This text is a treatment for an audio essay, a study in be-holding Sans II (1968), a sculptural work by Eva Hesse in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). To be-hold, as I have written elsewhere, reclaims the etymological root of ‘beholding’, before the term’s co-option as ocular observance. In Old English, bihalden denoted deep regard, the conjoining of bi- ‘thoroughly’, and -halden ‘to guard, to preserve, to maintain, to take care, to hold.’1 My practice of be-holding is an ally of conservation practice, preserving and carrying stories of embodied encounters with artworks, and tending to sensory nuances not usually disclosed.
By framing this text as a treatment for an audio script, I intend a blatant political position: an insistence that more can be done to offer diverse perceptual entry points into our creative conversations. The dominant structures of publishing are so deeply bound to a narrow idea of a normal perceiving and cognitive body, that there is an urgency to turn to blind, Deaf, autistic and non-verbal mentors to innovate sensorial writing and publishing. This project requires a rejection of capitalist models of efficiency in favour of redundancy. Rather than a singular mode of messaging, build in multiplicity through parallel texts that convey similar thematic content with perceptual variations. This manifesto has arisen out of friction. Invitations to author print essays grate against my blind-ish practice. By grounding print essays in audio narratives, I hope to sustain the privileging of blind readers, while deploying the scripting and transcribing process to affirm Deaf readers.
In the context of this issue orbiting constructs of care, and the tragic circumstances of Eva Hesse’s illness and death, the term ‘treatment’ could suggest medical recuperation. However, like many disabled writers, I have a skeptical relationship with the medical industry, and reject insinuations that the quality and value of a life relies on medical repair. The earliest known usage of ‘treat’ in the fourteenth century was not in the medical sense, but as an intransitive verb meaning ‘to discuss terms of accommodation’, or ‘to deal with a matter in writing or speech’. An intransitive verb is not transactive; it does not need to act upon an external object, but instead describes the actions of the subject. Through this text, I announce a refiguring of ‘treatment’, not as a proscribed program of repair for an externalised other, but as a fundamentally reflexive commitment to access within writing and publishing. An archaic cognate of treat is behandle meaning ‘to touch with the hands’ or ‘to discuss’. Enfolding these concepts elaborates a discursive structure of care for artworks and audiences. Intimate be-holding encounters may bring close attention to an artwork in one moment in its durational life; these private encounters may be shared with public audiences through ekphrastic audiodescription; and with be-handling, treatments may be crafted that mingle scripting and transcribing, opening space for trans-sensory conversations about how we experience artworks.
Cue Audio. Narrator. HOLDING EVA HESSE
Fade in to murmuring. Overlay footsteps and voices:
Do you have any personal thoughts about the shifting legacy of artists?
Based on the attrition of the artworks? ... I haven’t given it much thought — to consider how someone will be known in the future based on what evidence remains ...
Narrator. Wednesday 19 July 2016. We huddle in one of the third-floor galleries of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There is a quorum of blindness amongst us, and a quorum of SFMOMA staff. The museum is closed to the public, but we are not alone. In an adjacent gallery, an on-camera interview is taking place. We have been given permission to proceed with our study of Sans II by Eva Hesse — as long as we speak in hushed tones. We settle close to head conservator Michelle Barger, who has cared for Sans II since the work entered SFMOMA’s collection in 1999:
It was made in 1968 during that time period in her career where she was branching into larger scale sculpture. She was trained as a painter at Yale, and in the mid 1960s had a moment where she shifted towards doing three dimensional work. She probably would still describe it as painting ... For the first time she moved into using polyester resin and fiberglass. It was also the first time she went outside of her studio and worked with a fabricator ... and then it ended up being somebody who worked with her for the rest of her life, which was about three more years after that ... It’s made up of two rows of six, I’m going to call them windows, three-dimensional windows ... sort of box-like units that are stacked, the top row on top of the bottom, recessed toward the walls with the sides coming toward us ... It’s about three and a half feet high, seven feet wide ...
When Sans II was first exhibited, at Fischbach Gallery in New York, the work spanned five times this length.
When Hesse made it, she made these five units and they were on display in a gallery show she had, one piece with five units. They were displayed all together, in a horizontal line. But no institution committed to owning all five and so it was sold separately. The Whitney purchased two, and the other two went to private collectors. The fifth one, she traded to her dentist for dental work. So her dentist had it in his home, on view in a suburb of New York City. And that unit stayed at his house, until it came into this collection.
When SFMOMA mounted a retrospective of Eva Hesse in 2002, the five units were reunited and installed side-by-side in their original, horizontal formation.
It’s supposed to look like it’s a continuous strip, so you want them as close as possible. Of course, we had couriers from each institution who were really nervous about you handling their work, and getting it too close ... I call it the Quintuplets Study, because these were out in the world and on their own and then brought together and you could see evidence of the lives that they led in different locations. Each part has had its own life over the years and so when it comes together, they don’t all look the same again. They’re varying in degree of yellowing and dust. The two that are in the best condition are the two that the Whitney had purchased.
The Sans II in front of us is a deep amber colour, like sugar caramel. We are told that it was the most yellowed of the quintuplets, but not the dirtiest.
It wasn’t in a controlled museum environment. The private dentist had it on view all the time. This tacky surface, if you get dust on it, it really is hard to get off, it just embeds in it.
Jill Sterrett, SFMOMA’s Director of Collections, chimes in
There’s years of New York City suburb dust stuck onto that tacky surface.
Georgina Kleege tucks her white cane under her arm, and poses a question to those amongst us with some degree of visual perception:
Where does your eye go first, looking at this piece? What attracts your gaze?
Layer polyphonic responses: // ‘... the intersection of several of the boxes toward the centre, because it creates a pinwheel effect, and also is suggestive of honeycomb. It’s the ripple in the otherwise relatively regular grid that’s the little difference that draws the eye ...’ // ‘... these curves and divots and the creases ...’ // ‘... the work has presence on the wall, but there’s light reflecting through it and bouncing back from the wall ...’ // ‘... the word that comes to mind is dappled — dappled light, or you look out a window and you see a tree that has light coming through with areas of patches of leaf. Because where I’m standing now, you feel that from the shadows created by the deep walls. There’s shadows in the thickness of the resin ...’
Kleege changes tack:
I was interested to know that she started as a painter, and still continued to think of herself as a painter, even though this is theoretically a 3D work ... Visually, does it look like a painting? At what distance, do you know that you’re looking at a 3D piece?
[Give space to the long silence that followed.] This question was more difficult, drilling beyond superficial visual observation, to probe underlying assumptions about what makes a painting a painting, what makes a sculpture a sculpture.
Layer voices: // ‘... the viscosity of resin, it can be brushed onto fibreglass like paint ...’ // ‘... Hesse favoured the tools of a painter, even as she explored sculptural mass ...’ // ‘... the stacked boxes of Sans II resemble a painting in reverse, its stretcher bars exposed ...’
By orienting the descriptive exercise through blindness, Kleege has modelled one of the methods we have been trialling by which blindness can nuance or challenge visual observation. Where possible, we prefer to move beyond the visual to claim space for tactile aesthetics. Conservator Michelle Barger has been a crucial gatekeeper in our quest to touch works, the ultimate arbiter on what kinds of handling may be possible in each instance.
I remember being surprised at how light Sans II is, but also really nervous because it talks to you when you move it. It becomes quite brittle and just moving it, it sort of is crinkly, which makes you nervous initially. Then when you get to know the piece and you realise that’s a part of how it talks and how it acts, you just handle it in a way that supports it ...
Then the words we have been waiting for:
I think we can do some touching today ...
We lean across the riser, which is designed to dissuade an intimate approach. The walls of Sans II feel paper thin, but in some places we feel thick layers of fibreglass and resin. We whisper tactile notes:
More brittle than I thought. I thought it’d be more rubbery.
Our fingertips find the rippled pinwheel joints at the junctions of the grid, and bubbles and tiny holes along some of the walls. Michelle Barger explains that the fiberglass is non-directional, matted strands of glass, and that there are pockets of air in the mesh, so the holes form where the resin has not been worked into the mesh enough:
The holes are areas of resistance.
We sniff the surface of Sans II, but there is only a faint smell. Barger notes that the smell is intense when Sans II has been in storage:
When we bring the crate in to install it, you open the crate, and you get poof, a hit of polyester. I have lost my sense of smell, but the crew always talks about you get this oof, you get hit with some chemical smell of how it’s still reacting and off gassing.
Jill Sterrett recommends we touch the glassy texture of the flat back panels, where the work is more saturated with resin:
This is where Hesse’s moulds would have been.
Hesse created the first plaster mould herself, then gave it to her fabrication assistant Doug Johns to create the resin units. Johns still has the original mould in his studio in Topanga Canyon, Southern California, where he makes sexually explicit artworks. When SFMOMA’s conservators were researching Hesse’s materials, in preparation for the retrospective show, they invited Doug Johns to demonstrate the process of creating Sans II, by making a mockup, using the original mould.
He wrapped the mould in the fiberglass, and then bound it with resin. So painted resin, with fiberglass holding the resin together, forms the structure of each one of these individual boxes, then he uses the same process of fiberglass and resin to join them, and that process of joining is what creates the rippley edges. The thing that was so striking when we did the mockup is that we saw the clear, water-white resin, what it looked like when it was first made. It’s translucent.
The day after the show closed, we took our four panel mockup and installed it on the wall right next to this piece. And it was so profound to see, because when you held it, it still had presence, but when you put it on the wall, it just disappears. Hesse talked famously about nothingness, and you then saw this work sort of disappear on the wall ... So that was the really big surprise, how clear this actually was ... Seeing the mockup made you rethink everything that this sculpture had been ...
In Hesse’s diary of 1967, she wrote: ‘compartment, interval, void. Sans: without, A few pages later, she wrote: ‘1. SANS: < L. absentee, absence. (under influence of sine, without) (archaic or poetic, without).’ A year later, in her statement for the Chain Polymers exhibition where Sans II was originally exhibited, Hesse wrote: ‘I would like the work to be non-work. This means it would find its way beyond my preconceptions ... It is my main concern to go beyond what I know and what I can know ... It is something, it is nothing.’
The translucent mock-up suggests that Sans II would have originally hovered between something and nothing. Hesse had cast an empty form, and then serialised the void, creating a work shimmering on the edge of invisibility. But as the quintuplet units of Sans II have transitioned to a rich amber patina, they have accrued visual density. They have become more object-like and lost the suggestion of nothingness. And this amber quality has not only displaced the memory of Sans II’s pale translucence, but has become mythologised as integral to the work. So much so, that when SFMOMA chose a cover image for the retrospective catalogue, they chose a pinwheel join of Sans II, and heightened the amber colour.
Hesse had anticipated the impermanence of her materials: ‘At this point I feel a little guilty about when people want to buy it. I think they know but I want to write them a letter, and say it’s not going to last ...’ Ann Temkin has spoken of the quandaries facing curators and conservators, asking, ‘Is the condition of the piece so far from the artist’s intention that it is better to leave it unseen and make do with photographs of it in good condition? Does one attempt to remake the objects or portions of them, sacrificing literalness to present something true to the spirit of the original? Or does one accept the aging of the sculpture as part of its meaning and present it as it now exists?’
So how can we expand our concepts of conservation to account for the immaterial?
How can we better care for and preserve the stories of works as they age?
Perhaps Hesse’s own poetics of erasure offers a response. In 1964, Hesse made a series of lyrical collages and drawings in which she brushed over text with a wash of white pigment. Hesse’s close friend Gioia Timpanelli has described this use of white as transparent cancellation, like a postmark struck over a stamp that documents the placement and the relationship between both marks, while negating neither.
Our encounter with Sans II washes tactile notes across preceding memories.
Even the SFMOMA curators present have never experienced the piece in this way, including Tanya Zimbardo:
I never knew that one could be, with permission, able to touch this, so there’s this sort of pleasure. Also, it felt like how I imagined, which isn’t always the case. It had a kind of delicate, almost crystal kind of quality to it.
Layer voices: // ‘... it talks to you ...’ // ‘... curves and divots and the creases ...’ // ‘... glassy ...’ // ‘... glossy ...’ // ‘... it creaks ...’ // ‘... the resin has formed a surface where it’s touching the mould, the texture will tell you also which was facing in and what was out ...’ // ‘... brushstrokes ...’ // ‘... in some places there’s multiple layers of fiberglass and resin, so it’s quite thick. And then around the edges it’s paper thin ...’ // ‘... feel the holes ...