Laura Conrad Mandel

Trauma and Hope in Art: My Cousin Artist Eva Hesse

Untitled, 1970. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from Eli and Edythe L. Broad, the Mrs. Percy Uris Purchase Fund, and the Painting and Sculpture Committee © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth; photograph by Sheldan C. Collins

Recently, as I spoke to an audience of museum colleagues and government leaders at the White House Summit to Counter Antisemitism, I said “I stand before you today because my grandmother, Jeanette Conrad – Hete Lowenstein as she went by in Germany – escaped Nazi Europe on the very last ship out of the ports in 1939. Her cousin Eva Hesse was rescued on a Kindertransport months before. What many may not realize is that it’s the antisemitic hateful roots of Eva Hesse’s upbringing that led her to become one of the leading artists of the 1960’s American post-minimalist / post-war art movement. Her body of work was her own visual exploration of understanding hate and how it affects people. I’m here today because like my cousin Eva, I believe the arts provide a different language for us to grapple with challenging issues.”

My grandma often mentioned her cousin Eva. But it wasn’t until I was 19, in art school studying the leading artists of the twentieth century and stumbling upon a photo in an art history book that looked eerily like my aunt, that I understood the significance of my cousin’s role in the art world.

Eva was famous for saying, “Art is not about making things pretty, it’s about making things real.” What was real for Eva was the trauma of escaping the Holocaust and coming to NY in 1938 at the age of three. What was real was reuniting with her mother in NY, just to lose her to suicide when she was ten years old. What was real for her was a brain tumor that ended her life at the age of 34.

My grandma usually talked about her cousin Ruth, Eva’s mom, so I’ve relied on Google to better understand Eva’s story and career. In reading the Jewish Women’s Archive page on Eva recently, this line stood out for me: “While in Germany on a sponsored work stay in 1964, Hesse had her artistic breakthrough – she turned away from painting and began experimenting with plaster and string.”

The shift from paint to string is more than a simple material shift. That shift would become what defined her career, prompted by a return to her childhood home, to the site of the Holocaust and epicenter of her trauma. Paint is heavily reliant on color to evoke specific emotions. Plaster and string are the most bland and mundane of materials, and therefore more challenging to an artist. Eva is remembered because she intentionally and methodically elevated the simplicity of the plaster and string to express a level of raw emotion that had not before been seen in the art world. Eva didn’t paint her experience as blue, she showed us in material and form what blue felt like.

Just before her death in 1970, Eva spoke with Cindy Nemser of ARTFORUM and said:

“It’s so personal … Art and work and art and life are very connected and my whole life has been absurd. There isn’t a thing in my life that has happened that hasn’t been extreme – personal health, family, economic situations. My art, my school, my personal friends were the best things I ever had. And now back to extreme sickness – all extreme – all absurd. Now art being the most important thing for me, other than existing and staying alive, became connected to this, now closer meshed than ever, and absurdity is the key word … It has to do with contradictions and oppositions. In the forms I use in my work the contradictions are certainly there. I was always aware that I should take order versus chaos, stringy versus mass, huge versus small, and I would try to find the most absurd opposites or extreme opposites …”

Eva is known for her pioneering art, and for that she is remembered. But I also hope she will be remembered for the Talmudic depth to her work, for her commitment to harnessing her own trauma to create art that served as a launching pad for exploration of the human condition. In this moment of deep global pain and trauma, exacerbated by polarizing social media, I see my cousin Eva’s voice and approach as one we need.

About the Author
Laura Conrad Mandel is an artist, entrepreneur, mom, and founding Executive Director of Boston’s Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts). She currently serves as Chair of the Board of the Council of American Jewish Museums and as co-chair of the Boston Lyric Stage Advisory Council.
Related Topics
Related Posts