Eva Hesse Studiowork, 1968, Courtesy of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive. Photograph: Abby Robinson/Courtesy of the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

Of the many shows that make this a golden year for contemporary art at the Edinburgh festival, one stands out as momentous: 50 sculptures, some never shown in public before, by American artist Eva Hesse (Studiowork, Fruitmarket Gallery, until 25 October).

When the New York Times famously announced that Hesse was “at the outset of a brilliant career” in 1970, its prediction was shockingly mistaken. Not because she had already established herself as a great sculptor by the age of 34, but because she had recently died of cancer.

This anecdote is bitter proof for those who still insist upon Hesse as the Sylvia Plath of art: a refugee from the Nazis, her mother a suicide, her marriage ending in desertion just before the tumour was discovered. But the life is entirely divisible from the art, as these marvellous creations testify. Every little thing here, from the “painting” made of washers to the ribboning scroll of mesh that holds itself nonchalantly aloft, is vivacious, dynamic, surprising, droll – by all accounts, like the artist herself.

What looks like a sleeve of corrugated bone holds a glowing light within it, an inviting, red-gold interior into which one might imagine crawling, all achieved with nothing but latex-dipped cheesecloth and light. A wick spirals out of a wax pot, trying to escape yet forever umbilically connected.

Two black balloons dangle from the wall, a deflated sphere and a pendulous sausage dog knocking about, an odd couple tied together. The effect is touching and inexplicably humorous though it has something to do with opposites, little and large, Laurel and Hardy, and the relationship between them; lightsome, they are cast in heavy bronze.

Many of these works, untouched since her death, come straight from Hesse’s studio. A length of cheesecloth folded over and dipped in latex dangles from the ceiling like some magnificent shroud, running all the way from parchment to honey in colour and texture. A flotilla of iridescent vessels, apparently aged by time and tide, is formed in cheap tissue. Hesse’s works have turned silver and gold with the years. What hasn’t changed is the sense of her hands manipulating the materials: the maker’s mark in the work.

To speak of these sub-objects (as they are described in the superb catalogue) as vessels is to miss out all sorts of other nuances of shape. And that’s the joy of it – Hesse hits just beyond verbalisation. It is part of her gift to evade analogy and association and make things so eccentric and awkward they look like nothing else, or nothing else before them. For sculptors have been trying to emulate Hesse ever since.


Laura Cumming