-reflection:

N Crime and Punishment

P All My Sons

P The Lost Horizon

P Country Girl

N Jane Eyre

N Native Son

… the list goes on, before breaking into a textual diagram of emotion:

frustration anxiety

fear hate

love place

fight win

lose cry

sad lonely

happiness – happy moment not one word but entity which exists in a world not known

. . .

The transition between Hesse’s early, colorful relief works and the biomorphic sculptures that hold her in our memory, came during a self-imposed exile. In 1959, she fulfilled her wish of “getting to Europe” by accompanying her husband, the sculptor Tom Doyle, to a residency in Ketwigg, Germany.

From this sojourn on, Doyle becomes a constant presence in the diaries, appearing so frequently that Hesse replaces his name with an acronym – TJD. The two set about working in a disused factory. Or Hesse did, anyways, while Doyle got to work spreading his seed around the countryside. On at least one occasion, he gives her crabs. Years earlier, reading Camus’s Exile and the Kingdom, Hesse had sympathized with the book’s women who are “weary of their mates, bored by their relationship and … yet bound by it.” In retrospect, this reflection reads like a self-directed warning. Except that she wasn’t bored, so much as tortured.

“I hate you,” she writes, before explaining that Tom is innocent, and wondering why she hates him. Her feelings spin, and this spinning reflects the forces she later envisions in her sculptures, writing like a poet of physics – even as it seems absurd to imagine such direct echoes between personal life and work:

311 circular motion

N circumnavigation

N circumflexion

V circuit evolution

circumscribe adj. circuitous, devious

312 N rotation, gyration, convolution

N vortex, maelstrom, vertiginous, vertigo

V rotate, box the compass, gyrate

313 unfoldment N – evolution, inversion

247 circle – cordon, cincture, cestus, baldrie

Not only does Hesse take on responsibility for “cooking, washing, [and doing] dishes,” but also “business things” that Doyle cannot be bothered with, namely penning letters on his behalf. In this regard, the domestic labor she undertakes extends to writing. It is both unbelievable and tragic when she describes herself as stupid and “unable to read.” The quick charm of her own prose deepens this irony: “Someday, I will make for myself,” she writes, “the so-called laughs and good times I was / to gain from you.”

. . .

Later, in New York, after they’ve separated, Hesse lives in a loft opposite Doyle’s studio. Occasional movements in his window are recorded, as well as the constant presence of men who satisfy themselves, staring into hers. These passages are not fun to read. Eventually, mercifully, her obsession with Doyle dissipates due to her increasing success, and she relishes the opportunity to disparage his work.

In diaries, we hope to find gritty details like this. But what does this desire serve? Chris Kraus offers an answer informed by feminism, explaining her own auto-biographical approach as a rejection of the expectation that women remain politely mute regarding the details of domestic life and love. But whereas Kraus writes for an audience, these diaries were written only for their author – maybe.

Evidence that Hesse would agree with Kraus’s position appears as she repeatedly transcribes quotations from Simone de Beauvoir’s classic feminist tract, The Second Sex. De Beauvoir’s suggestion, written down by Hesse in 1964, that “what woman essentially lacks today for doing great things is forgetfulness of herself” refers to forgetting a version of “herself” who has so internalized the role foisted upon her by the patriarchy as to be unable to step outside of it – unable to see the socially-constructed picture of femininity for what it is. It seems clear, then, that Hesse had analytical perspective on the sexism that structured her marriage. This doesn’t suggest that she wanted the diaries read, but it does lend them the quality of a time capsule, waiting for a readership more attuned to the plight of domestic subordination.

. . .

Except for Tom Doyle, no figure appears more regularly than Sol LeWitt. In 1966 (the year Hesse appeared in three now-canonical exhibitions: Eccentric Abstraction, Stuffed Expressionism, and Abstract Inflationism) a new piece of hers falls off the wall. Hesse blames herself, writing, “That I let Sol [LeWitt] and Mel [Bochner] help me when neither are technicians is wrong.” Poor Sol. He loved her, and she, seeing him as a father figure, rebuffed him. (“Repulsive” is the word he uses to describe himself during one phone call, after offering a deeper form of companionship.) Instead, he became an emotional handyman of infinite patience.

A postcard from Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse.

A postcard from Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse.

This book gives a view of Hesse and LeWitt’s relationship, wider than his famous letter to her – a manifesto against doubt that should be hung at the entranceway to every art school, in which he exhorted her to “learn to say ‘fuck you’ to the world once in a while … just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder … wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some way out … just DO.” Instead, Hesse’s diaries offer us her reflections on their correspondence, as well as one draft of a letter, she sent him: “I trust myself not enough to come through with any one idea … I cannot sustain the desire to work long enough to solve anything … maybe I don’t love it enough to try … how do you believe in something deeply?” There is no immediate response from LeWitt, that we can see. Though later he replies, simply: “art failure is heart failure.”


A letter from Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse, 1965.

Lovable and caring Sol is not the only Sol that appears in this book, however. Meditating on Virginia Woolf’s diaries for The New Yorker, Louis Menand observed that “inside, everyone sounds […] like the same broken record of anxiety and resentment. [and that] We read Woolf’s diaries so that we can see other people through Woolf’s eyes.” Indeed, Hesse’s diaries also show us insecure, needy Sol, whose “dirt is his anxiety, also his need to be correct.” She also shades in Nancy Holt’s personality as pleasant, but with caustic potential. During a dinner party in January 1967, Holt takes Robert Smithson – her husband and ur-male role model of New York artists – down a notch, by reciting a parody of his letters. Mostly, though, these reflections are quick asides, before Hesse gets back to her own anxieties. On page 820, the word “SOLIPSISTIC” appears alone. She knew herself well.

. . .

I was sure that these diaries would peter out far before Hesse’s death from cancer, at thirty-four (largely attributed, but not conclusively connected to, her use of toxic resins, rubbers, and fiberglasses). But, in 1970, we read that she has been saved from a tumor “so enlarged it was tipping my brain over.” At no other time does she transcribe her own “dread” so directly, and never, paradoxically, is she more confident, finding her lack of energy “contrasted by a psychic energy of rebirth.”

In light of epiphanies this intense, should we care that on Sunday, September 9, Hesse experienced a craving for peanut butter? I do. Ordinary desires are desires, still, and it’s “the most banal details” that give time its texture, as Kraus said in a recent conversation with the poet Ariana Reines. It was a “queer sensation to desire a food,” Hesse continues – one that you search out and attain, almost “unaware.” In the original notebooks, Hesse’s stream of consciousness scrawls periodically disappear under winding spirals. In Rosen’s edit, however, text is reduced to serif font, and the scribbles that cross-out finished tasks, to arrow straight lines. Only once does this book offer Hesse’s words, exactly as she wrote them, in a photo reproduction waiting at the back of the book. The lone image is a kind of ellipses, acknowledging the imperfection of transcription.

Eva Hesse, 1965. Photo courtesy of Manfred Tischer Archives.

Eva Hesse, 1965. Photo courtesy of Manfred Tischer Archives.

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