"Don't ask what it means or what it refers to. Don't ask what the work is. See what it does." - Eva Hesse
Lucy Lippard, art critic and Hesse biographer, called the colors used in An Ear in a Pond "ill-.conceived," but I disagree. When I first looked at the picture I immediately remembered a gorgeous brushed Lucite necklace my mother bought at Bergdorf Goodman in the late 1960s. It consisted of cubes, each shaded from chartreuse to cerise (or raspberry pink, if you prefer) with tiny, round pink beads alternating between each cube. There were matching earrings - dangling (! like the red cord in this picture) single cubes on a string of cerise beads. I wish I knew what happened to them.
When Hesse made An Ear in a Pond it marked the beginning of her most creative period, five years in which her paintings became increasingly sculptural, a period that ended with her premature death from a brain tumor in 1970 at the age of thirty-four. It was first exhibited in Germany in August, 1965 where Hesse and her husband Tom Doyle had moved so he could take a position as artist residence. Hesse was unhappy about leaving New York but it did not keep her from working; no amount of turmoil ever did. An Ear in a Pond is a hybrid, basically a painting but built up into a third dimension with the use of papier mache, especially the pink form of an ear in the lower right section of the picture. Also dangling from the ear is a double string of red wrapped for half its length in cotton cords. This inventive use of materials is difficult to see in a reproduction.
In retrospect it was a prototype of what was to come. We know from a journal entry that Hesse completed this work on April 27 of that year. On April 14 while she was at work on An Ear in a Pond her friend Sol Lewitt wrote to Hesse, "You seem the same as always, and being you. hate very minute of it. Don't! Learn to say 'Fuck you' to the world once in a while."
In her journals Hesse called these works "machine drawings," and likened them to "outer space networks." With hindsight, it is painful to read the journals, so full of self-doubt and questioning about the balance to be sought between the intellectual and the emotional, knowing how powerful the works are and how many artists have been influenced by them.
Image: Eva Hesse An Ear in a Pond, 1965, tempura, enamel paint, papier mache, cotton cord on Masonite, Ursula Hauseer collection, Switzerland.