Art Doc of the Week | Eva Hesse
There are, of course, a billion art documentaries in existence, but director Marcie Begleiter does something remarkable and rare in Eva Hesse, her look at the life and work Hesse. She deeply captures the spirits of the art, artist, and vibrant cultural backdrops against which she was formed. The result is a film that feels like a spiritual meditation. It’s incredibly moving without being sappy or manipulative.
Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1936, to a Jewish family that was already reeling from the rise of Hitler (most of her extended family would die in concentration camps), Eva Hesse was a sensitive child whose psychic wounds carried throughout her life. She was haunted by the specter of the Nazis; her mother suffered from being bipolar before the term had even been created. But Eva’s sensitivity, which manifested as her feeling, “for the majority of my life different, alone, and apart from others,” as a young woman, also fueled her prodigious intellect and her quest to make art that was serious and personal at once, indifferent to whatever current trends or hip art theories may be.
Begleiter is helped considerably in her own task by the wealth of photos, short documentaries, private home movies, and absolutely fantastic footage of New York streets and neighborhoods from the 1950s and 1960s that she works with. As the viewer is walked through Hesse’s struggles and evolution as an artist, Begleiter cuts seamlessly between her various reference sources (including original interviews), but Begleiter has a more poetic eye than we often get even in art documentaries. She has a musician’s fine sense of rhythm in the editing. We’re given generous helpings of archival material but all of it is in thoughtful, considered service of illuminating Hesse’s art and life. The clips are not rushed but they also don’t overstay once their point has been made. The most powerful tool in her arsenal, though, are the journals Hesse kept throughout her life and the many letters she exchanged with friends and family right up until she died. Excerpts of those are sensitively read by Selma Blair as the voice of Hesse, Bob Balaban as her father William, and Patrick Kennedy as the artist Sol LeWitt, her friend and greatest cheerleader.
From her love life (one marriage, lots of men with crushes on her) to her close friendships, it is clear she was deeply loved. From the substantive analysis of her work by art historians and fellow artists, it is made abundantly clear that she was one of the most important artists of the 20th century, someone who set the stage for the politically charged feminist art of the 1970s while insisting that she only be judged on her work and not by her gender, and making work that easily ranks with the most rigorous and rewarding of the last century.
The film presents Hesse’s many contradictions in such a way that she simply comes off as a complex, intriguing human being. She wanted to make it in the art world (and religiously stayed on top of what was happening around her) but made work that wasn’t remotely concerned with reigning notions of important or “groundbreaking” art. She was influenced by everything from Pop Art to Minimalism, but didn’t strictly align herself with one movement or school of thought. She meticulously researched her materials (rubber, rope, paper, fiberglass, latex) and the possibilities within them, while making clear that she didn’t care that her work itself, which was as guided by instinct as much as cerebral mapping, was ephemeral. By the time she died of a brain tumor in 1970 at the age of 34, she’d accomplished more in her short life than some artists do with twice the time. Near the end of her life, she summed up her life and artistic philosophies in three succinct sentences: “Life doesn’t last. Art doesn’t last. It doesn’t matter.”
Eva Hesse opens in Los Angeles May 13 and in NYC April 27.