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In the documentary “Eva Hesse,” a portrait of the artist in 1963. Credit Barbara Brown/Zeitgeist Films
In 1964, when Eva Hesse went to Germany on a fellowship with her husband, the sculptor Tom Doyle, she was a talented 28-year-old painter with a blue-chip education (Cooper Union and Yale) and a foothold in the art world. By the time of her death six years later, from brain cancer, she was widely recognized as a major artist, a maker of category-confounding forms — abstract and visceral, minimalist and feminist, sculptural and painterly — that have lost none of their power in the decades since.
“Eva Hesse ,” Marcie Begleiter’s conscientious and moving documentary, tells the full story of its subject’s tragically foreshortened life, but it focuses on those years of artistic emergence, a period of rapid development and furious productivity, with few parallels in the history of art. Hesse herself is both a ubiquitous presence in the film and something of a specter — an animating spirit and a ghost haunting the frames. She is remembered by friends, colleagues and her sister, Helen Hesse Charash. Her work is analyzed by curators and critics. Mr. Doyle is on hand to reflect, tactfully and ruefully, on the ups and downs of their relationship.
Everyone is middle-aged or older, mostly dressed in 21st-century studio or academic mufti. Hesse, in contrast, is a revenant from a cooler, smokier, scruffier decade, eternally and intriguingly youthful. At times resembling the actress Dakota Johnson, she appears mainly in black-and-white still photographs, some of which are digitally massaged so that they seem to move ever so slightly. Her voice is heard once, in a snippet of audiotape. But Ms. Begleiter has made ample and judicious use of Hesse’s letters and diaries, passages of which are read in voice-over by Selma Blair. These selections, along with the pictures, create a powerful illusion of immediacy, a sense of the personality disclosed and obscured by the art.
Hesse in 1966 in another image from the film. Credit Gretchen Lambert/Zeitgeist Films
Like many creative people, Hesse veered from heroic confidence to crippling doubt, but in every phase, she seemed capable of remarkable clarity, humor and warmth. Among her closest confidants was Sol LeWitt, the scholarly, sphinxlike Conceptualist visionary who was the subject of an excellent documentary by Chris Teerink a few years ago. Their correspondence is clearly a remarkable trove of art world gossip, fraternal feeling and critical insight, and it provides this film its emotional and intellectual grounding. (LeWitt’s parts are read by the actor Patrick Kennedy.) But the drama of “Eva Hesse” is a story of mastery and self-discovery, of a woman asserting her autonomy in a male-dominated professional realm.
Hesse was born to a Jewish family in Hamburg in 1936. She and her sister left Germany on a Kindertransport train. Their parents managed to escape the Nazis as well, but many of their relatives were killed during World War II. and the girls’ mother committed suicide in 1946. Though the Holocaust was never an overt theme in Hesse’s work, Ms. Begleiter traces the shadow it cast on her life, especially during her sojourn in Germany with Mr. Doyle.
The film is frank about Hesse’s personal life without being prurient, and it conveys a vivid sense of the sexual politics of the New York art world in the 1960s, a scene still dominated by the myth of the heroic male creator. Hesse’s response was to cultivate her own heroism, a powerfully idiosyncratic style that could be earthy, delicate, whimsical and sublime, sometimes all at once. “Eva Hesse” pays a gratifying amount of attention to the thinking and the techniques that produced her art, and invites viewers to contemplate it further. It’s like a comprehensive exhibition catalog or a thorough critical essay — an indispensable aid to understanding and appreciating a fascinating artist.
“Eva Hesse” is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes.