Marcie Begleiter's Eva Hesse surveys the life of the paradigmatic post-Minimalist sculptor largely through giving voice to Hesse's diary entries. But it relies too heavily on ventriloquism to recapitulate the high and low points of the artist, who was 34 when she died of a brain tumor in 1970: First-time filmmaker Begleiter enlists Selma Blair to read from Hesse's diaries and correspondence. The actress's delivery -- too soft and too theatrical --banalizes a pioneering figure who, per Whitney curator Elisabeth Sussman, set out "to make an art on the borderline of uncontrollability."
Sussman is one of several talking, mostly graying heads assembled to expound further on the significance of Hesse's use of latex, fiberglass, and other industrial materials in her sculptures, which broke away from Minimalism's hard edges and rigid grids. Their words add welcome gravitas, counteracting to some extent the mawkishness wrought by Blair's aural infelicities.
It would appear that little footage exists of Hesse, who is rendered in Begleiter's film via a series of photographs, still images that nonetheless convey the artist's dynamism. We see a tantalizingly brief segment from Dorothy Beskind's short film of Hesse, shot in her studio during the winter of 1967–68, and yearn for more. Just as fleeting is the snippet of the audio from Hesse's interview with art historian Cindy Nemser, which would be published in Artforum in May 1970, the month the sculptor died. After enduring Blair's muted melodramatics for a good 90 minutes, Hesse's actual voice comes as a total delight: a tough New Yorkese completely at odds with her interpreter's inflections. The surfaces of Hesse's sculptures may be soft, but nothing about her was.