Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 28, 2017
Kirsten Swenson Irrational Judgments: Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, and 1960s New York New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 200 pp.; 33 color ills.; 46 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300211566)

Piecing together a decade-long friendship via artworks, letters, photographs, critical reviews, interviews, and exhibition history, Kirsten Swenson’s Irrational Judgments: Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, and 1960s New York adds new scholarship to an already well-documented friendship. This book itself is an outgrowth of the 2014 exhibition organized by the Blanton Museum of Art, Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt, but Swenson’s linear reading of their friendship, begun when they were both near the start of their careers, reveals that their art was transformed as much by the times as by each other.

Since much of the information in Irrational Judgments has been either cited or discussed in other publications, the merit of this work is in its chronological framing and in the unexpected information it subtly reveals. In chapter 1, “The Problem of Painting, 1960–64,” Swenson’s use of two key but dissimilar exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New Images of Man (1959) and Sixteen Americans (1960), positions Hesse and LeWitt on opposite sides of an artistic dialogue that was taking place in the late 1950s. After the New Images of Man exhibition, Hesse abandoned abstract painting for more psychologically invested works along the lines of Willem de Kooning, an artist she admired, and her Yale professor Rico Lebrun, both of whose works were in the exhibition. Hesse shifted direction again, however, in 1961, after marrying the abstract sculptor Tom Doyle, when she began creating collages from discarded drawings and paintings, a technique she learned in Josef Albers’s course at Yale (46). This technique was instrumental in Hesse’s subsequent development. Swenson explains, “The strategy of working from a trove of readymade materials would become central to Hesse’s sculptural practice starting in Germany in 1965, but much earlier, this strategy served as a generative technique, and a way to negotiate the problems of painting” (46). Not stated by Swenson but inferred by looking at photographs is the influence that Doyle’s sculpture may have had on Hesse’s collaged work.

Artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella, each of whom questioned the fundamental principles of painting in Sixteen Americans, provoked LeWitt into a different, more reductive approach. LeWitt, who was already influenced by Albers’s painting series Homage to the Square (1950–76), continued to focus on the predetermined shape of a square along with nonnarrative images. These works eventually shifted into structures in which the viewer had to walk around and peer into finding either a black void or objects created by others. Although not discussed in the context of Sixteen Americans, Swenson cites Albers’s teaching as one of profound importance to the subsequent work of both LeWitt and Hesse. Swenson states, “While color was of concern for Hesse and LeWitt as painters in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Albers’ emphasis on relativity—the contingent nature of perception and the experiential encounter of an artwork—and his exhaustive accounting of formal permutations were lessons of greater significance for their careers” (32).

Swenson’s strategy of focusing on the developments and exhibition histories of both artists reveals that at times, and just by chance, the two had breakthroughs almost simultaneously. Even more important is Swenson’s inclusion of critical reviews that hints at their importance in the artistic dialogue. Chapter 2, “Real Nonsense, 1964–65,” rehashes Hesse’s anxiety about her work while living in Germany and LeWitt’s letters of encouragement to her, but these letters also reveal Hesse’s engagement with the New York art world. In one letter to LeWitt talking about the new direction her art was taking, creating reliefs that were “real nonsense,” Hesse also mentioned that she “got hold of Art International” (69). Lucy Lippard’s “New York Letter” (March 1965) discussed a trend seen in New York galleries. “Distinctions between painting and sculpture have been increasingly blurred in the past two years . . . and sculpture is painted and often hung on the wall” (69). It was during this time that Hesse was creating relief sculptures such as Ringaround Arosie (1965), 2 in 1 (1965) and Ear in a Pond (1965). Concurrently, LeWitt had an exhibition in May 1965 at the John Daniels Gallery in New York that, by installing lacquered architectural obstructions, activated negative space and solicited viewer participation, strategies that became key components of Minimalism (85). Robert Smithson would refer to this exhibition a year later in his article “Entropy and the New Monuments,” but in his reading of these three-dimensional pieces, he ignored their formalist properties and offered a “dystopian narrative” reflective of the postwar building boom (86–87).

Chapter 3, “A Paradoxical Situation, 1966–67,” highlights the contradictory nature of the New York art scene, illustrates the influence LeWitt and Hesse had on one another’s work, and proves that Lippard’s critical insight shaped much of the discussion in this area. The group exhibition Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in 1966, curated by Lippard’s colleague Kynaston McShine, developed out of conversations between the two (93). McShine’s premise that the sculptor could now “conceive his work, and entrust its execution to a manufacturer whose precision and skill convey the standardized ‘impersonality’ that the artist may seek” (cited in Swenson, 93–94), was influenced by Lippard’s observations regarding artists’ use of industrial and commercial materials (ibid.). Artists in the exhibition included Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Tom Doyle (Hesse’s now ex-husband), and LeWitt who included the first of his white modular “open cubes.” Art was beginning to be identified as Minimal, Structural, and Conceptual, but artists and critics still insisted that a sense of touch and the personal were inherent in the work (95).

In response to Primary Structures and to artists and critics who were focusing on the new sexuality of the 1960s (and there were many influenced by Pop art and the emerging body-politics), Lippard conceived of and curated the exhibition Eccentric Abstraction at Fischbach Gallery in 1966. Avoiding artists who were blatant in their depictions, Lippard singled out artists who worked toward an “undifferentiated abstract eroticism” (112). Two of Hesse’s works were included. Several (1965), described by Mel Bochner as “atrophied organs or private parts” (114), and Metronomic Irregularity II (1966), a twenty-foot-long work comprised of three panels with wires running between them. Besides indicating Hesse’s participation in the structuralist milieu, it was later described by LeWitt as the first installation art, a piece that was never the same twice, changing with each installation (116).

As visually different as Hesse’s and LeWitt’s works were, a growing dialogue was taking place between them. LeWitt included one of Hesse’s hand-drawn circles, “a bit shaky and uncertain but arranged in a tight grid” (95), as an illustration in his essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (Artforum 5, no. 10 [June 1967]: 79–83). Her work, along with that by LeWitt and others, were “defined by the strategies of paradox—the use of logic to get at something irrational, even political, and a new ethic of subjectivity” (95).

Chapter 4, “It is Something, It is Nothing, 1968–69,” is dense with information not only because both artists were exhibiting their works more, but because the direction in art was shifting. Earthworks emerged as artists were seeking ways to produce outside of the gallery, and many galleries were exhibiting works that were erased or destroyed at the end of the exhibition. Hesse’s first solo exhibition, Chain Polymers, at Fischbach Gallery in 1968 exemplified Hesse’s shift: freestanding sculptures and serial wall hangings made out of fiberglass and latex which “allowed her to vacillate between hard and soft materials” (146). The reviews of the show confirm her stature as an artist who was producing aggressive and challenging work. Shortly thereafter, Hesse was in the 1968 group show Nine at Castelli that focused on “anti-form” and was organized by Morris. Most critics dismissed Hesse’s works because they did not represent the aggressive masculine labor found in the works of others. As a counterpoint, Swenson argues: “Similar to LeWitt’s conceptual strategy, it was a matter of engaging without instructing, leaving judgments to a viewer whose subjective associations were incidental to the artist, offering clues in the most open-ended sense” (159).

Swenson’s conclusion touchingly revisits two gestures made by LeWitt and Hesse to each other in 1970. After learning of Hesse’s death, LeWitt created Vertical Drawing #46 (1970), the first to incorporate freehand lines that, as a matter of course, and independent of the rational set of instructions, “collapses into failure and chaos” (171). Months earlier, for a mid-career survey, LeWitt asked Hesse and others to write a reflection for the catalogue, as “there is no correct perception, only personal ones” (167). Hesse wrote a short “poem” repeating variations of, “I have seen your work,” and then concluded with this line, “Now we have grown to see it” (166).

Certain areas of Swenson’s book could use elaboration: for example, the topic of gender, like Lippard’s response in the 1960s, is somewhat glossed over. Nevertheless, Irrational Judgments is wonderful in reminding us of the “lost contexts” of this era.

Victoria Reed
independent scholar

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