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Converging Lines

The lives and art of Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt often intersected
April 15, 2016

Wall Drawing #797
(detail), 1995. Sol LeWitt (American, 1928–2007). Black, red, yellow, and blue marker on wall; dimensions variable. LeWitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut. © 2016 The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

After Eva Hesse’s death on May 29, 1970, at the age of 34, Sol LeWitt created Wall Drawing #46 in her honor. For this tribute, LeWitt drew “not straight” vertical lines directly onto the wall in pencil, paying homage to the organic contours that were a hallmark of Hesse’s art. Covering the entire surface of a wall, the wispy irregular lines—the first not straight lines LeWitt ever made—invoked the thin ropes and tendril-like cords that wrap around, protrude, or dangle from so many of Hesse’s sculptures. “I wanted to do something at the time of her death that would be a bond between us, in our work,” LeWitt later explained. “So I took something of hers and mine and they worked together well. You may say it was her influence on me.”

Wall Drawing #46 was more than just a personal gesture of affection and admiration, however. It also represented a pivotal turning point in LeWitt’s career. His previous wall drawings had featured systematic combinations of parallel, straight lines of fixed lengths in four directions, but in Wall Drawing #46 the rigid logic of line placement evaporated. The not straight lines meant freedom from rulers and measurements, and they became a key motif of LeWitt’s personal lexicon for the remainder of his career.

While the impact of Hesse’s art on LeWitt’s was most evident after her death, their friendship shaped their lives and art in crucial—and reciprocal—ways. LeWitt and Hesse first met in New York in the late 1950s. In certain respects, the close friendship that developed between them was unlikely. The strategies and processes underlying their respective work seemed diametrically opposed. LeWitt’s conceptual approach to making art privileged preset rules and systems and willfully purged subjectivity. In contrast, Hesse arrived at aesthetic decisions more intuitively and with a greater personal investment in her materials and forms.

In the early years of their friendship, Hesse and LeWitt’s close rapport was more apparent in their extensive correspondence than in the works of art they produced. In 1964, shortly after arriving in Germany for a 15-month residency with her husband, Tom Doyle, she wrote to LeWitt. Beset by doubts about the first sculptural relief she had begun making there, she was eager for his perspective. On April 14, 1965, LeWitt responded to her apprehensions with an extraordinary five-page letter filled with words of encouragement both poetic and humorous, a letter currently on view at the museum as part of Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt.


Accession V 1968. Eva Hesse (American, 1936–1970). Galvanized steel and rubber; 10 x 10 x 10 in. LeWitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut. © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

By the time Hesse returned to New York in the fall of 1965, Minimalism had taken hold in the contemporary art world, even though LeWitt and most of the other artists who were considered its leading practitioners rejected the term. At that point Hesse’s engagement with Minimalism began, most strikingly in the monochromatic works on paper she made from 1965 to 1967. In her early grisaille drawings, Hesse’s ties to Minimalism are pronounced—from the restrained palette and basic geometric shapes to the gridded compositional structure. Yet, even when clearly invoking Minimalist forms, she simultaneously defied its precedents. Whereas Minimalists sought to present unmodulated, identical, repeated units—be they lines, stripes, bars, or cubes—every line and form in a Hesse drawing always looks irrefutably handmade.

While Hesse’s debts to Minimalism—and specifically to LeWitt—are acknowledged in virtually every text on her work, there is scant recognition or analysis of the important ways that her work influenced LeWitt’s, even though he spoke openly about his credit to her. In 1968, LeWitt created his first wall drawing at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. Inherent to this new body of work was the notion that a wall drawing would be different every time it was installed—not only because no two spaces or walls are ever identical, but also because LeWitt designed instructions that ensured that particular works would differ with each iteration, often considerably so. The work becomes, in effect, a musical score, interpreted differently by each person. While Hesse would never claim to be the first artist who made a work that would be different each time it was reinstalled, she was certainly a pioneering contributor to the emergence of installation art—and the person whose variable configurations most influenced LeWitt’s thinking.

LeWitt learned of Hesse’s death when he was in Europe preparing for a major exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in the Netherlands. On the heels of making Wall Drawing #46 in Hesse’s
honor, LeWitt wrote immediately to Enno Develing, the Gemeentemuseum curator:

Dear Enno,                   

Eva Hesse has died in New York. She was my best friend and a great artist. I want to dedicate my show in The Hague to her and on the first page of the catalogue to say “this exhibition is for Eva Hesse.”
Hesse’s name also appeared in the section of the catalogue that featured short essays LeWitt had asked close friends to contribute. Shortly before she died, Hesse had submitted her statement. Printed in her own cursive script, it read:

Sol LeWitt,
I have seen your work.
I have seen your work change.
I have seen your work grow.
I have seen your work.
Now it’s there, where you put it.
Now it extends itself unto us.
Now we have grown to see it.
Thank you for your request.
Thank you for Sol’s,

Eva Hesse  
While Hesse never received a solo museum show during her lifetime, today both she and LeWitt hold secure places in the accounts of postwar American art history. To use Hesse’s words, art history has “grown to see” LeWitt’s work and to recognize her contributions as well. Hopefully now we have also grown to see the meaningful role that their friendship played in their lives and in their art. 

Cleveland Art, May/June 2016