Film Review: Eva Hesse

Entertaining and beautifully rendered documentary homage to the late-20th-century artist whose short life was fraught with drama and to the provocative creations that finally brought her fame just as brain cancer stole an even more promising future.
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Filmmaker Marcie Begleiter’s Eva Hesse, which Zeitgeist Films is bringing to theatres, is a fully fleshed portrait that impresses through ample archival material, narrations from Hesse’s personal journals and correspondence, and interviews with many in her circle of intimates and famed artists. Also what undeniably lingers are the many high-resolution shots of her unusual artwork, which evolved from the colorful, abstract, minimalist, absurdist paintings of her early years in the late ’50s into the ’60s, when a whole new style of sculptures would win her worldwide recognition.

The doc doesn’t just tell the story of her journey to these later three-dimensional works bursting with personality, humor and originality, but also the journey of a life full of challenges, doubt and hardship that began in Nazi Germany.

It all ends both well and horribly. Hesse’s hard work and evolution into sculpture brought recognition of critics, galleries and finally museums, but, almost contemporaneously, in 1970 terminal cancer cut her life short.

Hesse’s struggles and talent are illuminated by the doc’s many interviews (contemporary and archival) with colleagues and close friends: artists including Richard Serra, Robert Mangold, Dan Graham, Nancy Holt, and especially Sol LeWitt, her mentor; well-known museum notables like Whitney curator Elisabeth Sussman and Tate Museums director Nicholas Serota; and writers Lucy R. Lippard and Gioia Timpanelli. Valuable commentary also comes from Hesse’s surviving older sister Helen and from her sculptor ex-husband, Tom Doyle.

Audio plays an important role in this look at a visual artist, thanks to the intermittent narration of Hesse’s journals and correspondence (both letters written and received) by Selma Blair as Hesse, Bob Balaban as her beloved father William, and Patrick Kennedy as Sol LeWitt.

In addition to the talent and determination at its core, historic events also drive the story. Hesse’s life began in Hamburg, Germany, where, in 1936, she was born into a German-Jewish family as persecution of the Jews was gaining force. Eva and older sister Helen were sent to Holland on one of the last Kindertransport trains that saved many children from the Holocaust and then made their way to New York in 1939, where the parents and two daughters were all reunited.

But her parents struggled. The mother left the family and committed suicide when Eva was only ten, after hearing the news that her own parents perished in a concentration camp.

Early on, Hesse, acknowledging she was “different,” began to pursue her art. She was accepted first at Cooper Union, then at Yale, and soon after arrived in New York in 1959 just as the city’s storied art-scene decade began and Max’s Kansas City, bar hangouts with sawdust floors, and loft living in otherwise undesirable neighborhoods became synonymous with arty Manhattan of the ’60s.

In 1961, as Hesse was already gaining attention for her colorful, quirky, abstract drawings, she met (at a party, of course) established sculptor Tom Doyle. They married soon after, spurned the local growing Pop Art movement and moved in 1964 for a year in Germany, when German industrialist and art patron Friedrich Arnhard Scheidt summoned Doyle to work and create in an abandoned textile factory.

Because of her heritage, Hesse was at first reluctant, and once there she fought melancholy and also some resentment that Doyle was more recognized as an artist than she was. But the unrest allowed her to forge a radical new style. Having arrived in Germany as a painter with a minimalist and absurdist bent, she left as a sculptor who, growing these tendencies, gave her work three-dimensionality with new materials like latex, fiberglass, plastics, rubber and polymers. She often foraged this material among the weird industrial trinkets and supplies in funky Canal Street stores.

Back in New York, as Doyle, ever a fun-loving Irish guy, descended more into drinking, partying and womanizing, the marriage suffered and the couple separated. Hesse went full-throttle into her work. When she hit artist’s block, it was mentor Sol LeWitt who kept urging her not to be reticent about trying anything and “just do it!”

And she did. By the late ’60s, her work was shown in galleries, getting press attention and taking off. Most notably, a seasoned collector with Picassos already in his trove began buying Hesse pieces.

As the decade was coming to a close, Hesse got more gallery group show invitations and an ArtForum cover article. But symptoms of a brain tumor hit in 1969 and took her life in 1970. Posthumous museum shows and sales here and overseas (including Hesse recognition at the Whitney, MoMA, the Guggenheim, London’s Tate, Pompidou, etc.) assure her legacy, just as this first Hesse documentary tribute should.

There may also be a message here: Although short, Hesse’s life is an example of what constitutes an artist who, against all odds, achieves renown (maybe a perfect storm of talent, ambition, hard work and just plain luck after a hefty share of bad luck?).

An interesting complement to this doc is well-known art director Kristi Zea’s also-wonderful Tribeca Film Festival selection, Everybody Knows… Elizabeth Murray, about the eponymous New York artist who was a near-contemporary of Hesse’s and with whom she shares so many similarities as a female artist forging an original and successful creative path in a male-dominated art world.

Click here for cast and crew information.