The paradoxical precision of Eva Hesse

9780300211566This guest post from Kirsten Swenson conjures a 1960s moment in art both through specific objects that were created then – and continue to exist today – and through a masterful evocation of the ethos that animated a group of artists working at that time.  For more, do read her marvelous new book, Irrational Judgments: Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, and 1960s New York.

“Kirsten Swenson presents a nuanced argument of the period and the artists, and she places the relationship between LeWitt and Hesse at the center of it.”

—Elisabeth Sussman, Whitney Museum of American Art

Kirsten Swenson–

While sifting through materials at the archive of Sol LeWitt in Chester, Connecticut in the fall of 2013, I opened a box of photos to discover this instamatic snapshot lying on top, date stamped 1968.

Washer Table Fig 1

It shows the coffee table in Sol LeWitt’s loft on Hester Street, near the Bowery, on New York’s Lower East Side. The table is dotted with objects that are arranged as if fixed to points on a grid. Some are reminiscent of the artist’s family: a mug emblazoned with the name of his father, “A. LeWitt,” a doctor who died when the artist was five years old, and a Russian nesting doll, perhaps lingering from his childhood as the son of two Russian Jewish immigrants. Others are artworks, small versions or models of his larger scale works. The table’s centerpiece is a latex mat topped with nine nubby cast latex hemispheres arranged in a loose grid—a 1967 model prepared by LeWitt’s close friend Eva Hesse in advance of her sculpture Schema (1967). And as some readers already know, the coffee table itself is an important sculpture in Hesse’s oeuvre: her 1967 Washer Table.

Discovering the snapshot of Hesse’s sculpture casually functioning as a piece of domestic furniture was a breakthrough as I wrote Irrational Judgments. I had often thought about the tentativeness of Hesse’s sculpture, how it seemed unsure whether it wanted to be sculpture, or something else, and the nature of this uncertainty. This uncertainty has been a productive artistic legacy of Hesse and other minimal and post-minimal artists. The work of Hesse and her milieu turned to the space of its surrounds to generate meaning. It was situational, as much as sculptural. Hence, as I wrote Irrational Judgments, it seemed significant to look at the situations from which the art emerged: the city, the critical (and sometimes personal) conversations, the political and social tensions, the literature and ideas of the contemporary milieu.

Washer Table was never exactly a “sculpture.” As LeWitt wrote in response to some questions I sent him back in 2005, “She only used the surface of the table as a drawing surface before returning it to me.” In addition to being a sculpture that was a drawing, it was an artwork that was ambivalent about being an artwork. LeWitt wrote on a postcard to Hesse from Holland on July 1, 1968: “Martin Visser wants to manufacture your table with washers and a version of mine also with 3D grid…I told Visser to make your color dark gray, very dark but not black.” Martin Visser was a famed Dutch furniture designer who carried on De Stijl principles that likewise influenced LeWitt’s choice of form. Visser never did manufacture Washer Table. However, Washer Table’s identity as both art and table, along with the concept of drawing as something that might be done with rows of washers, reveals the blurred lines between art and non-art that motivated both artists: the desire to make work that was sited, both conceptually and physically, beyond the bounds of art or any other recognizable category of thing. If a drawing can be a table, it follows that shortly after returning from Holland in 1968, LeWitt would start drawing on walls.

Why was LeWitt with Visser in Holland, anyway? On July 1 of 1968, the same date as this postcard to Hesse, LeWitt buried a small welded metal cube under the foundation of the Visser home, containing “an object of great importance but little value.” I’ve heard tell that the box might contain an artwork by a member of the Visser family. Then again, it could be anything. We aren’t meant to know. The title of the resulting piece is Buried Cube Containing an Object of Importance but Little Value.

Buried cube
Sol LeWitt, Buried Cube Containing an Object of Importance but Little Value, 1968. Black-and-white photographs mounted on board, 12 11/16 x 10 1/2 in.

The title references the ambivalence that designates these artists’ attitudes toward art: objects of importance but little value were not conceived to function as a commodity. Rather, such objects were the outcome of human relationships, friendships, communities, and collaborations.

The structure of Washer Table had previous incarnations as artworks by LeWitt, including as a “table” with a rectangular hole through its top, displayed near canvases by Frank Stella and Larry Poons in the first exhibition of LeWitt’s work in 1964—a show organized by Dan Flavin for the short lived Kaymar Gallery in New York.

installation view
Installation view, Eleven Artists, Kaymar Gallery, New York, 1964. Background, on wall: Sol LeWitt, Cube with Random Holes Containing an Object, 1964. foreground: Sol LeWitt, Table Piece with Three Cubes, 1964.

Later, after truncating the legs and covering the hole, LeWitt gave the structure to Hesse for her use. She arranged thousands of black rubber washers atop, covering the table’s surface. As I viewed Washer Table a few days ago at the Addison Gallery‘s installation of Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt (curated by Veronica Roberts, and accompanied by a book of the same title), I snapped a photograph with my phone of the underside of Washer Table.


Here, you can see the hole left over from LeWitt’s earlier uses of the structure. While we stood near the piece, a museum guard mentioned that he’d counted the washers: 76 in one direction by 75 in the other. I was accompanied by the Addison curator Kelley Tialiou, and we admired Hesse’s commitment to “almost”: almost symmetrical, almost black, almost a grid (the lines of washers waver, and the not-straight lines between the rows must be what LeWitt meant by “drawing”). This “not quiteness” was a razor’s edge for Hesse—paradoxically precise—and a source of tension.

I thought of Washer Table again while visiting an exhibition on Black Mountain College at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (organized by Ruth Erickson and Helen Molesworth, and accompanied by the book Leap Before You Look). In jewelry by Anni Albers, repurposed materials such as paperclips and even a sink strainer magically transform into new objects. Washers became a necklace. It was an ethos of scarcity, but also a challenge—a matter of working creatively with everyday materials from one’s environment to make something new. It was, again, situational, deflecting focus onto the conditions of creation. In Hesse’s case, she trolled for “Canal Street technology” (in LeWitt’s words) accompanied by LeWitt, and returned to the studio with bags of washers (or, for other works from the period, varieties of wire and tubing that would function as a linear element). She repurposed a structure that was, by then, obsolete in LeWitt’s practice as he had moved on to factory fabrication of open cubes. Washer Table is fascinating simply as an artifact, made from these historically and personally specific components. Of course it’s also an artwork–that’s another story altogether–and a table.

Kirsten Swenson is assistant professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

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