In her short lifetime the German-born American artist Eva Hesse
(1936-1970) was best known as a pioneer of postminimalism, using rough and unglamorous materials like textiles and fiberglass to create awkward, playful and obviously hand-crafted abstract sculptures. But long before she said she wanted her art to be "non art, non connotive, non anthropomorphic, non geometric, no nothing, everything," she made the series of eerie and captivating figurative oil paintings on view in Spectres 1960
at the Brooklyn Museum
(through January 8). As the 19-painting exhibition's title states, these works were made when she was only 24. Yet they testify to a prodigious artistic maturity and intimate familiarity with death—Hesse fled Nazi Germany with her older sister when she was just two, her mother committed suicide when she was ten, and she was in therapy from age 18 until her death at 34 from cancer.
The untitled paintings in the exhibition feature one, two or three figures, their lumpy, awkward outlines formed with thick brushstrokes of alternately bold and muted tones so that some subjects are sharply defined while others hover ghostlike against their monochrome backdrops. Most affecting are the portraits, whose strange features evoke African masks, skulls, and self-portraits. In one especially striking piece Hesse painted a figure with pronounced cheekbones and a long nose in shades of gray against a similarly-colored background, its contours and eyes set dramatically alight with thick daubs of bold greens, blues and reds. In another of this small but revelatory show's highlights, a cloaked dark-green figure holds hands with a bride, whose features are reduced to the outline of a dress and veil, and peg-like arms. Her other hand holds a bright purple and orange bouquet. With death to one side and life firmly gripped in the other, the artist's stand-in (she married the following year) stands perilously on the threshold. The haunting figures in these strong and unfortunately prescient paintings straddle a spectral boundary between presence and the "non art" for which Hesse eventually became famous.
(Images courtesy The Rachofsky Collection, Ursula Hauser Collection, Hauser & Wirth)