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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.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled (detail), 1975/2004. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures
But back in early May, when I first heard about MoMA’s “Modern Women’s Project,” presumably designed to redress the problem, I thought it was — frankly — stupid. According to published reports, MoMA’s project involves a series of exhibitions showing work by female artists and a book called “Women Artists in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art.” So the way MoMA shows that it is an equal-opportunity exhibitor/collector is to create a ghetto for women artists?
That’s certainly not the way I would approach the problem. Morgan Freeman’s famous remark calling the idea of a month dedicated to black history “ridiculous” came immediately to my mind: “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history,” he said.
And I don’t want “women artists’ shows” — if curators can’t find women, in this day and age, whose art measures up to, or exceeds, work being created by men, they’re not doing their jobs.
Nor do I want shows that herald an artist who happens to be female as a woman artist — as if that in itself were a valorous and courageous thing to do.
Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts
A week ago New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz launched a bomb on his Facebook page:
“The Museum of Modern Art practices a form of gender-based apartheid. Of the 383 works currently installed on the 4th and 5th floors of the permanent collection, only 19 are by women; that’s 4%. There are 135 different artists installed on these floors; only nine of them are women; that’s 6%. MoMA is telling a story of modernism that only it believes. MoMA has declared itself a hostile witness. Why? What can be done?”
After hundreds of comments from his Facebook Friends, he re-posted the original entry three more times to make it easier for readers to follow the discussion. Three or four additional follow-up posts on the topic brought in hundreds more comments and Saltz told his community that:
In the next month I plan to write a cover letter and amass all of your FB comments in regards to the paltry percent of women artists on the 4th & 5th floors of the permanent collection and send the package to the following MoMA officials…
Before he had the chance,the museum responded, sending a note to Saltz to post on his page:
“Hi all, I am (Kim Mitchell) Chief Communications Officer here at MoMA. We have been following your lively discussion with great interest, as this has also been a topic of ongoing dialogue at MoMA. We welcome the participation and ideas of others in this important conversation. And yes, as Jerry knows, we do consider all the departmental galleries to represent the collection. When those spaces are factored in, there are more than 250 works by female artists on view now. Some new initiatives already under way will delve into this topic next year with the Modern Women’s Project, which will involve installations in all the collection galleries, a major publication, and a number of public programs. MoMA has a great willingness to think deeply about these issues and address them over time and to the extent that we can through our collection and the curatorial process. We hope you’ll follow these events as they develop and keep the conversation going.”
This in turn let loose a whole new flood of comments, many criticizing the idea of a “Modern Women’s Project.” And the debate rages on as Saltz explained that now that the group has MoMA’s attention, it should press the museum to rectify an injustice. Saltz has nearly 5,000 Facebook friends, and he’s built his community by positioning himself as much as a discussion leader as a traditional critic.
There was a time when arts organizations (following good corporate example) stayed aloof from criticism, preferring not to respond publicly when criticized unless forced. Many’s the time that the subjects of negative arts stories we have posted on ArtsJournal have contacted me to try to correct the record as they saw it. In each case (maybe 20 over the years), I offered a chance for the institution to write a rebuttal to the story and said I’d post it on AJ. How many do you think took me up on the offer? Three.
Most figured that even though the story was wrong, it would blow over more quickly if it was ignored. But in the digital age these stories stay out there forever, and besides, I’d argue, responding is an opportunity to engage.
And so it is. And so MoMA engaged with Saltz’s group, and good for them. Except.
One of the great things about social media is that it encourages personal interaction. One of the challenges for institutions is to not sound so institutional. In MoMA’s official response, the unnamed “we” have been “following your lively discussion” with “great interest” could hardly be more institutional. Then there’s “this has been a topic of ongoing dialogue at MoMA” and the even more co-opting “we welcome the participation and ideas of others in this important conversation.” And finally: “We hope you’ll follow these events as they develop and keep the conversation going.”
Could it be any more condescending?: “We noticed you’re having this lovely little discussion over here at the kids’ table… pat, pat, pat… How charming of you…” If someone spoke to you like this in real life you’d roll your eyes and walk away. Moreover, the response doesn’t address the issue with either a direct acknowledgment of it (you’re right, only four percent of the artists represented on those floors are women) or that there really is a real disparity of gender. Instead, it’s an attempt to deflect the criticism by appealing to a broader context and sidestepping the issue as it was raised.
How could the museum think that anyone would be placated by such a statement? Indeed, I think it made things worse because the museum looks intellectually dishonest in front of a core audience that really cares.
My purpose here isn’t to debate the gender issue, but to point out that traditional PR notices are not only ineffective in this new era of many-to-many communication, but can make things worse. And what might have been a real opportunity to meaningfully engage this community has been lost. Just because this conversation didn’t bubble out in public earlier doesn’t mean that people haven’t been having it privately for years. To not confront it honestly and openly now that it has gone public this way does real harm to MoMA.
Not surprisingly, the debate roars on on Saltz’s page, and he’s even created a new group on Facebook Jerry Saltz; Seeing Out Loud to continue to press the issue. A day or so after it was created, it already has 587 members.