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Artist Interrupted: PBS Documentary on Eva Hesse Explores a Brilliant Career Cut Short
August 30, 2018  | By Eric Gould
 
 
You might expect a biopic of an important artist to include their first creative steps, the breakthrough, various evolutions, museum shows and finally, their legacy.

Some of those ingredients are there, but not all, in the upcoming American Masters film Artists Flight: Eva Hesse which premieres on PBS Friday, August 31, at 9 p.m. ET, (check local listings).

Spoiler alert, the avant-garde Hesse died in 1970 at the age of 34 from brain cancer, just as she was emerging as a star — her departure from painting into provocative experiments of minimalist sculpture having only just established her as a major player in the male-dominated New York art world of the Sixties.

(American Masters will also focus on another artist cut short in September with Basquiat: Rage to Riches, a film about the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, the homeless graffiti artist who died at the age of 27 after taking the New York gallery world by storm in the late '70s).

While a tragedy of creativity lost, Artists Flight is also a celebration. Filled with voiceovers from Hesse’s diaries, the documentary is a compelling two hours in the artist's own words about her joy for making art, her willingness to dive — and belly-flop — into uncertain ideas, all the while jousting her nagging doubt about whether the work was even any good.

It was, and more. Hesse’s work evolved from obvious gifted talent as a teen to imaginative abstract painting adventures, and then into what gained her fame for a short time — strange sculptural assemblages out of cast resins, wire, and tangled plasticized skeins that were as peculiar as they were daring and exuberant.

“She was high on the ridiculousness of it,” says the late Nancy Holt, one of many of Hesse’s contemporaries interviewed for Artists Flight. “Life was so full synchronistic oddities, and there’s this sense of 'we’re just not in control,' and the universe is pulling the strings and you might as well enjoy it.”

Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate in London adds, “(Hesse’s work) was distinctive, it was her own, fragile, beautiful, tentative… it was all these things that sculpture wasn’t supposed to be.”

While recounting Hesse’s brilliant high-wire triumphs, Artists Flight also reveals her personal battles and the inescapable influence of her flight at the age of two with her sister Helen to Holland on one of the last Kindertransport trains of Jewish children out of Nazi Germany. (She was reunited with her parents after six months in England with the family finally making it to New York City in 1939. Much of the extended Hesse family were sent off to concentration camps and never returned.)

There were other struggles including her doomed four-year marriage to renowned sculptor Tom Doyle, and her close connection with fellow artist Sol Lewitt, that never romantically blossomed. (Her year-long sabbatical to Germany in 1962 with Doyle is cited by many critics as a creatively gestational period that came at some cost for her.)

But it was Hesse’s renowned first solo show, Chain Polymers at the Fischbach Gallery in New York in 1968 that is the highlight and fruit of Artists Flight — a body of work that supercharged Hesse and got the attention of critics, landing her in Life magazine that year.

A seemingly somber set of fiberglass and polymer minimalist works (a style that we’re well-accustomed to now) they were Hesse’s passionate jump into new materials and into new territories that set her course for her final two years — and likely would have yielded new discoveries for decades to come.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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