S-105 (Eva Hesse, 1968) and the Matter of interpreting the “Not Quite artwork”
S–105 is both one and a part of Eva Hesse’s leftovers from her New York studio practice of the late sixties. My paper concerns the art historian Briony Fer’s writing about these castoffs. In 2009, Fer curated a monographic exhibition she titled “Studiowork” that I was lucky enough to visit twice, at the Camden Arts Centre in London and again at the Fodació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona. The designation “Studiowork” is subsumptive in the way of a concept; it supersedes the critic Lucy Lippard’s “test pieces”, taken from her 1976 monograph on Hesse, and organises a group of secondary and predicative terms that are worked through over the course of Fer’s catalogue essay, among them, “sub-object”, “obscure specimen of natural history”, “specimen without a species”, “art historian’s nightmare”, “remainders of remainders”, and most provisionally of all, perhaps, the “not-quite” artwork. Anne Wagner has elsewhere attended to ‘the titles that, with considerable deliberation, Hesse adopted for her sculptural works’ (309), but here I want to focus on the art-historical exchange between Eva Hesse and Briony Fer, and in so doing I hope to address a key question of the ‘Image Matter’ call for papers, namely: How can writing about and through art accommodate affective objects?
Selected almost at random, I argue that S–105 is typical of this inquiry. It is hemmed in by the conceptual act of naming and subject to readings of mimetic inscription. And again I refer to… an offcut of fibreglass through which pieces of rubber tubing have been threaded. ‘Of course’, Briony Fer writes, ‘the indirect and tangential connections are everywhere – and to everything – if we choose to see it.’ (23). Consider the following observation about Hesse’s practice made by the art historian Anna Chave:
Layered as it is with abstract references to female anatomy – with forms suggestive of breasts, clitorises, vaginas, foetuses, uteruses, fallopian tubes, and so forth – Hesse’s art might be considered a visual demonstration of écriture feminine, the practice of a woman “writing the body” recently espoused by some French feminists. (100)
What I imagine Briony Fer would aim towards, instead of this convergence on theory, would be the close reading of an as-yet-unnamed ‘specimen of an unusual sort [that is], not [of] any body we would recognise’ (110). The difference to Anna Chave’s reading exemplifies the basic formal integrity of Fer’s art-historical practice, from which only a provisional orientation can develop; one that, in the words of Hesse, approaches ‘non-art, non-connotive, non-anthropomorphic, non-geometric, non, nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort, from a total other reference point’.
In the catalogue essay Studiowork Fer everywhere reads against the “cult of pathos” in Hesse scholarship that, as she sees it, first transmutes the artist’s tragic death into the fragility of latex, gauze, rubber, before recovering identical clues to a body of work that, undergoing the chemical process of disintegration, is itself in the process of dying. Suspended between the provision of due care and a total industry of reverence, ‘each is for the other the middle term.’ Yes, identifications proliferate – and there are many instances in Fer’s essay that confirm or confront this; what concerns me here, however, is not how Fer criticises this interpretive tendency in general. Instead, I want to focus on how the semiotic act of naming intervenes into this proliferation, i.e. into that which modulates this naming in turn, and what the implications of this are for writing about Hesse’s work.
I was born in Hamburg, Germany. My father was a criminal lawyer. He had just finished his two doctorates and I had the most beautiful mother in the world. She looked like Ingrid Bergman and she was manic depressive. She studied art in Hamburg. My sister was born in 1933 and I was born in 1936. Then in 1938 there was a children’s pogrom. I was put on a train with my sister.
So Eva Hesse tells Cindy Nemser during an Artforum interview published in the same month of her death, May 1970. To recapitulate: Hesse left Hamburg in 1938 via Kindertransport before emigrating with her family to New York a year later. At the height of Abstract Expressionism she received training in the application of colour and shape from Josef Albers at Yale, through a programme that he evolved from the Bauhaus’s Vorkurs, or “preliminary course”. In 1965 Hesse undertook an artist’s residency in the defunct upper part of a textiles factory in Kettwig-an-der-Ruhr, Germany. There she began to work in relief with industrial materials left over from the production process, as well as those leftovers delivered to her by workers laid off from the factory. A year later and in New York again, Hesse purchased latex and other industrial materials from a store on Canal Street in order to produce small and large-scale sculptural works. In addition to these Hesse experimented with smaller test pieces, in some cases barely modifying the material in hand . Upon the event of her death in 1970 at the age of thirty-four from a malignant brain tumour that her main assistant Doug Johns believed was a consequence of prolonged exposure to latex, whose labour in turn was required by Hesse through bouts of hospitalisation and intensive surgery, through which she turned her hand to the lightness and strength of paper, drawn over, at times, at others, lent form, the contents of Hesse’s Bowery studio were packed in cardboard boxes by her sister, Helen Charash, and transported to the Berkeley Museum Archive.
How is the art historian to proceed when confronted with this data? Cynically, the literary theorist Leo Bersani writes the following sentence in The Culture of Redemption (1990): ‘Experience may be overwhelming, practically impossible to absorb, but it is assumed that the work of art has the authority to master the presumed raw material of experience in a manner that uniquely gives value to, perhaps even redeems, that material.’ Bersani is wary of the writer who, positing loss, permits himself to conceptualise on behalf of, and through means other to it, the processes of thought that went in to the work. But Bersani has in mind certain modernists, like Proust and Benjamin, and a lateral focus on the pastoralizing of gay sex during the US AIDS crisis. In The Melancholy Art (2013), the art historian Michael Ann Holly mitigates this polemic with a disciplinary qualification:
The practice of art history provides an oxymoronic twist to this by-now-common characterization. The very materiality of objects with which we deal presents historians of art with an interpretive paradox absent in other historical inquiries, for works of art are at the same time lost and found, past and present. (98).
As Holly suggests, it is insofar as the art historian is joined to her object-of-study via the material transactions and –substantiations of Einfühlung, “in-feeling”, empathy, that a paradox emerges. In the first moment, the exercise of kinship in the face of the artwork discovers the following incommensurability : ‘Something remains; something gets left over long after explanations are exhausted’. (97). In the second moment, the art historian negates this relation of kinship in order to restore the commensurability of the artwork, and in doing so involuntarily delivers the object of art history to the data of the history of art. For Holly, the to-and-fro of this paradox constitutes art history’s elegiac basis in melancholy; i.e., its basis in that which constantly relicenses and returns us to this this density of attention. There is a question here about disciplinary fields of inquiry: where Holly and Bersani are variously concerned with how experience makes of interpretation an object of pensive unrest, Briony Fer is engaged with things, and the kinds of thinking these as-yet-unnamed not-quite artworks make possible. As I now want to consider, Fer’s Studiowork practices a formalist logic that recognises and moves beyond the kind of interpretive unrest just outlined.
I want to focus on Fer’s notably different kind of question: What if this thing is my model of thought? It has become like a refrain, or mnemonic for me in writing this paper. How does Fer respond to the ‘something remains’ of the artwork, without producing identifications, or turning on the tools of interpretation? I want to consider a long quotation from Studiowork in which Fer describes Hesse’s ‘creative work’:
It is something about the way art gets made out of not just the material stuff of everyday life, but its habitual rhythms. The very fact that Hesse’s living and working spaces intersected made this reciprocity all the keener. All this may not sound momentous enough to account for the kind of creative work that Hesse was involved in. But that would be precisely my point: that great outpourings of expressive feelings are not relevant to making art. Much more so is the both simple and complex fact of how you group things together… It is an intricate pattern of thought made visible in actions of handling, placing, removing and replacing. Sub-objects from this point of view, tend not to come singly. They are ruled by pure contingency, which makes it possible for a studio leftover to turn so readily into a new idea or even a new work. (76).
Briony Fer places a thesis-like emphasis on the phrase how you group things together. Grouping things together describes Hesse’s ‘creative work’, but it could equally refer to the iconographical labour of the art historian. In its material and conceptual variations, this string of words captures in English the sense that inheres to the German word for ‘concept’, Begriff, which refers both to the object as it falls under a concept, but also to the tangible properties belonging to it. As this passage indicates, grouping things together involves a form of recognition that is rooted in the ‘habitual rhythms’ of ‘the artist’s living and working spaces’. By dwelling in these spaces, the historian is inured to ‘an intricate pattern of thought made visible in actions of handling, placing, removing and replacing’, and because the studiowork ‘throws presuppositions about form and process in the air’ (38), process and form are found to be retrievable as long as words are being combined via an ‘iconography [that] is contingent rather than inherent’ (171).
The ‘not-quite’ staves off that ‘something remains’; it is the ‘not-quite’ that keeps the beat going; the ‘not-quite’ that, being ‘work without making a work’ (24), adds its work to the work of the historian. Out of this ‘pure contingency’, then, comes the promise of ‘a new idea or even a new work’.
Yet something does still remain. The ‘material stuff of [Hesse’s] everyday life’ may enter into some kind of reciprocity, but this ‘material stuff’ is not – at least ‘not quite’ – transmuted into those habitual, now bipartite rhythms, and it is not for us to veil the social division of labour that separates the artist from the historian by hypostatising the historian’s inference about the artist “thinking through material”. The studiowork does obtain to a positive value (this is what allows it to be grouped together), but the value it does have, is shared out through its material processes. […]
In the last section of this paper, and because S–105 is only typical of this inquiry, I want to consider a major late work whose borders are patrolled by the studiowork. As Fer tells, ‘[Contingent] was made for the  exhibition ‘Art in Process IV’ that was held at Finch College Museum of Art, New York… [It] consisted of eight sheets made of cheesecloth to which various sections of latex and fibreglass were attached.’ (174). For Rosalind Krauss, Contingent locates, even redeems, a quotient of expression at the ‘boundary between the institutions of painting and sculpture’ (32); she writes that, ‘In the language of anamorphosis… we are positioned at the edge from which the meaning of death is understood literally as the condition of the world disappearing from view’. But notice how this language expresses Hesse’s mastery of 60s minimalist discourse through that legend long imaged by Artforum’s May 1970 cover; in other words, Krauss identifies a metonym.
Pivoting on that other kind of studiowork, the notation, Fer returns her reader to the index of ‘how you group things together’ with an observation about Contingent taken from the artist’s notebooks : ‘Piece is in many parts. Each in itself is a complete statement.’ (174). Hesse’s ‘looking process’ is then tested out against S–168 and S–169, the ‘not-quite’ artworks that border Contingent and, when grouped together, form a ‘working process’. First, the particularity of S–168, which Hesse gifted to her friend Naomi Specter, exacerbates the artist’s sense that the eight sheets of Contingent are possibly eight works, with those eight works possibly devolving to others besides. Taller in scale, more composite in comparison, S–169 diverges from S–168 through the ‘addition of fibreglass’ to its coat of cheesecloth and latex; an addition that, when viewed inductively, suggests why in Contingent ‘the visual and the tactile are impossible to separate.’ (177). Fer opens up a clearing between Contingent and its two test pieces, through which the presence of ‘different modalities of viewing’ – of which Krauss’s ‘language of anamorphosis’ is canonically one – are to be considered. Glimmers of art world discourse still remain, but these glimmers are now contingent upon how the work is grouped in relation to the studiowork of the artist’s ‘living and working spaces’. Out of this comes the possibility of ‘another kind of optical scope or device’ (180) :
If you look close-up you can see the gauze just showing through like the ghost of a vast and spidery grid… In her statement on Contingent, Hesse wrote: ‘see through, non see through, consistent, inconsistent, enclosed tightly by glass like encasement just hanging there.’ Not a glass box any longer, but it is almost as if the function of the glass sides of a display case is now literally embedded in the materials. (179-180).
Sol Lewitt first came up with the idea of containing his friend’s ‘small gifts’ in a commercial pastry case; his method of installation was to lay the studiowork side by side, in twos, as if they were to be viewed in a museum setting, as commodities, or during an anatomy class, like specimens to-be-dissected. Yet Hesse, as Fer writes, ‘was afraid… of what she often referred to as ‘prettiness’ and the kind of preciousness that is easier to recognise than it is to explain.’ (110). The most extended formal reading in Fer’s Studiowork describes Hesse’s reworking of the function of the display case. The lower shelf is thickened with round metal washers, while small objects and materials fill the gaps between the allotted studiowork. Through ‘layering and the multiplication of layers’ (106), Hesse’s additions stimulate a ‘cross-fire between pieces’ (101) that no longer retain ‘clear formal divisions’ (97). I believe that Fer’s formalist approach captures the ‘cross-fire’ between the studiowork that is ‘literally embedded in the materials’ of a work like Contingent.
The names, tags and passwords by which Fer constantly reorients the “not-quite” artwork are provisional (always), additive, (con)textual and on the move; together they form a preponderance that is at one with ‘the way in which work circulates inside and outside the studio and is in permanent movement’ (114). As I see it, Briony Fer recognises that the “something remains” of interpretation is akin to the “not quite” of the artwork; in Studiowork this recognition is generously shared out and made relatable for the reader through the act of naming.
I want to end by foregrounding S–105 as it subsists through that other kind of glass box, the Yale catalogue raisonné. In this context, S–105 is a page-thin image printed on glossy paper that is cold white and that, as attested to by the copyright notes, ‘meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.’ If Hesse’s studiowork consumes its minimalist pastry case through an additive ‘cross-fire’, the formal logic of Fer’s Studiowork spells out the sublation of that other glass box.