It is almost impossible to view Eva Hesse’s work without the shadow of her life story. The German artist died of a brain tumour at the age of 34 and it was only in her last few years, when she turned to sculpture that museums and magazines began to pay attention. As she lay on her death bed, her work Contingent, 1969, featured on the cover of Artforum’s May 1970 issue.
During a trip to West Germany from 1964 to 1965, Hesse set up a studio in an abandoned factory in Düsseldorf and first began working with industrial materials such as latex, wax and fibreglass, the media of her best known works. This period also had a personal significance for the artist: Hesse had not returned to Germany since she was sent by her family to the Netherlands in 1938, to escape the Nazis, aged two.
“Eva Hesse: One More than One”, opening at the Hamburger Kunsthalle this month, focuses on this Düsseldorf period. It is the first major survey of the artist to take place in Hamburg, the city of her birth, and the first in Germany in a decade. Petra Roettig, one of the curators of this exhibition, says that Hesse’s biography played only a minor role in the conception of the show. “These aspects, like having to leave Germany to flee the Holocaust, are very important in Hamburg. But we don’t use it to interpret her work,” she says. “We are just very glad to be able to [organise] this exhibition. It might be the last chance to show her work in Europe.” It is widely assumed that museums will soon refuse to lend her works because they are very delicate. Lending institutions for the Hamburg show include major US collections, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Sans II, 1968, a large, five-piece polyester and resin sculpture, divided among several collections and reunited for this show, will undoubtedly be a highlight.
On the upper level of the institution visitors can see the parallel exhibition “Gego: Line as Object”, by another Hamburg-born woman, Gertrud Goldschmidt, known as Gego. Like Hesse, Gego also fled Nazi Germany, settling in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1939. “Although she is not well known in Europe, she became an important South American artist in the 1950s and 60s,” Roettig says. Gego’s earlier works echo South American kinetic artists such as Carlos Cruz-Diez and Jesús Rafael Soto, but her later pieces are marked by her deep interest in line and space. The exhibition includes the series “Recticulárea”, 1968-76, an installation made of geometric wire and mesh, suspended from the ceiling like a futuristic tapestry. Also on show are “Drawings Without Paper”, tiny works created from malleable and intertwined scraps of metal that convey movement and spontaneity, produced in the 1980s. Just like Hesse, Gego oscillates between drawings and mixed media, with many of these works considered fragile.
• Eva Hesse: One More than One and Gego: Line as Object, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, 29 November-2 March 2014
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Two come home to Hamburg'