- Diaries by Eva Hesse
When a brain tumor ended her life in 1970, the artist Eva Hesse was just thirty-four years old. But, as this book's promotional materials state, Hesse was (and remains) one of the greatest American artists of the 1960s, on par with the other artists these diaries name as part of her social and professional circle, including Dan Graham, Sol Lewitt, Mel Bochner, and Robert Smithson (who also died young, in a plane crash). This contrast between her life's fleetingness and her reputation's durability mirrors the disparity between her art's ephemerality and this book's sturdiness. Works like her well-known Hang Up (1966)—a wall piece comprising steel tube, cord, cloth, and wood that pokes fun at the solipsism of many 1960s paintings—seem ready to fall apart. Yet this compendium of Hesse's complete dairies, with its squat format and thick spine, looks solid as a brick—an impression highlighted by its cover's sandpapery feel and dark rust color. [End Page 512]
But does the book's painstaking editing by Barry Rosen (her estate's artistic advisor) and attractive production enrich our understanding of Hesse's life, work, or epoch? This query is especially pointed given that Yale University Press already, in 2007, published a facsimile edition of her date books from 1964 and 1965 and that throughout this volume's 900 pages, Hesse says little about her art, concentrating instead on her illnesses, her experiences with psychotherapy, and, most prominently, her stormy marriage to sculptor Tom Doyle. Are we better off for having this material? Do we profit from reading Hesse's innermost thoughts, insecurities, and anxieties?
Arguing for the prosecution, we might say that we don't. For instance, her repeated references to Doyle's mistress as "0" (that is, zero) only diminish Hesse—as in, while recounting a dream from July 1966: "T + 0 are still together, plan to marry" (648). Similarly, is anything advanced by knowing that, having lost her mother to divorce and then suicide while a young girl, Hesse is hit hard when her father dies in August 1966, essentially orphaning her at thirty years old (697)? And even such discussions of her art as do appear here are intermittent and perfunctory: lists of materials, possible titles of works, brief comments about sales or upcoming shows. But that's it. To be fair, we do see her gradual transition from painter to sculptor—though we learn nothing about the shift's motivations. Rather, we see this change at one remove, as her occasional notes about her artistic practice morph from comments on painting. For example, on October 28, 1964, Hesse states, "I will paint against every rule I or others have invisible [sic] placed" (285).1 Later, in fall 1966, she writes a note about sculpture: "*New piece / black / 4 x 4 board / holes / rubber hose papier mâché" (715). The reasons for exchanging two dimensions for three remain obscure, and one might wonder if whatever we're left with just encourages what art historian T. J. Clark calls "idiot X-equals-Y biography" in the opening pages of Picasso and Truth (4). Perhaps it does, which prompts a further question: shouldn't some archival material stay in the archives (in this instance, at Oberlin College)? Again, perhaps. But poring through materials with no overt link to Hesse's art may yet have value. The defense may not have a slam-dunk case, but that doesn't mean it has no case at all.
For instance, insight into her frustration and pain around the situation with Doyle might well matter. Despite the picture we have of the 1960s as a time when struggles for gender equality, including sexual experience, gathered steam, the truth is different. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, articulating the vexation and unhappiness that many women felt as housewives, was only published in 1963. William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson's Human Sexual Response didn't appear...