The last work of Eva Hesse

Eva Hesse, Untitled (Seven Poles), aluminum wire, fiberglass, and resin, 1970, variable dimensions (Centre Pompidou, Paris, © Estate of Eva Hesse) speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in Paris at the Pompidou Centre, looking at the last sculpture that Eva Hesse produced. It’s called “Seven Poles,” and was made in 1970.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] Even in this part of the museum, that’s filled with modern sculpture, much of it very powerful, this sculpture is arresting.

Dr. Zucker: [0:23] There are seven forms that hang from wires suspended from above. They’re made out of wrapped metal that is haphazardly twisted, and forms an interior skeleton. Around that is fiberglass and a resin, but the surface is transparent in places, translucent in others, and in some places opaque.

Dr. Harris: [0:41] I think the fact that the forms face one another — and I say face carefully, because the bottom parts of what feel like limbs are parallel to the floor and move toward one another, so there’s a strange feeling of, because these are vertical forms, something semi-human. When you walk up to them you see that they’re reflective. They shine in places and glisten, and have a feeling of being sticky or even liquidy.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] The surface is completely uneven. The metal wire juts out in places and the skin-like wrapping sometimes conforms to the protrusions of the metal, but sometimes the metal pokes out. It all feels very organic.

Dr. Harris: [1:22] They’re like intestines, or worms, or the jagged edges of the spine of an animal. I think the fact that they bend where they touch the floor gives us a sense of them being like the joints of the human body.

Dr. Zucker: [1:36] Except that maybe these are not elbows. Maybe if they were hung a little bit lower, that right angle would be at a different point.

Dr. Harris: [1:43] It’s different for each form. Sometimes the length that’s along the floor is longer, sometimes shorter. They’re also different heights.

Dr. Zucker: [1:51] They are disgusting, and they are absurd, and they’re funny, and they’re dangerous, and they’re menacing.

Dr. Harris: [1:58] It feels like we’re looking at something we’re not supposed to look at, that something has been peeled away.

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] For me, they have a deeply human quality.

Dr. Harris: [2:06] There are places where the fiberglass that’s not been encased in the resin looks almost like whiskers or hairs. There are other places where the forms look like open wounds or scabs.

Dr. Zucker: [2:17] This is a kind of abstraction of the human body, of the parts of our interior selves that we’re not comfortable with. It’s an extraordinary thing if we think about the history of art, where the human body was idealized, where it was perfected. Here, she’s gone in the opposite direction. What is inside us that is most revolting, that is most forbidden, that is most taboo?

Dr. Harris: [2:35] Most abject, most absurd? It’s impossible not to see this in the context of the post-war period of the Holocaust, of mass genocide, where the most horrible aspects of our humanity were revealed.

Dr. Zucker: [2:49] Sadly, the artist had direct experience with this. She was born in northern Germany, and her parents were able to get her out when she was three years old, but only her and her older sister.

[2:59] Both young children were sent to Holland, but the grandparents and all of the extended family were killed in the Holocaust, were killed in the death camps. Her mother committed suicide on finding out that her parents had died at the hands of the Nazis.

Dr. Harris: [3:13] The trauma of being separated from one’s parents at just three years old, and then this later suicide of her mother — although her father seems to have been a very strong and protective figure — all of those experiences had to inform the work that she did later.

[3:29] It took her a while to find her voice. This was a moment in the art world where Pop Art was ascendant, where Minimalism was also prominent.

Dr. Zucker: [3:38] This shares Minimalist aspects, the repetition of the forms.

Dr. Harris: [3:42] Right, that might remind us of the work of Donald Judd, but there we have forms that are fabricated.

Dr. Zucker: [3:47] And these are clearly handmade. She’s brilliantly retrieving the hand of the artist in our culture of technology, in our culture of mass production, but she’s using materials of the 20th century. She’s using fiberglass, she’s using synthetic resins. The result is, for me, something that is deeply organic, but also very much of our moment.

Dr. Harris: [4:07] I think there’s also something particularly brutal about the way that the forms hang from these metal hooks.

Dr. Zucker: [4:14] Torture, really; it’s clear that these forms could not have hooked themselves up. There was some exterior force that did that. Despite that, they seem to be moving to a kind of community.

[4:25] Hesse didn’t specify the specific relation of one form to another, and so these can be displayed different ways. In fact, there’s even a suggestion, since some of them have hooks on the opposite side, that some of them could be hung the other way.

Dr. Harris: [4:38] It’s a powerful work by an artist who died so young.

Dr. Zucker: [4:42] There’s this amazing rejection of the perfection, of the idealism of Minimalism.

Dr. Harris: [4:48] Think about the grids of Carl Andre, the alignment of forms. This is about not alignment, [it’s] about forms that are broken and jagged and misaligned.

Dr. Zucker: [4:58] And wounded.

Dr. Harris: [4:59] These are fabulously powerful forms that attract and repel us.

Dr. Zucker: [5:06] And that changed the trajectory of sculpture for the rest of the 20th century.

[5:10] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The last work of Eva Hesse," in Smarthistory, January 4, 2021, accessed June 25, 2024,