CLEVELAND — When I first saw the wall, I didn’t see what was on it. I thought it was blank, a strange aberration in the middle of an otherwise full exhibition. It was only when I moved closer that I started to see them: wavy pencil marks running down the wall in small- to medium-length strokes, like residue from drops of rain. When I stood close, I could see them clearly, their imprecise bends and careful curves conjuring the hands that made them. When I moved back, they became a mass, a barely perceptible pattern interrupting the wall like a field of static. My eyes adjusted to see the marks, and my vision seemed to shift.
So this was what a wall drawing was meant to do.
The piece was Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #46: Vertical lines, not straight, not touching, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall.” LeWitt created it in Paris in 1970, four days after his friend and fellow artist Eva Hesse died in New York from a brain tumor. It was a tribute to her and his first time making a work with “not straight” lines. “I wanted to do something at the time of her death that would be a bond between us, in our work,” he later explained. “So I took something of hers and mine and they worked together well. You may say it was her influence on me.”
This utterly moving story of LeWitt’s homage to Hesse speaks to the power of mutual influence; it should be in all the art history books. Yet, from what I can tell, it’s not. The discussion we hear instead tends to be about LeWitt’s one-way effect on Hesse, how he helped and shaped her work, even in a new documentary about her. Because LeWitt was older and, of course, because he was a man.
“While Hesse’s debts to Minimalism — and specifically LeWitt — are acknowledged in virtually every text on her work, there is scant recognition or analysis of the important ways that her work influenced LeWitt’s, even though he spoke openly about his credit to her,” writes curator Veronica Roberts in the catalogue for Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt. The exhibition — which Roberts organized at the Blanton Museum of Art and is now on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art — aims to rectify that, using a concentrated group of artworks to argue just as much for Hesse’s impact on LeWitt as the other way around.
In the first room of the show, we see Hesse and LeWitt working on parallel tracks in the early 1960s, when the two were also becoming close friends. Both were painting at the time, and you can see them similarly grappling with their chosen medium in the wake of Abstract Expressionism. Arrows and bright, colorful forms appear in their works as they probe the possibilities and limitations of the pictorial surface. Then, a striking pairing of LeWitt’s “Double Wall Piece” (1962) and an untitled work by Hesse (1964) crystallizes the divergence of their paths: LeWitt embraces the Minimalist grid, moving into three dimensions and eliminating all colors except black and white in the process; Hesse — who would soon move into three dimensions, too, and strip away most color — nods to the grid by structuring her piece with a border of small rectangles, but uses collage elements and looser, almost figurative forms set on diagonals to interrupt it.
What appears to be a contrast is, in the the second gallery — the show’s strongest, revealed to be a conversation. The centerpieces of the room are Hesse’s “Accession V” (1968), an open-top metal cube with tubes of black rubber threaded through its holes, like the tentacles of an invasive species covering the walls of a cave, and LeWitt’s “3 x 3 x 3” (1965), a neat and spare, almost antiseptic, white-lattice cube whose faces are broken into three rows of three squares each. Seeing how Hesse and LeWitt used the same means — the Minimalist cube — to their own divergent ends is thrilling: she evokes emotion and imperfection through physicality; he pares physicality down to a perfect, cerebral form.
At the far end of the gallery, a case displays LeWitt’s now famous 1965 letter to Hesse, five pages of playful, unrelenting, and truly inspiring encouragement. “You seem the same as always, and being you, hate every minute of it. Don’t! Learn to say ‘fuck you’ to the world once in a while. You have every right to,” he counsels. The letter seems to reinforce the familiar narrative of one-way influence, positioning LeWitt as the sage mentor, but turn around and you encounter a sight line that challenges it: a view straight through LeWitt’s lattice to Hesse’s cube and, beyond that, to the wall containing LeWitt’s first “not straight” lines. This is a visualization of the show’s thesis, an artistic dialogue made clear: we can see, step by step, how the chain of inspiration moves from him to her and back to him. Or, as art historian Lucy Lippard writes in the excellent catalogue, “Influence among artists is never as specific as art historical shorthand makes it out to be. In the case of Hesse and LeWitt the respect was mutual, and with respect comes dialogue.”
If the second gallery represents the point at which Hesse’s and LeWitt’s lines converge, the third demonstrates both artists continuing on their own trajectories after the crossing is done. With her haunting “Washer Table” (1967), as well as a series of delicate drawings, Hesse goes on bending Minimalism from the inside out; with his electric wall drawings of “not straight” lines and the literal burying of one of his cubes, LeWitt continues to use artistic form to impose order on chaos. The chronology of the show’s wall texts is confusing in this regard — the panel in the second room refers to Hesse’s death, but in the third she is alive and working once again. When we move into the fourth and final gallery, however, she has definitively passed away, and we’re left to confront LeWitt’s late work alone, sussing out Hesse’s influence on it.
To me, her impact was most visible in the remarkably un-LeWittian Scribbles drawings, which he made in the last two years of his life (2005–07). For these pieces, LeWitt scribbled his lines together into thick patterns of waves and stripes. The execution is messy; the edges of the forms fray with hectic lines that look like strands of hair that won’t stay put. The accompanying wall text simply notes that “35 years after Eva Hesse’s untimely death, the ‘not straight’ line still resonates,” but the drawings seem to suggest a deeper recognition, some kind of acceptance by LeWitt of the absurdity of life that Hesse knew so well. Influence is never a straight line, and it can be a tricky thing to trace. But the exhibition convincingly leads us and leaves us here — at a place where LeWitt’s drawings are haunted by Hesse’s ghost.
Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt continues at the Cleveland Museum of Art (11150 East Boulevard, University Circle, Cleveland) through July 31.
Editor’s note: This review was made possible by the author’s art-writer-in-residence period at SPACES.