Documentary about maverick artist Eva Hesse to be shown at NJ Film Festival

Artist Eva Hesse is the subject of a documentary that will be shown at the New Jersey International Film Festival.

Artist Eva Hesse is the subject of a documentary that will be shown at the New Jersey Film Festival in New Brunswick, Sept. 18.

“I will abandon restrictions and curbs imposed on myself,” Eva Hesse once pledged. “I will strip me of superficial dishonesties. I will paint against every rule.”

And she did, kind of (she actually ended up becoming more of a sculptor than a painter). She was one of the artists responsible for making New York City a hotbed of artistic innovation in the 1960s, and her fascinating life story is told in the documentary, “Eva Hesse,” which will screen at the fall installment of the New Jersey Film Festival in New Brunswick on Sept. 18.

As directed by Marcie Begleiter, this is a very thorough documentary — a fairly long film (one hour and 48 minutes) about an artist with a sadly shortened career. (Hesse died at the age of 34, in 1970, of a brain tumor.) Many of Hesse’s friends, relatives and fellow artists are still alive, and all of them, it seems, have a lot to say about her. Plus Hesse left behind unpublished diaries that Begleiter was able to use,  with a camera scanning the sentences and actress Selma Blair reading the words.

Hesse was born in Germany, but her family got her out of the country when she was still very young. She traveled to the Netherlands, and then to England and, finally, to the United States. Always focused on becoming an artist, she enrolled at the Pratt Institute of Design at 16. She didn’t like that school’s regimented instruction system, though, and dropped out, finding teachers more to her liking at Cooper Union and then Yale University.

Eva Hesse's "Untitled (Rope Piece)," made toward the end of her life, is currently owned by the Whitney Museum in New York.

Eva Hesse’s “Untitled (Rope Piece),” made toward the end of her life, is currently owned by the Whitney Museum in New York.

She was influenced by the minimalism that was popular at the time, but she was always a maverick. Her work had a warmth, an eccentricity and an element of chaos that most minimalist works lacked, and she used substances such as fiberglass and latex at a time when few other sculptors did.

She married sculptor Tom Doyle, but by all accounts, including Doyle’s own — he was interviewed for this movie — he wasn’t ready to settle down, and they got divorced after just a few years. After that, she threw herself into her work and was amazingly productive, until she fell ill.

One of the best things about the movie is that it shows what a working artist’s life is really like, with frustrating periods of self-doubt and then bursts of creativity. It also shows how difficult it was to be a female artist in the ’60s, when many of the powers-that-be in the art world were still not ready to take women seriously.

I think Hesse would have liked what Begleiter has done. There’s no melodrama or hyperbole here, just a clear-eyed look at a unique, complex life, and none of the “superficial dishonesties” Hesse swore to avoid.

“Eva Hesse” screens Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. at Voorhees Hall at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, after “Out of the Box,” a 38-minute documentary about another artist, Seymon Pinkhasov, and a Q&A session with that film’s director, Seymon Pinkhasov. The screening is co-sponsored by Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum.

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