Eva Hesse

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Contingent 1969

© The Estate of Eva Hesse, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Purchased 1973

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Eva Hesse and her family escaped from Hamburg, fleeing the Nazi regime, and arrived in New York in 1939. Initially trained as a painter—she studied with Josef Albers at Yale University—Hesse began to make sculpture in 1962. Late in the summer of 1967 she also started to experiment with latex and, by 1968, was moving back and forth between it and her other favoured material, fibreglass. She was attracted to the neutral colour of latex, and its liquidity, finding it as responsive as papier-maché. Fibreglass, by contrast, is less yielding and in Hesse’s hands the combination the two substances often creates a distinct tension.


Contingent 1970 is made of eight banner-like elements that hang from the ceiling. Each component is a large rectangular stretch of latex-covered cheesecloth embedded at each end in a translucent field of fibreglass. They appear as ‘skins lifted off the surface of a painting’, magically suspended in mid-air, a merging of light, colour and gravity.[1] Contingent blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture; it is, in the artist’s terminology, a ‘non-work’ which exists as a ‘hung painting in another material than painting’.[2] By virtue of its hybrid form, Contingent, more than any of Hesse’s other works, successfully synthesises the qualities of both disciplines.

In Contingent Hesse uses the heavier fibreglass attachments to pull taut the fragile latex midsections, playing off the way the different materials absorb and transmit light. This imparts a ‘palpable tension’, exaggerated by the ‘poignant contrast of the ephemeral and enduring qualities of the two materials’. [3] In several other large-scale works using latex, Hesse used an infrastructure of mesh or a backing of canvas, often pushing her materials to their limits.[4] She was well aware that latex decays―and loses the very qualities that she so valued―and knew of the discolouration and brittleness of fibreglass. Even though she admitted to feeling a little guilty that her works would not last, the qualities of latex were too appealing, seemingly irresistible.

Contingent is one of the last major works made by Hesse before her death in May 1970, aged 34. Although she had planned at least nine irregular sheets of rubberised cheesecloth and fibreglass, she and her assistants ran out of latex.[5] The individual differences between the banners pleased the artist, and she commented on the ‘divergency’ from one piece to the next, and the way in which they are geometric but not.[6] Hesse was working on Contingent when she collapsed in April 1969; she was admitted to New York Hospital and operated on for a brain tumour.

The work’s title suggests its positioning between painting and sculpture, and the interdependence of the materials, but also the marshalling of forces and their direction towards an event that is likely but not inevitable. The circumstances of its making, the inevitability of its decay and a title that implies dynamism and uncertainty all imbue Contingent with a strength that is implicit in the work, as well as an elegiac quality overlaid from the artist’s life.

Lucina Ward

[1] Bill Barrette, Eva Hesse: Sculpture, catalogue raisonne, Timken Publishers, New York, 1989, p 226.

[2] For the artist’s statements see Lucy Lippard, Eva Hesse, New York University Press, New York, 1976, p 131, and Cindy Nemser, Art talk: Conversations with 12 women artists, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1975, p 223.

[3] Barrette, p 226.

[4] For Aught 1968 (University of California, Berkeley) Hesse made four rectangular envelope-like units of latex on canvas, and stuffed them with polyethylene sheeting, rope and other materials, including metal grommets. In the monumental Expanded expansion 1969 (Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York) she coated cheesecloth with rubber and used reinforced fibreglass poles for structure and to prop up the drapes. By the time of the chaotic, web-like Right after 1969 (Milwaukee Art Museum), made of resin cast over fibreglass cord and wire hooks, Hesse’s work was remarkable for its almost complete lack of structure and its ethereal qualities.

[5] Barrette, p 226. It is thought that Hesse would have selected from the panels.

[6] Nemser, pp 220–1.

Latex is a colourless liquid: its malleable qualities were extremely attractive to Hesse. For this work she soaked sheets of cheesecloth in latex and combined them with less-yielding fibreglass. There is a distinct tension between the materials—rigidity and malleability, continuity and change. In the artist’s own terminology, Contingent is a ‘non-work,’ existing as a suspended painting in materials not traditionally used for painting. It is one of the last major works made before her death at the age of 34.