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Eva Hesse and Color

BRIONY FER

John Ruskin recalled in his autobiography how on a trip to Italy he painted a


scale of cobalt blues to measure the blue of the sky with. Ever keen to measure
and calibrate, he called his handmade scale a cyanometer1as if color would be
systematically gauged according to its gradation of tones. For all the elaborate theories that have been developed to systematize color, I know of no more concise
example of the historical drive to control its effects than this brief image of
Ruskin, planning his painting trip to the Swiss mountains, mixing his own colors
to correspond with the exact blue on his strip of blues, which he matched against
the intense blues of an alpine sky. Yet it is an image with a double edge, which
both illustrates a positivistic belief in the possibility of measuring color and hints
at what is really at stake in the desire to calculate it. Ultimately what is most interesting about Ruskins would-be purely technical instrument is precisely that which
escapes the system of external and verifiable equivalence that he ostensibly wishes
to fix in place, the sheer pleasure that overwhelms the measure. Revealed in the
process is Ruskins own agitated, almost nervous, hypersensitivity to color. In
Modern Painters (1843), he would devote long sections to the painting of the sky,
which however pure and blue, he writes, is never flat and dead but a trembling
transparency and a deep, quivering, transparent body of penetrable air.2 What
trembles but the optical sensation of perception? An instrument intended to measure the color of the sky is instead an instrument to calibrate levels of affect and
sensation. That is to say, rather than a system of objective measurement, this scale
of gradated color reflects back on the subject to betray a body, like a color swatch
gauging a sensual encounter of rising and falling intensities.
Even though Ruskins pictorial sensibility is admittedly as far removed from
Eva Hesses world and, more generally, the American art world of the 1960s as is
possible to imagine, the anecdote provides a useful image to think with: a graded
color sample. Imagine an array of color swatches, for instance, little pieces of fabric
1.
2.

John Ruskin, Praeterita (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 141.


John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (London: J. M. Dent and Co., 1906), p. 197.

OCTOBER 119, Winter 2007, pp. 2136. 2007 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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cut from a roll or a scale of paint samples, and it is clear that color is both attached
to and detached from a referent, embedded in and cut off from experience. Think of
it as an instrumentan instrument commensurate with a living, moving, phenomenological body rather than with a world to be picturedwhich can gauge the more
elusive yet tenacious effects of color (as well as the powerful effects of so-called
noncolor or the apparent absence of color) in experience. Entirely insensitive to
straight binary oppositions between the systematic and the asystematic, the objective and the subjective, it registers instead ambivalence and infinite difference and
so is all the more alert to the movement of unconscious psychic and bodily drives.
What happens if I hold up a color swatch to that moment in the mid-1960s when
color took on a kind of hallucinatory contemporary vividness at the same time as it
became subject to a series of prohibitionsstrictures that would only intensify with
conceptualism? To draw a dividing line between Pop and Minimalism as colorful
and colorless, respectively, would be obviously and entirely wrong, as both movements deployed both chromatism and achromatism amply and strategically. David
Batchelor coined the term chromophobia in his book of the same name where
he argues that fear of color is ultimately interchangeable with its opposite, chromophilia.3 Perhaps because of the critical emphasis on Hesses materials and
processes and on her work as a sculptor from 1965 on, her use of color, which she
would abandon that year just as enthusiastically as she had earlier embraced it, has
been largely overlooked. Her interest in color, on the other hand, which of course
includes her interest in black and white and gray, never left her.4 By focusing on it
here I certainly dont want to turn her back into Alberss little color studyist 5 (as
she mockingly described herself) or turn my back on her processes of making, but I
would like to highlight that moment when she abruptly gave color up. Whether or
not a long time in preparation, when it came, the break was sudden. Art historians
are often inclined to imagine that such moments of rupture are dramatic when in
reality art does not work like that; turning points are rarely so clean. But in this
case it is no exaggeration to claim that there really was some kind of volte face, a turning against color on Hesses part that was both extreme and unequivocal.
The change can be dated to the month if not the day. It was September 1965,
when Hesse returned to New York after a year spent in Germany with her husband,
the sculptor Tom Doyle. A German industrialist had given Doyle what we would
now call a residency and Eva accompanied him to Karlsruhe, where they both had
3.
David Batchelor, Chromophobia (London: Reaktion, 2000).
4.
Black, white, and gray are colors, of course, but their somewhat complicated status as noncolors
or, alternatively, as marking an absence of color, particularly in the monochrome tradition, has a cultural valency that is the topic of this essay. Also, I should note that while noncolor signifies a negation
of color and the achromatic signifies an absence of color, these two categories are often treated synonymously. Finally, although monochrome, strictly speaking, connotes a picture of a single uniform
color, it is also a term commonly used to describe art works that are either black or white or grisaille
and I have occasionally kept this loose usage here.
5.
Eva Hesse, in Cindy Nemser, A Conversation with Eva Hesse (1970), in Eva Hesse, October
Files 3, ed. Mignon Nixon (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002), p. 5.

Eva Hesse and Color

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Eva Hesse. Oomamaboomba.


1965. The Estate of Eva Hesse.
Hauser & Wirth Zrich London.

studios in a former textile factory. When she returned to New York from Europe,
she took with her not the fourteen highly colored reliefs she had made there but
instead fourteen three-by-three-inch transparencies of the work she left behind.
Back in New York, she would abandon color and turn to monochrome grays and
blacks. In a famous photograph of her Bowery studio, taken some six months after
her return, a wall is hung with a host of abstract sculpture, some attached to the
wall, some freestanding, all of it evocative of sexual body parts in shape and texture, all of it monochrome. Most of this work, moreover, had been finished within
three months, that is, by the end of the year. This marked a pivotal point for
Hesse, but a question that has not been adequately addressed, surprisingly
enough, is what role color, and the loss of it, played in this radical shift.6 One work
not shown in the photo but that would have been in her studio at the time was the
last colored piece she made, a purple-painted wall-hung serial arrangement of
screw threads attached to a wooden post. The grading of mauve through purple,
light to dark, corresponds to the way she was then using gray through black, but
also recalls the pungent, bright colors she had used in Germany. It is not exactly a
throwback, especially given its seriality, but neither is it an accident that it is left
out of the group of monochrome works that she carefully arranged on her studio
wall for the photograph. There is also a relief that she made in Germany, which is
all grisaille colors but for a single pinhead of pink plastic punctuating its center;
but these exceptions, if we can call them that, do little to make the about-face on
color seem any less dramatic.
6.
The exception to this is Benjamin H. D. Buchlohs recent essay on Hesses drawing, Hesses
Endgame: Facing the Diagram, in Eva Hesse Drawing, ed. Catherine de Zegher (New York: Drawing
Center; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

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To understand how extreme was Hesses refusal of color, it is necessary to


stress the extremity of her color, particularly the way she had used it in her
German reliefs. It is well known that while working in her makeshift studio in the
textile factory in Karlsruhe Hesse picked up machine parts and string off the
floor to incorporate into her reliefs. She assembled these found materials in startling ways, often protruding awkwardly outward or beyond the framing edge.
Their spindly mechanical parts, meticulously bound with string, have a certain
insectlike elegance, but they are ungainly as well. The body part has absolute primacy at this point, and commentators have stressed the sheer bodily terrain that
the reliefs occupy, from Lucy Lippard on, and none so elegantly as Mignon
Nixon, who has discussed them in terms of the phantasmatic world of the
Kleinian part-object.7 But what of the color? And what, in particular, of the color
grading from light to dark that Hesse seems to prefer in many of these works? Of
course she was not by any means the only artist to opt for extreme color and
then to go on to renounce it. In some respects her move was symptomatic of a
larger tendency within art at that time of alternating between the far poles of
color and noncolor, the chromatic and the achromatic. But in other ways, the
specificity of her color and the precise form her renunciation took were more
dramatic and more idiosyncratic.
Her use of commercial, synthetic colors could be compared, for example,
to the way Pop and Minimalist artists were working with readymade color, like
Warhols use of the kinds of color found in advertising, or John Chamberlains
metallic pink chassies, or Donald Judds colored Plexiglas. As much as they, Hesse
seems to have liked contemporary-looking colors, but rather than find them
readymade, she preferred to make her colors, often mixing by layering or by grading them from light through darkall of which undermined the idea of an even,
pregiven color taken straight from the can. In her reliefs, she tends to layer the
color like she is layering the papier-mch with which she builds up its bulk. In
one relief, called H H (1965), she noted the layers on the back for good measure: first a bright yellow gouache, then varnish, then a wash of purple ink, then
more varnish, then more pink and orange gouache. For others, she used the
industrial enamel paints which Doyle, who found German paints dismal, had
sent from the U.S. to use on his metal sculpture. The way she built up the color to
make a texture, like a hard shiny carapace, was reminiscent of Claes Oldenburgs
enamel painted plaster objects made for The Store (1961). There was always something awkward and handmade in her reliefs, often allowing the pieces of
papier-mch to show through, that stopped far short of the mass-produced textures of a Chamberlain or a Judd. Still, the color quality of her reliefs gives them
a hard exteriority, a sense of being all outside and no inside, all surface and no
interior, which invokes a commodity culture no less aggressive than those artists

7.

See especially Mignon Nixon, Ringaround Arosie: 2 in 1, in Nixon, Eva Hesse, pp. 195218.

Eva Hesse and Color

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who addressed it more overtly. Hesse operates her own kind of absurd chromatic
machine as she cranks her color up a few notches as if turning a handle too tight.
Lippard referred to the whiplash of pink in one of the reliefs, 8 which gives a
sense of the assault of color. This is color whose brightness can grate, as if it has a
heightened pitch. The pink and yellow of Eighter from Decatur (1965) are garish
against the bright white of the ground. Elsewhere, pinks and acid greens or duckegg blues jostle for attention. The color is a lure, mobilizing the typical double
action of modern advertising and the commodity form itself: the lure of bright
shiny things, the aggressive demand for attention.
8.
Lucy Lippard offers the description of the cloth-wrapped protruding wire section of Oomamaboomba
in Lippard, Eva Hesse, p. 41.

Hesse. Eighter from Decatur. 1965. The Estate


of Eva Hesse. Hauser & Wirth Zrich London.

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Working in Europe, and cut off from the New York art scene, Hesse quickly
assimilated a great deal of European art. Jean Tinguelys ludicrous machines may
seem less interesting to us now but they impressed Hesse, and the absurdity of
their elaborate jangling, motorized fetishes is not without echoes in her reliefs
(pull here, push there, cacophony everywhere). But I think the more tenacious
and immediate problem that Hesse was still working through in the reliefs was the
legacy of Willem de Kooning, along with Arshile Gorky, the Abstract Expressionist
painter who had always meant most to her. From the point of view of the way she
was using color, the reliefs hark back to that earlier and ongoing preoccupation (it
is sometimes forgotten that the art you carry around in your head is even more
important than the art that you see as you see it). Rather than a retardataire adherence to expressive painting, cutting out de Koonings color from the context of
his painterly technique has surprising consequences. Well before Pop, he had of
course drawn on the commercial color of advertising in his grotesque, grinning
vedettes, voracious and threatening. In the drawings and collages that she made
in 1964, before she went to Germany, Hesse dismantled what was by then an
archaic lexicon of femininity rooted in the 1940s and 50sscattering and rearranging it across the spare surface of a sheet of paper. In these works, there are
patches of pink that reverberate with echoes of the pink fleshiness of de Koonings
nudes but are themselves fairly starkly cut from that context and set to work in a
new network of connections. Color becomes shorthand for the meeting of flesh
and commodities. It is as if de Koonings trademark artificial pink of his Women
series is recast as that whiplash that strikes out into the spectators space in
Oomamaboomba (1965). Long after she had rejected his touch, the acid greens and
pinks that de Kooning characteristically used together, as well as the smears of red

Hesse. Untitled. 1965.


The Estate of Eva
Hesse. Hauser & Wirth
Zrich London.

Eva Hesse and Color

27

of his violently gestural nudes, are recycled in her even more strident combinations. And the more synthetic, chemical even, the effect of her color, the greater
the effect of bodily disintegration and the more comic its edge (like the titles that
joyously spill syllables rather than sense). This is cosmetic color: candy pink,
lemon yellow. It is as if the traces of de Kooning ultimately become a mere pretext
to raid the realm of the cosmetic counter, creating in the process not a homage to
de Kooning but rather her very own parody of femininity, her own cosmetic comedy. Can color be funny? Yes, Hesse suggests that it can.
In a cluster of mechanical drawings that she made alongside the reliefs,
Hesse all but evacuated color. Large expanses of paper are left bare, yet what color
remains has a particular intensity and concentration. Notably she used colored
inks to draw out the fluid, simplified outlines, which seem almost negative
imprints or immaterial doubles of the awkward protruding bulk of the reliefs
themselves. The inks run into one another so a single and continuous line bleeds
from one color to another. In the spareness of these drawings, we encounter
strange articulations reminiscent of the magnified joints of a crustacean. In his
fine and far-reaching recent essay on Hesses drawing, Benjamin Buchloh has discussed the mechanical drawings as key to her fundamental understanding of what
he calls a new typology of the diagrammatic, which has largely been omitted from
the history of abstraction but which he traces to Duchamps first fully diagrammatic painting, Network of Stoppages (1914).9 Indeed it is this space between the
chromatic and the diagrammatic that Hesse radically mines from this point on.
That Duchamp offers a model here is not in doubt, even though this may not sit
easily with what I have just said about de Kooning. Even if we were to take as
exemplar Duchamps Passage from Virgin to Bride (1912), which maintains its deconstructed skin of painted flesh tones alongside its diagrammatic dots and dashes,
its painterly touches are still mute and inexpressive compared with de Koonings
later loud rhetorical flourishes. As David Joselit has put it, Duchamps Cubist
painting reveals the diagrammatic armature drawn from deep within the bodys
architecture10butin terms of its colorit also parades on its surface the full
range of readymade skin tones as anybody might have bought them in a set of
conte crayons from Senneliers, the art suppliers on the banks of the Seine.
Despite the contradictions involved, it is as if, in her work up to September 1965,
Hesse took de Koonings color and mobilized it diagrammatically in order to
make possible a new chromatic topography of the body. It is not just readymade
machine parts that are made strange, but color, which is now put to work in a
newly configured bodily mechanics.
9.
Buchloh, Hesses Endgame, p. 119. In this essay, he also discusses the way Hesse draws on
Gorky, especially the way Gorky had disintegrated traditional drawing, most notably through the sudden separation of color from line, making both appear as isolated, if not desolate, elements of a former unity (p. 128).
10.
David Joselit, Dadas Diagrams, in The Dada Seminars, ed. Leah Dickerman (Washington, D.C.:
National Gallery of Art, 2005), p. 71.

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In an enigmatic note published in The White Box, which he produced in 1966,


Duchamp wrote that perspective resembled color because neither could be tested
by touch.11 Rather than the modernist stress on color as pure opticality, this insistence on color as an abstract, conceptual tool (and the very measure of antiempiricism) reverses all the usual assumptions of expressiveness summed up in
the phrase a touch of color. In these notes, probably written in the early 1910s,
Duchamp crystallized a problem that would continue to animate art for several
decades to come: the relation between the chromatic and the haptic. This is the
problem that Hesse came to work through in her German reliefs, where she seems
to be trying to figure out a new sort of relationship between them that does not
revert to a painterly rhetoric of expression. Instead she puts the stress on the
space of the spectators encounter in front of the work. Rather than cutting into
her collages, she makes physical protrusions that jut out comically into this space,
transforming the encounter through a knob of red plastic or a spike of pink or
yellow. In the high chromatism of these works, Hesse is struggling with the possibilityor is it the impossibility?of making a kind of color you can touchbut
without succumbing to the lure of purely optical color or signifying, either, as an
expressive, painterly touch.
Duchamp had speculated most vividly on color in his famous last painting,
Tu m (1918), which, as Buchloh has put it, dispatches color in outright opposition to the work of Matisse.12 The array of industrial colors that rains down from
the top left-hand corner laid color out as an industrial commoditythe colors
taken straight from an artists catalog of oil paints. The engagement of a sign
painter to paint the pointing finger at the center made this even more emphatic.
Tu m codifies in schemat ic form the earlier readymade Apolinre enameled
(191617), which actually is an enamel sign. This has less to do with the sacrifice
of color to an anti-aesthetic strategy so much as the death of color by color. At
stake here is the renunciation of a certain kind of aesthetic color, not color itself.
After all, The White Box is so full of lists of color that it is hard to imagine Duchamp
wants to abandon color entirely. Instead, he seems to want to dismantle it into
parts and recycle it. When he fabricated his various Botes en Valises containing
meticulously produced reproductions of his works, he hand-colored them in a
process he called coloriages originaux. Adding color became a way of dismantling color and detaching it from an expressive pictorial language.
Rosalind Krauss called Tu m, memorably, a panorama of the index.13 The
shadows of the readymades that hung from Duchamps studio ceiling and the

11.
Marcel Duchamp, A linfinitif, a typotranslation by Richard Hamilton and Ecke Bonk of Marcel
Duchamps White Box, the Typosophic Society, Northend Chapter, 1999, p. 99.
12.
Buchloh, Hesses Endgame, p. 17. Buchlohs seminal discussion of color in The Primary
Colors for the Second Time: A Paradigm Repetition of the Neo-Avant-Garde, October 37 (Summer
1986), pp. 3552, has been formative in my thinking.
13.
Rosalind Krauss, Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America, October 3 (Spring 1977), p. 70.

Eva Hesse and Color

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Marcel Duchamp. Tu m. 1918. 2007 Artists Rights Society


(ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/Succession Marcel Duchamp.

pointing index finger of the sign painters hand registered an indexical relationship that, though it was a painting, met the condition of photography, and as such
was an emblematic model for 1970s art. Symptomatic of that decades critical priorities, when Krausss seminal Notes on the Index was written, she barely referred
to the color, though the color samples entirely support her argument: samples
point to or indicate rather than represent colors, just as a shadow is an indexical
trace rather than a representation or symbol of something. In the context of a discussion of color, her argument still holds. But looking through the lens of color
also presses us to think of Tu m in terms of a rupturefirst, as an historical rupture in the sense that the painting dramatically severs color from its past and asks
what color can be in the future; and second, as the painting itself enacts a splitting
into the two registers of the chromatic and the achromatic. With the color
swatches raining down from the monochromatic gray scale through to the colors,
such commodified colors are also set against the limbo of grisaille, which represents the cast shadows. This is different from, say, Mondrians synthesis of the basic
modernist lexicon of color (black-and-white grid versus primary colored planes),
or Rodchenkos antisynthetic laboratory of texture or faktura in his black monochromes. Duchamp seems deliberately to want the problems of color to breed here,
on the surface of the painting, just as he had allowed the dust to accumulate on his
Large Glass (191523).
Hesses move in 1965 to abandon color can be seen as an acting out of the
same historical process of splitting. Tracking the shift from Eighter from Decatur to
the gray or black works that she made on her return to New York, it is tempting to
see it as a step-by-step attempt to answer Duchamps challenge. But that would be
too mechanical. Rather than think in terms of Duchamps influencelet alone a
direct or conscious responseit is more to the point to see Hesse acting out the
drive to dismantle color that had long animated the historical avant-gardes and neoavant-gardes, which Duchamp vividly encapsulated but had no monopoly on. Hesse
seems to have internalized and understood the key components of the historical
problem in a distinctive way, not only as an imperative to break color down into

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parts, severing it from a pictorial aesthetic, but also to remobilize its parts as literal
and often literally mobile components within a sculptural aesthetic. And if, thinking
now through the lens of Hesses sculptural viewpoint, we try to imagine the space
constructed in Tu m, it is not only weird and convoluted but consists mainly of the
space in front of the picture plane, with the shadows of the readymades apparently
hanging in the illusory space behind us as spectators and, if that were not enough,
the bottle brush literally protruding into it. The circular movement is set off by the
pointing finger, and taken up in the spiraling rotational forms of the shadows. If
Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ellsworth Kelly had, in their own distinct
ways, internalized the color problem in painting in the 1950s, then it is Hesse who
most vividly translates it into a sculptural problem in the mid-sixties.14 And if the
previous generation concentrated attention on the readymade-ness of color, something taken up by Minimalists like Judd and Dan Flavin in relation to sculpture,
then Hesses take was, in every sense, more hands-on. She wanted color filtered
through texture, through an intensely haptic corporeal experience of the brittle or
rough or shiny shells of the things that surround us. She used color the same way
she used a bit of wire to jut out into the spectators space: to stick in the eyes of
the viewer. The word spiky does not only describe the shape of the spokes but the
effect of the color. Was this color that could be touched? And if so, what were the
consequences of reconnecting the chromatic and the haptic in the German reliefs?
I am not sure the answers to these questions are that clear-cut. After all, the consequence for Hesse of the experiment was to abandon color in favor of the gray scale,
which would suggest that she had found a better way to dramatize a haptic space
than high-octane color, however sassy and contemporary, could in practice offer.
When Hesse abandoned color for monochrome, she did not give up her preference for gradation. Instead, where she had graded a pink or red from light to
dark, she now graded through the gray scale. Buchloh has seen these systematic
gradations of gray as taking on the diagrammatic order of color in a printing scale
or the tonal chart of photography, declaring within the chromatic register (of colorlessness) the same principles of mechanicity that the grid and the concentric
circles enact in the formal and compositional registers of her drawing.15 That is to
say, she turned somersaults on the systematicity of color that she had first encountered as a student in Alberss color course at Cooper Union, where one of the
exercises had been precisely the study of gradation through the so-called gray
steps, gray scales, gray ladders to demonstrate a gradual stepping up or down
between white and black, lighter or darker.16 The exercise consisted of collecting
as many grays as possible from black-and-white pictures in popular magazines and
arranging the little pieces to create a practically seamless gradation from light to

14.
For a discussion of color in Rauschenberg and Kelly, see the chapter entitled Pedestrian
Colors, in Brandon Joseph, Random Order (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 73119.
15.
Buchloh, Hesses Endgame, pp. 14667.
16.
Josef Albers, Interaction of Color (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), p. 16.

Eva Hesse and Color

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dark. Albers believed that because of modern printing technologies, the modern
spectator was highly attuned to subtle tonal shifts in black-and-white photography
or newsprint. But another lesson from this simple exercise must surely have been
that the lighter or darker gray scale was not neutral but intensely material. If the
shading colors of the gray scale traditionally gave depth or volume to bodies in
space, Albers used them to produce a flat rather than a volumetric surface. Johns,
though his results were more conceptually teasing, deployed precisely this simple
technique of flattening out what conventionally functions (as chiaroscuro) to
describe three-dimensional bodies in space in his gray monochromes. What Hesse
did that was distinctive was to put this to use in her radical reworking of a sculptural project and in so doing dramatize the corporeal dimension of viewing. I
cannot stress enough how different this was from the way gray figured as part of a
deadpan minimalist rhetoric in the work of Robert Morris, whose gray painted
boxes, according to Judd, were next to nothing; you wondered why anyone would
build something only barely present.17 Nor did her use of monochrome have
much to do with the cool sensibility that was thought to be such a feature of
Minimalist art, and which attracted no small critical attention in shows like the
Wadsworth Atheneums Black, White, and Gray (1964), which, apart from showing
how ubiquitous the separation of black and white from the other colors had
become, looks almost totally arbitrary. At any rate, Hesses gray scale was not cool.
The glutinous and lumpy black ball, with strings straggling from its caked surface, entitled Vertiginous Detour (1966) shows how the negation of color can
exacerbate rather than neutralize a visceral effect. It seems that for Hesse the point
of abandoning color was to produce a greater sense of repulsion through a monochrome surface. It was not only Rauschenbergs black paintings but also work by
Lucio Fontana or by Zero Group artists like Gnther Uecker or Otto Piene, whose
work Hesse had seen while she was in Europe, that had demonstrated how the
monochrome could activate the corporeal. Hesse took this into a sculptural dimension. Louise Nevelson had constructed elaborate painted wooden constructions
within a still fundamentally post-Cubist idiom to show how monochrome black
could expand spatially to open up rather than obliterate the complex faceting of
planes. By contrast, Hesse mixed acrylic with polyurethane to encrust the surface
of the ball, to make it look both glisteningly synthetic and a sculpture in ruins at
one and the same time.
Of course Hesse was not the first artist to discover black. In the hands of
artists from Manet to Reinhardt, black has proved the most sensual and least uniform of colors, but Hesse uses it to render the depth of bodily and corporeal
experience in sculptural form. When the Structuralist art historian Louis Marin
described the paradox of Caravaggios dark grounds, he insisted on the way they
functioned not as backgrounds but as black grounds. Defining black as absolute

17.

Donald Judd, Complete Writings 19591975 (New York: New York University Press, 1975), p. 117.

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Hesses studio. 1966. Vertiginous Detour hangs from the center.


The Estate of Eva Hesse. Hauser & Wirth Zrich London.

nonlight and noncolor achieved through a negation of all the others (and thus the
negation of white, which is all the other colors combined) he claims that it is
not empty but a space that is full, totally dense, and closed.18 As a consequence
he reformulates black and white as what he calls metacolorsthat is to say, as colors that say something about color at the same time they negate it. So black
figures as absolute density and also functions self-reflexively to refer to the very
function of color itself. For Hesse it is not just black but also the whole gray scale
that comes to perform this functionwhich become the colors at once the most
material and the most conceptual. Some works, like Several (1965), consist of
phallic tubes graded darker through lighter gray. Other pieces are uniform and
monochrome. The photograph of her studio shows the way the connections
expand beyond each piece to occupy the whole space of the wall and floor, as if
the entire wall has become a libidinal machine, animated by mutual tensions and
pressures, discharges and yields. You can track rotational movements across it. If
one object is a small pale gray monochrome then it connects to another that is
darker gray or denser black, and so gradations are activated across the whole surface of the wall. Rather than cool neutrality, the gray scale becomes, for Hesse,
the color of heightened tactility.
18.
Louis Marin, To Destroy Painting, trans. Mette Hjort (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1995), p. 160.

Eva Hesse and Color

Hesse. Top: Untitled. 1966. Bottom: Untitled.


1966. The Estate of Eva Hesse. Hauser &
Wirth Zrich London.

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In her work on paper, ink wash becomes


the medium of choice to register surface different iat ion. In one, she used it to var y the
blackness of the circles and more or less distinguish them from the thinner, slightly scumbled
ground beneath. This creates not a uniform
surface but one full of intricate, miniature frictions like, for example, the small section where
ink lines are drawn over rather than under the
wash. In another, done the same year, she used
wash to make a continuous, almost seamless,
gradation. Here the circles darken as your eye
moves up the gradient, and the ground darkens as it moves down. Undoubtedly, Hesse is
interested in the effects of light, but a kind of
impure light. It is as if light were turned against
itself to make instead a surface that invokes
pure bodily substance. Dull brown or gray.
Dirty light, but also, at the same time, sheer,
voluptuous materiality. This is Hesse holding
up her own cyanometer, not to the sky like
Ruskin, but to her own bodily experience of
the world. For of course the way latex and
fiberglass filter light is also dependent on their
thickness and entirely contingent on the conditions in which they are placed. Hesses circle
drawings from 196667 may look so spare as to
seem as if all of the body of her earlier work
has drained out of it. But, on the contrary,
they seem to me even more powerfully to
refract the body through the semi-opacity and
semi-transparency of the thin washes than
does the awkward bulk of either the colored
German reliefs or the more obviously corporeal works like Vertiginous Detour. Now the point
is not, literally, to make a texture or even to
make color have a texture but to dramatize the
texture of seeing.
When Hesse begins to work with latex and
fiberglass in 1967, she finds materials that,
though they behave very differently from ink
wash, could translate some of these properties
of veiling and layering and create a dynamic of

34

OCTOBER

impure, tactile vision. A comparison between the wash drawing for Contingent and
the test piece for the same work, which is simply a latex covered muslin cloth hung
over a piece of dowelling, shows this very clearly. The uneven folding of the latex
sheet makes a series of different thicknesses whereby the gradient darkens as it
ascends and lightens as it descends. The color of the latex itself has also darkened
over time, from the light creamy yellow it was when it was new to the dark amber it is
now. Other latex works, which have fared much less well than this one, have largely
perished or have become a dark, syrupy brown. I dont believe for one moment that
Hesse wanted her sculpture to perish, but she did like, I think, the way it slowly
changes color. After all, this process of discoloration is a kind of gradation in time.
There is enormous variety in Hesses neutral zoneas if it were only in the
neutrals and noncolors that she could draw out an amplitude that is more capacious, and less freighted with conventional meaning, than she could in color. It
was not only that she turned away from wall-hung work, with its residual connotation of painting, for sculpture that was conventionally seen as a color-free
medium. After all, the drawings that she made alongside her sculpture just as insistently refused color mixtures in favor of mute neutrals. It was as if, by the
mid-1960s, color had been co-opted by high modernist optical painting and had
to be reconfigured just as much as any formal lexicon of shape. She had started
out, in her German reliefs, by mimicking the colors of a feminized commodity culture, overlaying a contemporar y culture of color over an equally absurd
cacophony of body parts. Giving that up and turning to monochrome was to take
a rather different stance but not to abandon the project. It was as if she found that
the clamor of br ight
colorwhich she always
insisted on making
rather than finding
readymadebecame at
some level unnecessary
or even burdensome to
the intensely hapt ic,
textural insistence of
her sculptural project.
Perhaps Duchamps
comment that you
could not touch color
ment ally rather than
physically touch color,
that iswas not, in the
end, entirely wrong. Or
rather what I have
called, following Marin,
Hesse. Study for Contingent. ca. 1969. The Estate
the met acolor s black
of Eva Hesse. Hauser & Wirth Zrich London.

Eva Hesse and Color

35

and white plus the gray scale in between ended up more amenable to her interest in
the material ground of visionwhich, when all the rest has been co-opted, becomes
the only ground for critical work.
*
Roland Barthes presented some thoughts on color in the course of lectures
called The Neutral that he gave at the College de France in Paris in 197778. It is
significant that his discussion, which bears the title color, is immediately subtitled
the colorlessas if only in that negation could the fullness of the problem be
worked through. The theoretical move echoes the move made by Hesse that I have
described here. The example Barthes chooses is Boschs painting The Garden of
Earthly Delights. Rather than noting the intense and jewel-like color of the famous
panels of the altarpiece, he talks about the fog-bound and fantastic transparent
spherical world that is painted in monochrome gray on its outer wings and only visible when the panels are closed. And it turns out that this colorless world interests him
more than the richness of color hidden behind it. He discovers in that cloudy indistinction a panorama all the more intense because it is there that the first differences
emerge from an original state of nondifferentiation. He calls grisaille the color of
the colorless because, he says, it points to another way of thinking the paradigm
and where nuance becomes the principle of allover organization . . . that in a way
skips the paradigm. He calls this nuanced space the shimmerthat whose aspect,
perhaps whose meaning, is subtly
modified according to the angle of
the subjects gaze.19 Grisaille stands
as a kind of shorthand for the blurring of binary oppositions and the
undoing of prevailing systems of
thought. And in this scheme of endless differentiation, now defined as
bet ween the marked and the
unmarked, black and white are on
the same side (that of marked colors)
and what comes to oppose them is
gray (the muffled, the faded, etc.).20
At the risk of taking this too literally,
it seems to me to have a bearing on
Hesses increasing preoccupation

Hesse. Test piece for Contingent. 1969.


The Estate of Eva Hesse. Hauser &
Wirth Zrich London.

19. Roland Bart hes, The Neut ral, t rans.


Rosalind Krauss and Denis Hollier (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 51.
20. Ibid.

36

OCTOBER

with the unmarkedwhere even black is ultimately sacrificed in favor of those less
emphatic mid-tones that, in her hands at least, are far from mute or cool or neutral
in the usual sense of the word. Barthes described the operation of the Neutral as in
fact a borderline thought, on the edge of language, on the edge of color.21 It is this
idea of the edge of color rather than the void of noncolor that seems to offer a productive way of thinking about Hesses work after 1965. When color does reappear, as
it does in much of her work on paper, it returns like the specter of a lost object, perhaps merely glimpsed in the thinnest of furrows of orange through a white ground,
or else as a small section of pink framed in neutrals.
Two days before he gave the lecture, in an anecdote that he recounts as a preface or supplement to it, Barthes went out to buy some paints. He bought sixteen
bottles of Sennelier ink following my taste for the names (golden, yellow, sky blue,
brilliant green, purple, sun yellow, cartham pinka rather intense pink).22 As he
put them away, he managed to knock one over, which turned out to be the color
called neutral. Given that this had been his constant preoccupation over the course
of his lectures, overcome by curiosity, he could not help but see what color neutral
was. Well, he remembers, I was both punished and disappointed: punished
because Neutral spatters and stains (its a type of dull gray-black); disappointed
because Neutral is a color like the others, and for sale (therefore, Neutral is not
unmarketable): the unclassifiable is classifiable.23 Of course, this is the opposite of
the work of the Neutral, urging him to return to his speculations. But we might
pause, finally, over his moment of disappointment. For in a way, this is my point: that
the color neutral is not necessarily Neutral in Barthess radical critical sense of a scandalous and provocative operation of thoughtjust as it is not necessarily neutral in the
weaker critical sense of affectlessness. There is no automatic guarantee either way, yet
there is, I have suggested, a moment when the neutral zone did offer Hesse the possibility of a radical reworking of color, which she mined as a means to proliferate
difference and heighten the bodily affect of her work. Spatial and temporal gradations allowed her to create endless nuancebut nuance no longer tied to the subtle
chromatic shifts within a pictorial aesthetic or the doxa of a contemplative gaze
nuance that created, now, a multiplicity of frictions. This was nuance rescued from
subtlety and salvaged for a radically corporeal and materialist aesthetic.

21.
22.
23.

Ibid., p. 52.
Ibid., p. 48.
Ibid., p. 49.