From the beginning, Eva Hesse’s life was marked by drama and social challenges. Born in Hamburg in 1936 to a German-Jewish family, the artist’s fierce work ethic may have developed from a complex psychology that was formed, in part, as a Jew born in Nazi Germany. Having escaped the fate of her extended family, Eva and her older sister Helen were sent out on one of the last Kindertransports (trains that carried Jewish children to safety) and was eventually reunited with their parents in Holland. They made their way to New York but her family struggled to make a new home and her mother, after many years of depression and a failed marriage, committed suicide when Eva was 9 years old.
The artist graduated from Cooper Union and Yale School of Art, then returned home to Manhattan in late 1959 and began to receive attention for her highly original, abstract drawings. In 1961 Hesse met Tom Doyle, an already established sculptor, and in a whirlwind romance married him a scant 6 months after first glimpse. Their relationship was both passionate and competitive. Hesse struggled with the desire to be on equal footing with Doyle in terms of their art making but also wanted to be in a marriage with someone who could offer her the security that life often denied her.
In 1964 Friedrich Arnhard Scheidt, a German industrialist, offered an all-expenses paid artist’s residency to Tom Doyle for year of working in an abandoned textile factory near Essen, Germany. It was tough choice – go back to the country that had murdered her family or stay in New York and work menial jobs while trying to make art with any time and energy left over. Ironically, the work on which her reputation was built began to emerge during this extended visit to the homeland she had escaped 25 years earlier.
When the couple arrived for the residency, Doyle was clearly the artist of note. But something happened during those 14 months in the cold factory on the Ruhr River. Eva arrived in Germany a painter. But as she worked in the thin German light, she began to incorporate pieces of metal and string that she found in the corner of her studio into her work. By the time the couple were ready to return to New York in the fall of 1965, Eva had fully incorporated a 3-dimensionality into her work which was now neither painting nor sculpture, but an exciting cross-breed of the two. And people were beginning to take notice. Within months after returning to New York in the fall of 1965, her work was thriving but the marriage failed. Tom moved into his studio just across the Bowery.
For the next 5 years, Eva worked non-stop on an impressive body of work, completing dozens of major sculptural works and hundreds of works on paper. Although she sold little, critical attention was paid and she was showing often and in excellent venues. In 1969 Hesse, who had suffered with headaches for many years, began having debilitating episodes and was eventually diagnosed with a brain tumor. Although the subsequent operation was deemed a success, the tumors reappeared and she died in 1970 at the age of 34.