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Eva Hesse and Color

Author(s): Briony Fer

Source: October, Vol. 119 (Winter, 2007), pp. 21-36
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL:
Accessed: 18-07-2017 19:26 UTC

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Eva Hesse and Color


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

scale of cobalt blues "to measure the blue of the sky with." Ever keen t
and calibrate, he called his handmade scale a "cyanometer"1 - as if color
systematically gauged according to its gradation of tones. For all the ela
ories that have been developed to systematize color, I know of no mo
example of the historical drive to control its effects than this brief
Ruskin, planning his painting trip to the Swiss mountains, mixing his
to correspond with the exact blue on his strip of blues, which he matc
the intense blues of an alpine sky. Yet it is an image with a double ed
both illustrates a positivistic belief in the possibility of measuring color
at what is really at stake in the desire to calculate it. Ultimately what is mo
esting about Ruskin's would-be purely technical instrument is precisely
escapes the system of external and verifiable equivalence that he ostensi
to fix in place, the sheer pleasure that overwhelms the measure. Reve
process is Ruskin's own agitated, almost nervous, hypersensitivity to
Modern Painters (1843), he would devote long sections to the painting o
which however pure and blue, he writes, is never flat and dead but a "
transparency" and "a deep, quivering, transparent body of penetrable a
trembles but the optical sensation of perception? An instrument intend
sure the color of the sky is instead an instrument to calibrate levels of
sensation. That is to say, rather than a system of objective measurement
of gradated color reflects back on the subject to betray a body, like a co
gauging a sensual encounter of rising and falling intensities.
Even though Ruskin's pictorial sensibility is admittedly as far remo
Eva Hesse's world and, more generally, the American art world of the
possible to imagine, the anecdote provides a useful image to think ivith
color sample. Imagine an array of color swatches, for instance, little pieces o

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

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

OCTOBER 119, Winter 2007, pp. 21-36. 2007 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute

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cut from a ro
to and detach
it as an instru
nological bod
elusive yet t
noncolor or
straight bina
tive and the
so is all the m
What happen
color took on
became subjec
and colorless
ments deploy
Batchelor co
he argues th
mophilia.3 P
processes and
would abando
been largely
includes her i
here I certain
she mockingly
would like to
not a long tim
are often inc
reality art do
case it is no ex
ing against c
The change
when Hesse re
the sculptor
now call a re

3. David Batche
4. Black, white,
or, alternatively
tural valency th
of color and the
onymously. Fin
color, it is also a
and I have occas
5. Eva Hesse, in
Files 3, ed. Mign

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Eva Hesse and Color 23

Eva Hesse. Oomamaboomba.

1965. The Estate of Eva Hesse.
Hauser & Wirth Zurich 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 tex-
ture, 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. Buchloh's recent essay on Hesse's drawing "Hesse's
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 understa
stress the ex
German relief
textile factor
floor to inco
tling ways, o
Their spindly
insectlike ele
macy at this
the reliefs o
Nixon, who
Kleinian part
grading from
course she w
then to go on
larger tenden
color and non
specificity of
dramatic and
Her use of c
to the way P
Warhol's use
metallic pink
seems to hav
readymade, sh
ing them fro
pregiven colo
color like she
one relief, ca
sure: first a b
more varnis
industrial en
sent from th
make a textu
enamel painte
thing awkw
tures of a Ch
a hard exteri
interior, whi

7. See especially

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Eva Hesse and Color 25

who addressed it more

machine as she cranks
Lippard referred to th
sense of the assault of
heightened pitch. The
against the bright whi
egg blues jostle for at
action of modern adve
shiny things, the aggre

8. Lucy Lippard offers the d

in Lippard, Eva Hesse, p. 41.

Hesse. Eighter f
of Eva Hesse. Hau

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Working in
assimilated a
seem less int
their elabora
(pull here, pu
and immediat
legacy of Wil
painter who h
was using col
is sometimes
important tha
ence to expre
his painterly
course drawn
vedettes, vor
in 1964, befo
archaic lexico
ranging it ac
patches of pin
nudes but are
new network
and commodi
series is reca
pinks that de

Hesse. Untitled. 1965.

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

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Eva Hesse and Color 27

of his violently gestural

tions. And the more synt
the effect of bodily disin
joyously spill syllables
lemon yellow. It is as if t
to raid the realm of the
de Kooning but rather he
edy. Can color be funny? Y
In a cluster of mechan
Hesse all but evacuated co
remains has a particular
inks to draw out the fl
imprints or immaterial
themselves. The inks run
from one color to anot
strange articulations rem
fine and far-reaching rec
cussed the mechanical dra
he calls a new typology o
the history of abstractio
matic painting," Network
chromatic and the diagr
That Duchamp offers a m
easily with what I have
exemplar Duchamp's Passag
structed skin of painted
its painterly touches are
later loud rhetorical flou
painting reveals the "diag
architecture"10 - but - in
range of readymade skin
conte crayons from Sen
Despite the contradiction
Hesse took de Kooning's
make possible a new chro
machine parts that are m
newly configured bodily

9. Buchloh, "Hesse's Endgame

Gorky, especially the way Gork
den separation of color from l
mer unity" (p. 128).
10. David Joselit, "Dada's Diagr
National Gallery of Art, 2005), p

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In an enigma
Duchamp wro
by touch.11 R
tence on col
empiricism) r
the phrase a "
Duchamp cry
decades to co
problem that
to be trying
revert to a p
space of the s
her collages,
yellow. In the
bility - or is
without succu
expressive, pai
Duchamp ha
Tu m' (1918),
tion to the wo
the top left-
taken straigh
painter to pa
Tu m' codifi
(1916-17), wh
of color to an
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 Boites 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 disman-
tling 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 Duchamp 's studio ceiling and the

11. Marcel Duchamp, A Vinfinitif, a typotranslation by Richard Hamilton and Ecke Bonk of Marcel
Duchamp's White Box, the Typosophic Society, Northend Chapter, 1999, p. 99.
12. Buchloh, "Hesse's Endgame," p. 17. Buchloh 's 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. 35-52, has been formative in mv thinking.
13. Rosalind Krauss, "Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America," October?* (Spring 1977), p. 70.

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Eva Hesse and Color 29

Marcel Duchamp.
(ARS), New York

pointing index finger

ship that, though it wa
was an emblematic mo
orities, when Krauss's se
to the color, though t
point to or indicate ra
trace rather than a rep
cussion of color, her ar
also presses us to think
ture in the sense that t
what color can be in th
into the two register
swatches raining down
such commodified colo
sents the cast shadows. T
modernist lexicon of c
or Rodchenko's antisyn
chromes. Duchamp seem
on the surface of the p
Large Glass (1915-23).
Hesse's move in 1965
same historical process o
the gray or black works
see it as a step-by-step
too mechanical. Rather
direct or conscious res
drive to dismantle color
avant-gardes, which Du
seems to have internal
problem in a distinctiv

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parts, severin
and often lite
now through
constructed i
space "in fron
hanging in t
the bottle br
pointing fin
Jasper John
ways, interna
most vividly
previous gen
thing taken
then Hesse's
through text
rough or shi
she used a bi
the viewer. T
effect of the
I am not sure
quence for He
which would
than high-oct
When Hesse
erence for g
dark, she no
gradations of
or the tonal c
orlessness) t
circles enact
say, she turn
tered as a st
exercises had
steps, gray
between whi
as many gra
arranging th

14. For a discu

Colors," in Bran
15. Buchloh, "H
16. Josef Albers

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Eva Hesse and Color 31

dark. Albers believed

spectator was highly at
or newsprint. But anot
that the "lighter or dar
shading colors of the
space, Albers used them
though his results wer
technique of flattenin
describe three-dimensi
did that was distinctiv
tural project and in so
cannot stress enough ho
deadpan minimalist rh
boxes, according to Ju
build something only
much to do with the "
Minimalist art, and which attracted no small critical attention in shows like the
Wadsworth Atheneum's 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, Hesse's gray scale was not cool.
The glutinous and lumpy black ball, with strings straggling from its caked sur-
face, 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 mono-
chrome surface. It was not only Rauschenberg's black paintings but also work by
Lucio Fontana or by Zero Group artists like Giinther 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 dimen-
sion. 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 un
form of colors, but Hesse uses it to render the depth of bodily and corporeal
experience in sculptural form. When the Structuralist art historian Louis Mar
described the paradox of Caravaggio's dark grounds, he insisted on the way the
functioned not as backgrounds but as black grounds. Defining black "as absolu

17. Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959-1975 (New York: New York University Press, 1975), p. 11

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Hesse's studio. 1
The Estate of

nonlight and
negation of
not empty b
he reformula
ors that say
figures as ab
function of
that comes t
material and
phallic tubes
expand beyo
the entire w
pressures, di
one object is
darker gray
face of the w
the color of

18. Louis Marin

1995), p. 160.

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Eva Hesse and Color 33

In her work on paper, ink wash becomes

the medium of choice to register surface differ-
entiation. In one, she used it to vary the
blackness of the circles and more or less distin-

guish them from the thinner, slightly scumbled

ground beneath. This creates not a uniform
surface but one full of intricate, miniature fric-
tions 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 dark-
ens 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 con-
ditions in which they are placed. Hesse's circle
drawings from 1966-67 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 corpo-

real 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
Hesse. Top:
Bottom: Untitled. Untitled. 1966.
wash, could translate some of these properties
1966. The Estate of Eva Hesse. Hauser &
Wirth Zurich London. of veiling and layering and create a dynamic of

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impure, tacti
the test-piece
over a piece o
sheet makes
ascends and l
over time, fro
now. Other la
perished or h
Hesse wanted
changes color
There is eno
neutrals and
cious, and le
was not only
tion of pain
medium. Aft
tently refu
mid-1960s, c
to be reconf
out, in her G
ture, overla
cacophony of
a rather diffe
the clamor
color - which
insisted on making
rather than finding
readymade - became at
some level unnecessary
or even burdensome to

the intensely haptic,

textural insistence of

her sculptural project.

Perhaps Duchamp's
comment that you
could not touch color -

mentally rather than

physically touch color,
that is - was not, in the
end, entirely wrong. Or
rather what I have

called, following Mar in, Hesse. Study for Contingent, ca. 1969. The Es
the metacolors black
of Eva Hesse. Hauser & Wirth Zurich London.

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Eva Hesse and Color 35

and white plus the gray

the material ground of v
the only ground for crit

Roland Barthes prese

called "The Neutral" th
significant that his disc
"the colorless" - as if
worked through. The t
described here. The ex
Earthly Delights. Rathe
panels of the altarpiec
spherical world that is p
ble when the panels are
more than the richness
tinction a panorama all t
emerge from an origin
the colorless" because, h
and where "nuance bec
skips the paradigm." He
perhaps wh
modified ac
the subject's
as a kind of shorthand for the blur-

ring of binary oppositions and the

undoing of prevailing systems of
thought. And in this scheme of end-
less differentiation, now defined as
between 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
Hesse's increasing preoccupation

19. Roland Barthes, The Neutral, trans.

Rosalind Krauss and Denis Hollier (New York:
Hesse. Test piece for Contingent. 1969. Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 51.
The Estate of Eva Hesse. Hauser & 20. Ibid.
Wirth Zurich London.

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with the "unm

emphatic mid
in the usual s
fact a border
idea of the ed
ductive way o
it does in mu
haps merely
or else as a sm
Two days bef
ace or "suppl
bottles of Sen
brilliant gre
put them aw
called "neutra
of his lectur
was. "Well,"
because Neut
because Neut
the work of
pause, finally
the color neu
dalous and pr
weaker critic
there is, I ha
bility of a r
difference an
tions allowed
chromatic sh
nuance that c
subtlety and

21. Ibid., p. 52.

22. Ibid., p. 48.
23. Ibid., p. 49.

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