Diaries of Eva Hesse

I can’t find the review of this that made me laugh when I read it, so I’ll paraphrase: “This was a waste of time, all she talked about was her husband.” Which, after reading the 890 pages, I can confirm is patently untrue. This book is a transcription of Hesse’s actual diaries, including class notes and to-do lists, and sketches and doodles are marked in the text as [sketches]. No editing, beyond fixing certain spelling errors; capitalization and punctuation remain as Hesse wrote them. Her sister, Helen, donated the journals to Oberlin College in 1977, including sheaves of loose paper that was wedged inside. But first and foremost, these are diaries, very personal recollections that do not strive to do anything other than release the tension she felt and help her grapple with the world. Yes, she mentions relationships throughout the diaries, but our worlds are made up of these threads. Also included are her thoughts on art, problems she was facing with her work, dealing with teaching and having to come up with money, dealing with BB gun fire at her windows and neighboring men who she called the masturbators. She was a reader, and included snippets of works that moved her. As her work matured, she wrote out ideas of things she wanted to try, lists of her work’s titles and exhibitions she was in. From this, I learned that she received $1300 in compensation cash from Germany for her grandparents’ time in concentration camps!

On the drudgery of art school (1955, she’s 19 years old):

My morning class was incredibly dull with nothing accomplished while the instructor nervously jumped around explaining, demonstrating, developing a few crummy pictures. I hadn’t cared about the lone bottles in the window when I snapped the shutter nor when the darn thing was in the developer. Valuable time, which it should be spent over such stupid idiotic fetishes of a neurotic instructor. It is not a course of learning or aesthetics so at least the technical knowledge of it could be put over. His encompassing of every nothing makes it impossible to concentrate so one doesn’t acquire the necessary few isolated facts.

Notes that appear as poetry as she contemplates self (1955):

How do I proceed

Early wrestling with what it means to be an artist (1957, 21 years old):

The essential forces directing me presently are motivated by the desire of being a painter. The word painter connotes significant meaning, a way of approaching life, living fully not merely existing. A painting must be approached with fully awakened eyes and mind. Conscious action determines the actual surface. This comes about after premeditation of ideas which are brought to the canvas. Once a mark is made the canvas presents itself and the painter must deal with it without preconceived ideas… The degree to which I become a “painter” is synonymous with what I make of myself as a person.

As a 23 year old, asserting her independence, but you also get a hint of the psychological issues she struggles with (1959):

I feel very strongly that I must be on my own; stand up as an individual with the responsibilities of my existence and future on my own shoulders. This is not a momentous decision, I know my reasons… I know at this moment I can and am feeling much better am capable of handling a rich life of study and experiences.

Same year (1959), her motivation to create is getting stronger:

I have so much stored inside me recently, I need to paint… I am overflowing also with an energy of kind needed in investigating ideas, and things I think about. This is a positive creative notion very likely I want also to encourage, develop, bring out search into this thing of maturity—to be a big person—mainly as a person, then as a painter finally as a whole being.

And stronger (1959); this is also where we learn of Germany’s reparation payment:

My job is yet rather meaningless and boring for me and I have held on thus long mainly as a temporary means to an end. I am progressing at a rate I had not anticipated so much may come to a climax rather shortly. I intend to really begin working on my own and hope shortly to attempt at least a few months trial of devoting myself to painting alone. During or at the end of that time I shall approach the galleries———and or the fellowships available for money & time. It is not all as unrealistic as it sounds since I have just received 1300 from Germany, money issued to me as compensation for my grandparents’ stay in concentration camp.

Months later, she looks back and notes her progress (1959). She has become a reader! and a painter:

My own development has progressed rapidly this last yr. I have grown quite independent, psychologically as well, and have settled much of the unnecessary turmoil so persistently afire within. I have come to learn loneliness but also to live with it. I had been alone previously, but sought out others; now I live with it alone.

I have become a painter, working in isolation, constructively even productively! I have become a reader. The thing I’ve always wanted most, but was in too great a conflict with myself to do. I could not turn out of myself—of my conflicts to concentrate on the outside world with any real attention.

Skipping ahead many years, she’s been married to that loser, Tom, for 2 years but this is just before they leave for their productive year abroad in Germany. Entry from May 1964 wherein she compares writing and art:

May 7.
Waiting for a train, deserted platform, bowery station, just odors.
Now I want to write, this media of expression always thrilled me. Because I think if you write you must be intelligent! However there must be bad writers. Then I though, one must know oneself to write—and that always intrigued me most of all. The idea of honesty is so challenging, much more so in words than pictures. It can be understood more clearly, be defined and comprehended.

Now in Kettwig, Germany, she’s reading Simone De Beauvoir’s Second Sex:

Simone D.B. writes—woman is object—has been made to feel this from first experiences of awareness. She has always been made for this role. It must be a conscious determined act to change this. Mine is not as much the acceptance of object role as it was insecurities from a broken, sick, unsupportive home. I survived, not happily but with determination, goals, and an idea of a better way. Now cope with it, no longer hide from the consequences but face them. To face them, give more in all aspects of living + working.

Risk nothing <–> nothing gained.

She gains more confidence even as she suffers depression and inability to work. She realizes she likes to be alone. “I am mostly disappointed in the company of others.” Later in this Nov 22, 1964 entry, she quotes a few passages from Second Sex:

* (p. 391 Second Sex)
“In boldly setting out towards ends, one risks disappointments; but one also obtains unhoped-for results; caution condemns to mediocrity.”

* (392 S.S.)

What woman essentially lacks today for doing great things is forgetfulness of herself; but to forget oneself it is first of all necessary to be firmly assured that now and for the future one has found oneself.

I love this woman! She’s also reading Zelda’s Save Me the Waltz, which she quotes:

“At night she sat in the window too tired to move, consumed by a longing to succeed as a dancer. It seemed that reaching her goal, she would drive the devils that had driven her—that, in proving herself, she would achieve that peace which she imagined went only in surety of one’s self———that she would be able, through the medium of dance, to command her emotions, to summon love, or pity or happiness at will…”

Just substitute painting———
that is all.

Not surprisingly, her marriage with Tom breaks apart. When they’re back in NYC, he abandons her for another woman whom Sol LeWitt (Eva’s bestie) calls “Total Zero.” Eva names one of her pieces after this girlfriend “in homage to her blankness.” In a 1965 entry, Eva notes that Sol says Eva’s too much competition for Tom. “Too much of a person”

She struggles with the death of this marriage along with the death of her father. Tom snubs her by not ever calling or writing a letter of condolence about this very important loss, despite having a studio directly across the street from her. She struggles with the loss of Tom for way too long, but we’ve all been there. In a 1966 entry, “The conflict now of woman + artist does exist. ———why—because I feel I must try harder because of failure in marriage.”

In another 1966 entry, a rough idea for a piece that works as poetry for me.


lines, dots


light to dark

cross hatch

Spoiler alert, she eventually purges Tom from her system and gets some major recognition in the art world. But also dies, way too young, from a brain tumor.