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Bare Minimum 

SF MOMA recalls the short, tragic, remarkably accomplished career of sculptor and painter Eva Hesse

Wednesday, Jan 30 2002
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Minimalism is by definition abstract and geometric, a style stripped down to its basic elements. It's not surprising, then, that German-American artist Eva Hesse would have been attracted to such a stark technique; her life was dramatic enough. Born in Hamburg in 1936, Hesse, along with her family, escaped the Nazi regime by immigrating to New York in 1939, and her mother committed suicide when Eva was just 10 years old. But those early disasters were not the final tragedy in Hesse's short life: When she was 34, her 10-year career was cut short by brain cancer. In "Eva Hesse," one of the most complete exhibitions of her work to date, the artist's lesser-known paintings are contrasted with her more famous sculptures.

One of few females in a world dominated by male artists, Hesse rebelled within the confines of her chosen genre, refining the "masculine" standards of rigidity with so-called "feminine" images of circles and curved shapes. Untitled or Not Yet (1966) is a perfect example: a hanging installation of nine fishnet bags, each stuffed with a ball constructed of sand, paper, and clear polyethylene, creating an effect that's sensuous and evocative.

Though her pieces have withstood the test of time in terms of their significance, they have failed in durability. Hesse worked with untraditional materials chosen for their flexibility: latex that discolors and eventually disintegrates, Fiberglas that hardens and darkens. Her methods were groundbreaking, but those qualities of impermanence made organizing a retrospective of her work a unique challenge. Questions of conservation and presentation were addressed in a round-table discussion held in November 2000, which brought together experts and friends of Hesse. While much has been written about her remarkable and tragic life, this exhibit should make her art, not her tragedies, the main topic of conversation.

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Lisa Hom

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