Though neither Eva Hesse nor Sol Lewitt reached the iconic status of 1960s artists such as Frank Stella or Jasper Johns, this book honors Hesse and Lewitt as their peers. The 2014 joint exhibition of their work at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas in Austin (for which this book is the catalog) had a more focused goal, however, of showing their influence not on the public, but on each other.
Their relationship defies two knee-jerk expectations — first that they must have been romantically involved, and second that their ideas about the genesis, goals, and final product of art and artist must have run parallel. Though their family backgrounds were similar — both were secular Jews whose families had escaped oppression in Russia (Lewitt) and Nazi Germany (Hesse) — their artistic motivations were quite opposite. Lewitt strove to remove all elements of the subjective and personal in favor of geometric and mathematic compositions, whether in two dimensions or in box-shaped sculptures. Lewitt removed himself so utterly from the actual creation of his art that it often took the form of elaborate instructions to technicians, who then created the work. With Hesse, on the other hand, one feels keenly the presence of the artist, shaping materials with her hands and applying the brush to surfaces to create works of great sensuality.
In the early years of their friendship in the sixties they supported each other mostly through letters, which form part of the book. In these, Lewitt urges Hesse away from thinking too much, challenging her to “DO!” This is represented graphically with huge shaded letters, surrounded with a spiky halo of sharp lines and surrounded by arrows pointed toward the word. Later, living in the same city, they saw each other more frequently, but the influences on each other’s work remained subtle. Hesse began experimenting with stiffened string or wire, which protrude gracefully from her sculptures or are used to connect one part to another. The installation of these sculptures made them slightly different every time — a means both of subordinating the original artist (the influence of Lewitt) while bringing forward the role of human touch in its creation (pure Hesse).
Eva Hesse’s premature death at age 34 from a brain tumor came before she had earned the place she might have among the great minimalist and post-minimalist artists of the sixties and beyond. A few days after her death, Lewitt honored her at a Paris exhibition with Wall Drawing #46, a dense forest of freeform pencil lines drawn directly on a wall. He called the lines “non-straight” as a way of paying homage to how Hesse’s human touch, so different from his own passion for orderly pattern, had penetrated his soul. This beautiful, thoughtful book, which includes several excellent essays — including one by their mutual friend Lucy Lippard, an interview with Lewitt, a timeline, more than one hundred images and plates, and dozens of postcards from their correspondence — will move the reader’s soul as well.