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Germany 1936 – United States of America 1970

  • United States of America from 1939


1969 Place made: New York, United States of America
Materials & Technique: sculptures, cheesecloth, latex, fibreglass
Primary Insc: No inscriptions
Dimensions: overall 350.0 h x 630.0 w x 109.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1973
Accession No: NGA 74.395.A-H
Subject: Art style: Process art
Image rights: Courtesy the Estate of Eva Hesse, Galerie Hauser & Wirth, Zürich

More detail

Contingent is made of eight banner-like elements that hang from the ceiling. Each component is a large rectangular stretch of latex-covered cheesecloth embedded at each end in a translucent field of fibreglass. The units hang parallel to each other and at right angles to the wall. They appear as ‘skins lifted off the surface of a painting’, magically suspended in midair, a merging of light, colour, and gravity.[1] Contingent blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture; it is, in the artist’s terminology, a ‘non-work’ which exists as a ‘hung painting in another material than painting.’[2] By virtue of its hybrid form, Contingent, more than any of Hesse’s other works, successfully synthesises the qualities of both disciplines.

Hesse began to experiment with latex in the late summer of 1967, and by 1968 was moving back and forth between it and her other favoured material, fibreglass. She was attracted to the neutral colour of latex, and its liquidity, finding it as responsive as paper-maché. Fibreglass, by contrast, is less yielding, and in combination the two substances create a distinct tension. Hesse plays off the light-absorbing and light-transmitting qualities of the two materials and in Contingent uses the heavier fibreglass attachments to pull taut the fragile latex midsections. This imparts a ‘palpable tension’, exaggerated by the ‘poignant contrast of the ephemeral and enduring qualities of the two materials.’[3] In several other large-scale works using latex, Hesse used an infrastructure of mesh or a backing of canvas, often pushing her materials to their limits.[4] She was well aware that latex decays―and loses the very qualities which she so valued―and knew of the discolouration and brittleness of fibreglass. Even though she admitted to feeling a little guilty that her works would not last, the qualities of latex were too appealing, seemingly irresistible.

Contingent is one of the last major works made by Hesse before her death in May 1970, aged 34. Although she had planned at least nine irregular sheets of rubberised cheesecloth and fibreglass, she and her assistants ran out of latex.[5] The individual differences between the banners pleased the artist, and she commented on the ‘divergency’ from one piece to the next, and the way in which they are geometric but not.[6] Hesse was working on Contingent when she collapsed in April 1969; she was admitted to New York Hospital and operated on for a brain tumour. The work’s title suggests its positioning between painting and sculpture, and the interdependence of the materials, but also the marshalling of forces, and their direction towards an event that is likely but not inevitable. The circumstances of its making, the inevitability of its decay, and a title which implies dynamism and uncertainty, all imbue Contingent with a strength which is implicit in the work, as well as an elegiac quality overlaid from the artist’s life.

Lucina Ward[7]
International Painting and Sculpture
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


[1]Bill Barrette, Eva Hesse: sculpture, Timken Publishers, New York, 1989, p 226

[2] For the artist’s statements see Lucy Lippard, in Eva Hesse, New York University Press, New York, 1976, p 131, and Cindy Nemser, Art talk: conversation with 12 women artists, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1975, p 223, and republished as Art talk: conversation with 15 women artists, HarperCollins, New York, 1995, pp 194–95; extracts of Nemser's interview with Hesse―taped in three sessions early in 1970―were published in Artforum, May 1970, and the Feminist Art Journal, Winter 1973

[3]Bill Barrette, 1989, p 226

[4]For Aught 1968 (University of California, Berkeley) she made four rectangular envelope-like units of latex on canvas, and stuffed them with polyethylene sheeting, rope and other materials, including metal grommets. In the monumental Expanded expansion 1969 (Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York) she coated cheesecloth with rubber and used reinforced fibreglass poles for structure and to prop up the drapes. By the time of the chaotic, web-like Right after 1969 (Milwaukee Art Museum), made of resin cast over fibreglass cord and wire hooks, Hesse’s work was remarkable for its almost complete lack of structure and its ethereal qualities

[5]Bill Barrette, 1989, p 226. It is thought that Hesse would have selected from the panels

[6]Cindy Nemser, 1975 pp 220‑21

[7] See also Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond, European and American paintings and sculptures 1870–1970 in the Australian National Gallery, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1992, pp 390–95

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: National Gallery of Australia exhibition SoftSculpture (reference )

Contingent is made of eight banner-like elements that hang from the ceiling. Each of these elements consists of a large rectangular stretch of latex-covered cheesecloth embedded at each end in a translucent field of fibreglass. The banners hang parallel to each other and at right angles to the wall.

Eva Hesse began work on Contingent in November 1968.1 'I started the piece before I got sick', she told Cindy Nemser in an interview early in 1970. 'It was latex rubber over a cloth called ripple cloth which resembles another version of cheesecloth. It has a more interesting weave (I guess I have some kind of interest in material) and reinforced fibreglass — clear.'2

In making the first experimental forms in this material Hesse was helped first by Douglas Johns, a partner in Aegis Reinforced Plastics, and after January 1969 by Martha Schieve, a student assistant from the Great Lakes Colleges Association, who offered her assistance to Hesse after seeing her sculpture Sans 11 exhibited at the Whitney Annual in December 1968.3

A number of test pieces were made using different kinds of cheesecloth and latex.4 Although the test pieces, were already under way in January 1969, Hesse took the unusual step, for her, of putting down her ideas for the work in drawings. She discussed one such drawing, dated 15 January 1969, with Cindy Nemser.5

It was one of the first ideas for the piece. This was the original idea and I changed it. It's the same piece but it's got all sorts of subtle variances. The pieces were much thinner and on either end they had wire mesh underneath the fiberglass and they were going to be on hardware that turns. There were going to be many in a row … I did a whole group [of drawings] at one time — in one or two weeks. I did ten sketches and I think I worked then all out or they are being worked out — every one of them.6

Five pencil drawings on yellow lined paper, now with the Eva Hesse Archives at the Allen Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, are clearly related to Contingent.7 One of these drawings, extensively annotated suggest that Hesse may once have thought of the sculpture as a single piece hung from the wall. Her annotations consider various possibilities: '(1) stand up on lower section holes to attach to wall not necessarily straight can come forward (2) center rubber clutched together with rubber wires or cord, string or mixed [?] nothing form however it becomes naturally (3) top held up or fallen over, either way'. There is also a large drawing, in pencil and ink wash, which shows the arrangement of Contingent close to its final form.8

Hesse was working on Contingent when, on 6 April 1969, she collapsed. She was admitted to New York Hospital and on 18 April was operated on for a brain tumour. She was back in hospital in August undergoing a second operation for the tumour. She emerged from hospital on 15 October. Although too weak to continue her part-time teaching at the School of Visual Arts, she was determined to finish Contingent in time for the exhibition 'Art in Process IV', which was to open at the Finch College Museum of Art in December, less than two months away.

A group of students from the School of Visual Arts came to help: 'Two of the girls sewed pieces of cheesecloth together, because they were too narrow, and the boys rubberized'.9 More regular assistance came from Bill Barrette and Jonathan Singer, with Douglas Johns providing technical advice such as the correct amount of ultraviolet inhibitor to be added to retard the deterioration of the latex. They made five or six of the pieces in October-November, which they added to the previously made pieces, bringing the total to eight. According to Bill Barrette, Hesse 'had planned to have the work consist of at least nine irregular sheets of rubberised cheesecloth and fibreglass, but there was only enough latex for eight'.10 There were already differences between the earlier and later pieces, but these individual differences pleased Hesse:

There are eight of them and they hang fairly regularly but there is great divergency from one to the next … They are geometric but they are not. They are the way they are and the way the material and fiberglass worked out. Maybe a little self-conscious — maybe that was not so good. They are all different sizes and heights, but I said 'Well, if it happens, it happens'. One was too long and I could have cut it off but I said, 'No'. So it will stand different.11

Hesse's health began deteriorating again. She spent eleven days in bed before finally installing Contingent at theFinch College Museum of Art. She managed to attend the opening of 'Art in Process IV' on 11 December 1969, and was delighted with Contingent: 'Anyway, did go to Finch', she noted in the manuscript describing the course of her disease and hospitalisation, 'and it was an opening and I was told how great my piece was. I enjoyed [myself] despite feeling lousy.'12 But she was back in hospital over Christmas and New Year. On 30 March 1970 she underwent her third operation for a brain tumour. In May 1970 an image of Contingent filled the cover of Artforum. But this sudden recognition was, for Hesse herself, brief. She died in New York Hospital on 29 May 1970, aged thirty-four.

For the exhibition of Contingent at the Finch College Museum of Art Hesse wrote the following catalogue statement:

Rubberised, loose, open cloth.
Fiberglass-reinforced plastic.
Began somewhere in November-December, 1968.
Collapsed April 6, 1969. I have been very ill.
Resuming work on piece,
have one complete from back then.
Statement, October 15, 1969, out of hospital, short stay this time,
third time.
Same day students and Douglas Johns began work.

Piece is in many parts.
Each in itself is a complete statement,
together am not certain how it will be.
A fact. I cannot be certain yet.
Can be from illness, can be from honesty
irregular, edges, six to seven feet long.
textures coarse, rough, changing.
see through, non see through, consistent, inconsistent.
enclosed tightly by glass like encasement just hanging there.
then more, others, will they hang there in the same way?
try a continuous flowing one.
try some random closely spaced.
try some distant far spaced.
they are tight and formal but very ethereal, sensitive, fragile.
see through mostly
not painting, not sculpture, it's there though.
I remember I wanted to get to non art, non connotive,
non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non, nothing,
everything, but of another kind, vision, sort.
from a total other reference point, is it possible?
I have learned anything is possible, I know that.
that vision or concept will come through total risk, freedom, discipline.
I will do it.
today another step, on two sheets we put on the glass.
did the two differently
one was cast-poured over hard, irregular, thick plastic;
one with screening, crumpled, they will all be different.
both the rubber sheets and the fiberglass.
lengths and widths.
question how and why in putting it together?
can it be different each time? why not?
how to achieve by not achieving? how to make by not making?
it's all in that.
it's not the new, it is what is yet not known,
thought, seen, touched but really what is not.
and that is.

Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.390.

  1. The following chronology is indebted to the detailed treatment of Contingent given by Lucy Lippard in Eva Hesse, New York New York University Press, 1976, cf. pp.164-5. Also to Eva Hesse's own statement on Contingent which was included in the catalogue Art in Process IV, Finch College Museum of Art, Contemporary Wing, New York, 11 December 1969-26 January 1970 (reproduced in Lippard, p.165) and to Cindy Nemser's interview with Hesse which was taped in three sessions early in 1970. Extracts of this interview were published in Artforum (May 1970) and the Feminist Art Joumal (Winter 1973). The complete interview was published in Cindy Nemser, Art Talk: Conversation with Twelve Women Artists, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975, pp.201 -24, and it is from this publication of the interview that the following quotations are taken.
  2. Nemser, op. cit., p.220.
  3. See Lippard, op. cit., p.164.
  4. A single, long prototype with small fibreglass ends still survives as a separate 'piece'. This piece appeared at auction, Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Art, part 1, 4 May 1987, lot 55. Unsold, it was returned to the collection of Donna Schneier, New York. Hesse also gave a long sheet of latex-covered cheesecloth to Nacmi Spector, a friend who worked at Fischbach Gallery, New York (cited Lippard, op. cit., p.164). This work is still in the collection of Stephen Antonakos and Naomi Spector, New York, and is reproduced in colour in Bill Barrette, Eva Hesse: Sculpture, New York: Timken Publishers, 1989, p.225.
  5. Drawing reproduced in Lippard, op. cit., p.166, fig. 212 (the present whereabouts of the drawing is unknown).
  6. Nemser, op. cit., p.221.
  7. Eva Hesse Archive, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio. Acc. nos 77.52.2-77.52.7. The authors are grateful to Ms Kimberlie Gumz, Acting Curator of Collections and Registrar, Allen Art Museum, Oberlin College, for providing information and photographs of these drawings. Correspondence with the Gallery, 17 June 1986 and 23 November 1987.
  8. Lippard, op. cit., reproduced this drawing, p.167, fig. 211 (the present whereabouts of the drawing is unknown).
  9. Lippard, op. cit. p.164.
  10. Barrette, op. cit., p.226.
  11. Nemser, op. cit., pp.220-1.
  12. Quoted in Robert Pincus-Witten,'Eva Hesse: Post-Minimalism Into Sublime', Artforum, vol. 10, no. 3, November 1971, pp.32-44, p.42.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra