In Jorge Luis Borges' story "The Zahir," an Argentine fashionista discovers that the cylindrical hats she bought during the war from a black marketer "had never been worn in Paris at all! — consequently they were not hats, but arbitrary, unauthorized eccentricities." While we in the art world know that anything a milliner calls a hat is a hat, that old need to map out the boundaries of art remains, even as restless artists hot-foot it back and forth across borders.
Despite her early death at age 34 in 1970, American sculptor Eva Hesse is considered one of the most important and innovative artists of the 1960s. So the Eva Hesse: Studiowork exhibition of various "test pieces" (her term), "studio leavings" (friend Sol Lewitt's), or "sub-objects" and "thought-experiments" (curator Briony Fer's) gets us going again. (Many of the pieces are in Berkeley Art Museum's permanent collection, gifts of the artist's sister, Helen Charash; the co-curator is Barry Rosen of the Hesse Estate.) We're all familiar with horror stories about unusual artworks destroyed by unwitting janitors or customs agents; showing Hesse's "nice leftovers," to use artist Gabriel Orozco's term, risks the opposite, "the art historian's nightmare, to find that the objects that you have taken for art are really the objects discarded in the trash," said Fer. Incidentally, Hesse's friend, the sculptor Ruth Vollmer, filched a discarded sculpture from Giacometti's studio trash; was that art if he denied it?
However, so unassailable is Hesse's sterling reputation, and so seductive her tragic myth, that finding fault with this or that experimental piece seems a petty exercise. The curved, planar papier-mâché vessel fragments, delicately suggestive of fallen leaves; the crumpled latex boxes and pouches with their dangling tendrils and umbilical cords; the black boulder-brains hanging in their scrotal fishing nets; and the various weird, funny excrescences that another artist friend, Mel Bochner, likened to plastic vomit — all these make for an entertaining, if slightly diffuse show, reminding us of Hesse's powerful canonical works, now in jeopardy due to the use of impermanent latex and fiberglass.
Hesse would be 75 this year had she lived. What she achieved in a career as short as Van Gogh's — one decade — is staggering. Hesse, in a 1970 interview: "I have no fear. I ... take risks .... My attitude is ... totally unconservative. It's total freedom and willingness to work. I'm willing really to walk on the edge, and if I haven't achieved it, that's where I want to go." Studiowork runs through April 10 at Berkeley Art Museum (2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley). 510-643-6494 or BAMPFA.berkeley.edu