I was lucky enough to make my first visit to the Eva Hesse exhibition at Camden Arts Centre at the same time as one of the curators, Briony Fer, was taking round her third year History of Art students from UCL. I simply tagged along. And emerged much richer for it. For one thing, Fer is clearly a very good teacher: she allows her enthusiasm for the work to show without letting it overwhelm, she encourages her students to look closely, to take their time, to think about the ‘how’ of something being made – materials, technique – without rushing them to a ‘what’ or ‘why’, a race to establish meaning. She is close to the work – of course, she is, this is, at least in part, her show, her choice – and yet with her students she is open. Yes, it’s latex, latex and rubber; it’s cheesecloth, cheesecloth and adhesive, it’s papier maché – beyond that, well, could be this, could be that.
Most of the pieces on display (there are exceptions: an orange-yellow hanging of fibreglass, polyester resin, latex and cheesecloth, for instance; another, golden, of latex, cheesecloth and wood – both beautiful) are smaller than the large-scale works for which Hesse is best known (you can see some, currently, at Tate Modern); they are test pieces, try-outs, experiments, templates for what was (or was not) to come. Talking to her students, Fer drew comparison with a collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s unfinished poems – drafts, fragments, some little more than a clearing of the throat. Not quite poems; more than nothing: suspended somewhere in between.
In one gallery, a number of Hesse’s cheesecloth and papier maché pieces have been arranged on a large, low table for us to walk around, pause and peer down at. Together and singly they are lovely to consider: like leaves bleached of colour, just beginning to curl; like parchment scored and creased with age. Ephemeral and yet not, they cry out to be touched.
Once you understand what it is you’re looking at here – and anyone going round without first reading the notes in the leaflet might well be confused – this is a really good show, and unlike most others I’ve seen. You’re not being presented with a collection of finished work and left to appreciate and judge; this is different, this is like being invited into someone’s studio and allowed to walk round, see what she’s up to – hmm, interesting, wonder what she’ll do with that or those – except that we know nothing will happen, nothing more. Eva Hesse died from a brain tumour in 1970 at the age of only 34.