Even though she passed away 46 years ago—after a brain tumor tragically took her life at age 34—it's easy to feel a connection to the artist Eva Hesse. Director Marcie Begleiter discovered this more than 10 years ago when she first encountered the emotive work of the post-minimalist painter and sculptor, and from that moment, she embarked on a journey to tell the story of the life behind the artist.
Following Hesse's deeply personal works from the 1960s—a time when the dominant mode was stripped-back Minimalism—all the way back to her roots in Nazi Germany (she escaped on one of the final transports at the age of two), Begleiter's new documentary, Eva Hesse, out today, explores how the struggles and absurdity of life drove Hesse to become one of the most celebrated artists of the second half of the 20th century. Her exploration of humor, new materials like fiberglass and resin, and the body—especially that of women—reveals the drive behind Hesse that made her work so powerful. "Eva's art is mysterious. It's hard. It's soft. It's intellectual. It's emotional," Begleiter says. "Hers is really different than other work from that time."
Through Hesse's personal journals, rare archival imagery and footage, and exclusive interviews with Hesse's sister, Helen, and the creatives who surrounded her—including the artists Carl Andre, Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Sol LeWitt, and the writer Gioia Timpanelli—Begleiter paints a picture of the artist's personal and creative life. The film is an intimate look at the as-yet little seen world of Hesse (only one short film has been made and one book written about her). For an artist who died so young and had a career of just ten years she lived with so much vivacity that, to those closest to her, it's almost as if she's still with us today.
Now, Begleiter gives us a look behind the making of the film.
Inside Hesse's Personal World
I discovered Eva's journals, all unpublished at a little museum in Oberlin, Ohio, called the Allen Memorial Art Museum. It's open to scholars, so I went for a 10-day residency. Every day a curator would bring me a pair of white gloves and these boxes, and inside there were treasures: Eva's original journals, drawings, letters, postcards, all kinds of paper ephemera from the 1960s and even earlier. What I found during that week was Eva's voice.
An Artist's Voice
One of the very first decisions the producer, Karen Shapiro, and I made was that Eva would tell her own story. I was not interested in commentary. I wasn't interested in putting words in her mouth. She left behind an extraordinary archive and we knew there was enough, so that her voice could come through. The other two people who show up in that way are Eva's father, through his letters and his journals, and the artist Sol LeWitt, who unfortunately passed away a number of years before we began shooting. What we did in the film was create a conversation between Eva and Sol, pull edits of their letters together so that you can really hear the fact that these are two artists going back and forth about work, about process.
A Closer Look at Hesse's Life
One of the most exciting parts of the project was meeting the people who knew Eva. I did not expect to find as much new material as we did. So many of them would go in their closets and their basements and bring out their own footage, letters, still images. So many people got on board to help build the story.
People talk about Eva as if she's still around. It's partly because of how open she was with her friends, family, even people who met her just a couple of times. They remember this energy, this connection: When she talked to you, they told me, you felt as if you were the only one in the room.
Lessons From Hesse
I've learned something about how to live from Eva. She had a philosophy of life that I think a lot of us can connect with. She had some drama in her life, as we all do, but she never let it stop her. She looked at it, she went through it, she didn't push it aside. Even to the last weeks of her life, when she was lying in a hospital bed, she was drawing, she was making maquettes. Art was a way of life for her. I found that so inspiring.
An Ongoing Story
The way Eva died was as important as the way she lived. This is not a tragic film. Everyone will leave this earth whether you die when you're 34, or 74, or 104—you're here for a minute. It's not so long, but it's what you do with life: We celebrate that with the film. The fact that Eva could let go of life in that way when she was 34 and say, "Death is here and I'm not afraid. Art doesn't live, life doesn't last. It doesn't matter." Just because things end doesn't take away from the power of the experience.
Eva Hesse makes its world theatrical premiere today at Film Forum in New York. To see a where it's playing near you, visit zeitgeistfilms.com.