There is a photograph I love of the artist Judith Scott hugging one of her sculptures, taken by Leon Borensztein. The sculpture is typical of Scott’s work, a tangled oblong cocoon-like thing bigger than her head and torso, woven of multicolored yarn and ribbon and rope and twine and fabric and whatever textiles felt right under her fingers; Scott presses her face into it, holding her arms up around it, her fingers folded in, her eyes closed. We are all fiercely protective of what we do, we speak in birth metaphors to describe the process of creating (well, and some of us in excremental ones, though as anyone who’s given birth will tell you the two are intricately bound up in one another), but I had never seen an artist show this degree of physical emotion toward their work.
Scott is considered an “outsider” artist, because she wasn’t formally trained. Born with Down syndrome, she was also deaf, though this went undiagnosed until she was an adult, and she did not speak. Outsider artists used to be called “naïve,” the presumption being that their work comes about outside of traditional art historical knowledge. But there is nothing naïve about the spellbinding woven objects in wild colors and undulating shapes she made, which call to mind some of Dorothea Tanning’s more abstract fabric art. Scott’s work is surrealist in the sense of creating the shapes that we see in our dreamlives, and hardly ever while awake.
There’s a video of Scott in the studio, working on one of her sculptures. She takes a long strand of gorgeous deeply dyed yarn, cuts it, slips it underneath an already-present strand on the piece, pulls till it’s even, and fastens it at the bottom, which is accumulating a little fringe of yarn ends. It’s not uniform. The colors shape and shift and vary. She braids and sews and knots and winds the wool into patterns and places of tension; some strands loop loosely while others stretch and tighten and bind. You could lose yourself in the metaphors.
There is another element of her biography that I can’t help but weave in: embarrassed by her disability, her family sent her to an institution when she was seven. She was separated for thirty-five years from her twin sister, who eventually got herself appointed Scott’s legal guardian and brought her to live in Berkeley. There she took Scott to the Creative Growth studio for disabled artists in Oakland, where she made her first works—indeed all of her works.
In this context, weaving yarn is a gesture of umbilical strengthening, of permanently bringing together disparate elements of the same material. Scott’s method of tying the bits of thread around the other threads echoes the practices of some cultures which ritualistically tie fabric around trees, to attract spirits, or ward off back luck. Maybe there is even something calming about the act of tying knots. There is certainly something associative about the act. I remember back at summer camp the procedures by which we strung and knotted embroidery yarn into complicated patterns and gave them to friends to wear around their wrists. Scott wouldn’t have seen Eva Hesse’s work, but I see, in her tangles, an echo of one of Hesse’s last works, Untitled (Rope Piece) from 1970, the one that holds this book together, my touchstone image. Haunting, really, to think that Scott, without having studied art history, much less feminist art history, would weave herself directly into the heart of it.
But I am wary of reading the biography too literally into these works. Some mystery guided Judith Scott, the contours of which we will never know. Making art by touching and feeling, the love lavished on it saturating the fibers.
The Borensztein photograph is on the cover of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s 2002 book Touching Feeling. In the introduction, she recalls a graduate student of hers at Duke called Renu Bora, whose essay “Outing Texture” brilliantly and delightfully distinguishes between “texture” and “texxture.” Texture with an extra x is, Sedgwick writes, “dense with offered information about how, substantively, historically, materially, it came into being. A brick or metalwork pot that still bears the scars and uneven sheen of its making would exemplify texxture in this sense.” It’s as true of a photograph as of a sculpture; we can’t always touch the image with our fingers, but we can apprehend its surface with the eye.
Texxture is “the stuffness of material structure.” Like Hannah Wilke’s vulva sculptures, bearing the imprint of her fingers as she pressed into the clay, or the chewing gum that preserves the shape of her teeth. The extra x, the supplement, the overkill, the overshare. The book that doesn’t just communicate something; it also tells you what it was like to write it. Texxture as the aspect of a work that tells you, wordlessly, everything you need to know about it.
But, Sedgwick adds, “there is also the texture—one x this time—that defiantly or even invisibly blocks or refuses such information: there is texture, usually glossy if not positively tacky, that insists instead on the polarity between substance and surface, texture that signifies the willed erasure of its history.” This work isn’t telling you everything, but perhaps inviting you to fill in the blank.
And texture can and often does go beyond touch into the realm of other senses; at the very least it lives “on the border of properties of touch and vision,” as Bora puts it. Monstrous art gives us even more than that: too much and just enough. It threads its arms around us and draws us close to it, too close and ever closer.
I was thrilled to encounter some of Scott’s work in the flesh (so to speak) at the 2017 Venice Biennale. There is work we’re content to view at a distance, and work we want to get right up close to, to study its fibers, to see how it’s done, or what lives at the level of its skin; Scott’s is the latter. Enthralled by the layers and layers of fiber, I got my face a little too close to one, and the alarms went off. The irony.
Also at the Biennale that year were a number of other fiber-based works, troubling the boundary between “art” and “craft.” How often do we slot women’s handiwork into the latter category, with their weaving and knitting, their soft materials, to which associations of domesticity and sentiment cling like lint? Even for those of us who admire it, tactile art wrong-foots us, I remember thinking, standing in front of a beautiful brass curtain made by the Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes, called . . . then we raised the terrain so that I could see out. It hung in the middle of the long Arsenale space, so you had to confront it, and walk around it (or, perhaps in a nod to the bead curtains of yore, through it). It was made of an industrial material, but adapted to a decorative object; it wouldn’t be out of place in a hipster coffee shop.
Someone told me afterward we were meant to, or at least were allowed to, touch it. We are used to art being untouchable. We are confused about its status; thread is not as “old master-y” as bronze or oil paint. Touch, says the artist Rosalyn Driscoll, is “a way for all of us,” including the visually impaired, “to know art.” She proposes what she calls aesthetic touch as a more attentive act than our everyday contact with surfaces, phones, keys, shoelaces, what have you. This would bring our focus instead to “formal elements such as shape, space, and pattern” and allow for an attunement to the “emotional implications of what we perceive.” Touch, for Driscoll, “encompass[es] kinesthesia, proprioception, balance, temperature, pain, and pleasure—indeed the whole body.” Aesthetic touch frees us up from the burden of “understanding” art and makes it an act of “experiencing”—of knowing in a more embodied sense. Judith Scott, in embracing her work in the Borensztein photograph, is letting us in on her emotional relationship to her work, but also demonstrating a deep knowledge of her art. An aesthetics of touch changes our sense of what it means to know.
The haptic sense, according to Driscoll, is a form of knowing that comes from our guts, born of an atavistic, instinctual experience of being alive that is encoded in our DNA, and prompted our ancestors to commit life to paint on the craggy pockmarked walls of caves, themselves a record of time.
But it can overwhelm us, the amount of information we can glean from a multiplicity of sensory engagements. I think this is where the distinction between art and craft comes in, allowing us to better organize, and even hierarchize, our aesthetic perceptions.
Craft: touch it.
Art: don’t touch it.
We describe—or we would if we weren’t afraid of sounding sentimental—the work as “touching” when we mean we were affected by it, as if it reached beyond the frame to touch us.
Or, if we totally want to discredit something, if we feel manipulated by it, or if it gets too close to us and makes us uncomfortable, if it threatens the carefully constructed exoskeleton of cool we have excreted to protect ourselves under the patriarchy, we might call it touchy-feely.
“[T]o talk about affect virtually amounts to cutaneous contact,” writes Sedgwick. Don’t let it in, keep it at a distance, don’t let it get you.
From Eve to Eva. If I am going to write about Eva Hesse I run the risk of writing sentimentally, because she is another artist of touch, of texxture. She told her friend the artist Sol LeWitt that she wanted her work to be ucky—“not yucky,” he explained, “ucky.”
An art of tactility, that restores touch to the aesthetic.
OED: aesthetic, from αἰσθητικός of or relating to sense perception, sensitive, perceptive.
as opposed to
OED: anaesthetic, from ἀναίσθητ-ος without feeling, insensible
Though it might be perceived under the heading of the abject, or as abject because femme-y, cringe-y, uncool, this feminist art is not abject, or it is only abject-adjacent. It is art that makes possible a kind of touching, even though we keep our hands to ourselves. It touches us. Not just, or not only, in the affective sense. It does something to us bodily.
I get a certain feeling from this work that I am trying to put into words, and in so doing capture the urgency I feel it contains. I am trying to put my finger on it.
Eva Hesse was born in Hamburg in 1936. A little under three years later, she and her older sister Helene, who was five at the time, were shipped off to Holland on one of the last Kindertransports. I am trying to picture a five-year-old responsible for a two-year-old, holding her by the hand. I think of Eva Hesse’s mother, Ruth, try to conjure her feelings even as I sit here, myself, eighty-one years later. I am trying to imagine putting my son, almost two, on a train in the care of people who think he is dirt because he is Jewish, with no guarantee I would see him again, with no idea what would become of either of us. Thank god they were reunited six months later. What word did she have from her children, during that time? How was she toward her children when she got them back? How does a mother’s anxiety filter down a generation? (I am anxious; I need to know this.) Eva Hesse’s mother was bipolar, they say, and then there was the Holocaust. Eva Hesse’s parents split up in 1944. When Eva Hesse’s mother learned that both her parents had died in a concentration camp, she jumped off the roof of their building. Two days later, Eva Hesse turned 10.
When does a mother’s anxiety become something insurmountable, that takes her away from the very children who gave birth to it?
Eva Hesse couldn’t sleep at night without her feet touching the bottom bars of her bed frame.
So much writing on Hesse has focused on her childhood trauma, on her early death. Griselda Pollock calls this the “sacralization” of Hesse, while Anne M. Wagner contends that “Hesse as wound” has become firmly engrained in criticism about her, and urges readers to “depathologize” the way we approach her work.
And here I am turning the poor dead girl into a monster. I am drawn by its texture, but I would be lying if I said it was not, in part, the texture of the life that I see on the sensitive surface of her work.
I’m not interested in the wound (that’s a lie) or in wound culture (that’s also a lie) but I am interested in (this is the truth) how the wound registers on the canvas, in the work, and also in why I feel in order to sound like a serious critic and not a sappy one I need to pretend I’m not interested in the wound or the culture of the wound. Am I sentimentalizing Eva Hesse? Buying into her myth? Is there any other way, when you fall madly in art love?
Eva Hesse didn’t start out wanting to make sculptures, or objects, or three-dimensional paintings, or however you want to talk about her wonderfully anti-generic works. Initially, she wanted to be a painter. She went to art school, studied with Josef Albers at Yale, graduated, took her first few steps in the art world of New York City. She wanted to throw off all the “restrictions and curbs” imposed on her from within or without. “I will strip me of superficial dishonesties,” she wrote in her diary. “I will paint against every rule.”
Painting didn’t always go well. On bad days, she wondered if she was meant to be doing something else. She got “distrustful” of herself. She longed “[t]o be able to finish one and stand ground; this is me, this is what I want to say.” We all have bad days and it doesn’t mean we should change mediums. But for Eva Hesse, it did. She struggled under the weight of art history. She felt too conscious of it; what she was doing felt like a performance of the thing and not the thing itself. “Painting has become that ‘making art,’ painting a painting; the history, the tradition is too much there. I want to be surprised . . .,” she wrote in her diary.
She married a sculptor called Tom Doyle. They were happy at first; then not. On an artist’s residency with him in Germany (origin of the mother, origin of the wound) she tried to paint, made a couple of expressionist things she liked, and despaired. She wrote to Sol LeWitt to tell him she’d made some progress and would keep at it. “Much difficulties, but at least I’m pushing, and I will be. I swear it.”
Her studio was in an abandoned textile factory, littered with old machinery and wires. She started to draw what she saw, and soon she was making art with the bits of detritus. The paintings popped off the wall, became bodily, animal, grew nipples and tails, thin cables erupting from holes. She had been working with line in her drawings; now the lines took up space in the world. How strange it must have been to move from two dimensions into three: a process of “translation,” she called it.
When she came back to New York, she left the wall behind; her pieces moved out into the center of the room, and by the end, with her final piece, Untitled (Seven Poles), they took up the whole damn place.
Hesse would situate herself as a post-Minimalist, working with repetition, scale, grid, and industrial material, but unlike artists like Donald Judd and his followers she insisted on giving her work the organic, unfinished, tactile quality that she thought was missing from theirs. She and Sol would raid the shops on Canal Street for material that would inspire them. At that time Canal Street was filled with stores selling all kinds of stuff to do things with: little rubber things, round things with holes in them, tiny steel things, sprocket-y things, things that went around other things, things that went inside other things, things that stacked, clattered, spun. It’s dauntingly abstract, but for an artist like Hesse it was a wonderland of new possibilities. She started working with rubber tubing, rope, cords, magnets, wires, weights, washers, resins, silicone, silastex. She enlisted the help of a company called Aegis Reinforced Plastics, which helped artists with the technical side of their art dreams. She was drawn to materials like rubber or fiberglass which weren’t known for their longevity. Vita longa, ucky brevis. (“Form—it’s because there are consequences,” writes the poet Lisa Robertson.)
Doug Johns, her assistant, described the process of making Repetition Nineteen (1968), a series of nineteen small open-topped cylinders, rendered in fiberglass, slightly slouching, like paper bags or crushed soda cans. When she saw what Johns had made, she was aghast—they were too perfect. So she did them again, this time creating models in papier-mâché that Aegis promised to reproduce exactly. These worked much better. Nearly translucent, they managed both to reflect and hold the light, thanks to the way she’d formed them. Hesse’s friend Gioia Timpanelli recalls in Marcie Begleiter’s 2016 documentary: “The specificity was personal, was physical, and was her touch, her way.” As Timpanelli speaks she moves her fingers against one another, she screws up her mouth, she evokes, with her body, the specificity of touch.
Scott would weave in personal treasures (or even just things she picked up around the Creative Growth studio) to her pieces and then weave over them, so no one knew they were there. Her twin, Joyce Wallace Scott, speculates that all the “wrapping and covering” was an expression of the abuse and neglect she suffered in the institution, and a means of hiding and protecting “what had been stolen and abandoned.” This sounds, to me, like a way to read the embodied trauma of Hesse’s work.
What happened in Germany? Was it the encounter with her mother tongue that made Hesse’s artistic language more “visceral”? I don’t know how sharp, or not, her German was when she went back; maybe she didn’t understand as much as they thought she would. Or maybe she understood what she heard, but not what she heard behind what people said. A trip to Hamburg to visit her mother’s relatives was fruitless and upsetting. When she went to Germany, says Lucy Lippard, she was an abstract expressionist, but when she came back, she was a Surrealist. She was attuned to something prior even to abstraction: to what surrealists and psychoanalysts called the unconscious. This makes sense for Hesse, who was in analysis all her life, starting in her teens.
(I don’t say this to force a biographical or a psychoanalytic reading of her work, though I’m skating close to it. It’s so tempting to put words to it. To make a story of it. The childhood trauma, the loss of her mother, her unlocatable, incomprehensible source in Germany—the work, I feel sure, would have been different without these things, might not have existed at all. Had there been no Nazis. No depression. No bipolar mother. Would there still have been an Eva Hesse?)
No. I bring this up because of an artist statement she made in 1968. “I would like the work to be non-work . . . to go beyond my preconceptions. to go beyond what I know.” The work as a transition between thought and language: what can’t
be put in words, only intuited, felt. The cords coming out of the circles which I can’t help reading as milk from her mother’s breast, even if Eva herself didn’t want children, or live long enough to change her mind. The one called One More than One (1967). Streams of milk coming out and ending on the floor undrunk. Or like two severed umbilical cords, Eva’s and her sister’s. (A line from Judith Scott to Eva Hesse, born seven years, one ocean, and two catastrophes apart.)
Hesse would have hated this reading. Her circles were “non-anthropomorphic, non-geometric, non-non”; they were not representing something outside of themselves, not logic or body parts or sexual feeling, they just were. Even I hate it a little, with its facile psychoanalysis. But it is what I see. And I do not see why her circles cannot be themselves, and also be something else, memories, desires, propositions.
And yet this inarticulable thing—this is what is hanging from the ceiling in Contingent (1969).
Eight panels hang, tacky like flypaper. It’s hard to know what they’re made of; I’d even believe flayed and stretched animal skin. There is a barbarism to them. They are a record of communication, like papyrus in a museum. Or—seen in a different light—they look like fabric, like the nightdresses that hang in Louise Bourgeois’s Cells, or like something Rei Kawakubo would design. I can see it, an oversized sleeveless deconstructed kind of thinned linen apron dress, with two layers of skirt, and untrimmed edges, in a lemony cream color, with a pocket in a slightly darker color, the color of paper dip-dyed to look antique.
But the panels are actually cheesecloth dipped in latex, counterweighted on top and bottom by fiberglass. They are painfully beautiful, inflected by what would be her fate; she collapsed while working on it in April 1969, and was operated on for the brain tumor that would kill her the following year, at the age of 34.
The art critic John Perreault reviewed Hesse’s first solo show in the Village Voice, describing, not unkindly, the “rough illegibility” of her work. It provokes, he writes, “bizarre anthropomorphisms” whose “queasy uneasiness [. . .] makes one want to stroke them gently, to soothe and smooth them down.” Perreault was a great champion of women’s work, but his tone here does strike me as a little condescending. It’s coming from a good place, I think, but still: in Perreault’s fairy tale he is the art prince come to soothe the beautiful damaged princess. He wants to turn her texxture into texture.
Rosalind Krauss sees Contingent as “a retreat from language, [. . .] a withdrawal into those extremely personal reaches of experience which are beyond, or beneath speech.” Well, almost. If the work is “illegible” or seems “beyond, or beneath speech” it is because we are still not seeing the work itself as speech, or rather, its texxture, as eros.
I will paint against every rule. Instead of oil paints she wound up using industrial materials as if they were paint, utterly against the way they’d been conceptualized by their inventors and producers and marketers; she subjected industrialism and all we might associate with it to her personal vision. And in so doing she stripped out the superficial dishonesties from her work, building it up again in layers of latex. Hesse wanted her materials to look handled, for the visual to contain suggestions about what it feels like, what it might have felt like to make it, information which may be totally at odds with the actual materials and process. The Accession series (1968–69) looks soft and furry inside, but I bet the 29,000 plastic tubes are more resistant than they look, or who knows what they’d feel like today, fifty years on. . . .
Looking at Hesse’s work alongside Judith Scott’s, I think about all the pieces Hesse made with fibers, the cobwebby fiberglass cord thing called Right After (1969), dipped into latex and loosely hung from the ceiling, or the ropes of Untitled (Rope Piece) from 1970, like a ship’s riggings after a bad storm. She allowed for the former piece, as she wrote in her diary, “to be hung irregularly, tying knots as connections, really letting go as it will, allowing it to determine more of the way it completes itself. non-forms. non-plans, non-art, non-nothing.” “Maybe I’ll make it more structured, maybe I’ll leave it changeable. When it’s completed its order could be chaos. Chaos can be structured as non-chaos,” she told Life magazine, for an essay that included images of Lynda Benglis pouring her multicolored latex onto the floor of an art gallery.
Everything is connected; we are bound up in each other; Scott and Hesse tried to show us this. And the connections often lie outside of what can be spoken, within what can be strung together; silent links are, too, a kind of articulation.
Much of Hesse’s art has today become unstable, has changed colors, or grown brittle and fragile. Sources do not agree on whether this eventuality mattered to her. Doug Johns told her when they first started working together that rubber is “fugitive”: it doesn’t last more than 10 or 15 years before it starts cracking and turning to dust. “She said: ‘Good. let them worry about it.’ Talking about the museum people. ‘So what. I want what the effect is now.’”
When she started making this work, she owned the specificity of her medium, and all its mortal implications. By 1970, facing her own mortality, she was less bold. “At this point I feel a little guilty when people want to buy [latex works]. I think they know but I want to write them a letter and say it is not going to last . . . life doesn’t last, art doesn’t last, it doesn’t matter.”
Art that is ucky, an art of embodiment, has to involve making room for failure, and decay, in one’s practice; to be in a body is to live with failure, to acknowledge eventual decay. Hesse’s work was a question of throwing in her luck with materiality and its uncertain futures. Life is matter; matter has limits; form has consequences.