Sculptor and painter. Among the most innovative and influential artists of the late 1960s, she infused minimalism with expressive and allusive powers while maintaining its formal and conceptual rigor and its unsentimental probity of spirit. Her unorthodox sculptural materials featured soft and malleable substances. In themselves, these posed a challenge to traditional assumptions about the rigid nature of sculpture, even as they also suggested metaphors for the body or for the unstable nature of inner life. Embracing contradictions, Hesse's offbeat sculptures variously evoke order, confusion, sexual desire, loneliness, tenderness, and rage. Hesse was born in Hamburg. Fearing Nazi persecution, her parents sent her as a toddler to an orphanage in Amsterdam, but the family reunited and left for New York in 1939. She was naturalized as a citizen in 1945. Hesse's uneasy beginnings were compounded in childhood. When she was nine, her parents divorced, and the following year her mother committed suicide. The introspective artist wrestled all her life with anxieties about her own history, her personal identity, and the expression of her individuality. She studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the Art Students League, and Cooper Union before entering Yale University in 1957. During the following two years, she completed a BFA in painting. After moving back to New York, in 1961 she married Ohio-born sculptor Tom Doyle (1928– ), who had earned BFA and MFA degrees from Ohio State University. Known especially for large-scale abstract works, he remains an emeritus professor at Queens College where he taught for more than twenty years prior to his retirement in 1992.
In the early 1960s Hesse struggled in paintings and drawings with the conflicts between representation and abstraction, as she also explored the possibilities of her craft with attention to formal and technical issues. When Doyle received an offer of working space in the vicinity of Düsseldorf in 1964, Hesse accompanied him to Germany. While residing there, they also traveled in Europe, and Hesse began work as a sculptor, starting with a sequence of reliefs. After she and Doyle returned in the summer of 1965, they lived almost separate lives, but her sculpture quickly advanced. She also resumed a friendship with Sol LeWitt, who remained a great source of encouragement and introduced her to many of the important younger artists active in New York. Early in 1966 she completed Hang Up (Art Institute of Chicago), which she later regarded as her first mature sculpture, approvingly citing its “absurdity.” The ungainly Hang Up foretells many salient qualities of the work from Hesse's remaining four years. Combining the rectangularity of a wall-mounted square with flaccid tubing that loops out from it, the sculpture acknowledges the minimalist embrace of form while at the same time reacting against it. Further confounding straightforward readings, the square, framelike element is covered with cloth, which softens its impact, while the tube is simultaneously organic, industrial, medical, and sexual. In subsequent work, Hesse often employed minimalist devices such as gridded compositions and modular forms but characteristically subverted them with soft edges, evident handwork, and other contrasting elements. She incorporated a wide variety of idiosyncratic, often synthetic, and sometimes impermanent materials, such as swags of string, prickly wire webs, latex, molded fiberglass, and rubber. These highlighted her drive for an individual form of expression, promoted the period's interest in overturning traditions, played on the tension between art and non-art, and contributed a sensuous materiality. Symptoms of the brain tumor that caused her death appeared as early as 1968, just as her career reached fruition. In 1969 two surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy failed to produce a cure, but despite illness she continued to work productively. While deflecting physical and emotional pain into her art, she avoided confessional, or even directly autobiographical content. More or less an invalid after a third brain operation in March 1970, she died two months later. Although Hesse deferred explicitly feminist intentions to an ambition for excellence, she nevertheless soon served as a beacon for a generation of female artists seeking in the 1970s to incorporate into their work, as she had, their physical and psychological experiences as women.