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'Gutsiness right from the get-go': Documentary shines light on artist Eva Hesse

As if she knew that her time on Earth would be brief, Eva Hesse worked diligently and prolifically.

In 1972, two years after her death at age of 34, New York’s Guggenheim mounted a memorial exhibition to the artist that filled the entire museum. Her career was in full, ascendant swing when she died of cancer, and appreciation for her inspired use of materials, including latex, plastics and fiberglass, has only deepened over the years.

With no English-language biography of the influential sculptor, Marcie Begleiter’s new documentary is the first to focus solely on Hesse. A storyboard artist making her directing debut, Begleiter has streamlined the young artist's life story while placing the canvases and sculptures front and center in “Eva Hesse,” a vibrant, affecting piece of filmmaking that’s sure to widen Hesse's following.

Through archival stills and interviews with artists who were Hesse’s friends — and, in the case of sculptor Tom Doyle, her husband — Begleiter creates a vivid sense of her drive, magnetism and, crucially, her working methods.

Her older sister, Helen Hesse Charash, a key figure in the film, says with a proud smile that, for all her artistic sensitivity, Eva had “gutsiness right from the get-go.” Together, they left Germany on a Kindertransport train. Eva was still a toddler. The girls eventually were reunited with their parents. Striving for absurdity, Hesse never directly addressed the Holocaust in her provocatively playful work. But the shadow it cast is fully felt in the film’s astute narrative.

With girlish passion morphing into a sense of hard-won wisdom, actor Selma Blair reads well chosen selections from Hesse’s letters and journals. It’s impossible not to wish for Hesse’s voice, especially after hearing her New York accent in an interview snippet, mellifluous and resolute.

Aural considerations aside, there’s no question that Hesse’s artistic voice comes through powerfully. Lighting Hesse’s pieces in ways that conservation-minded museums cannot, cinematographer Nancy Schreiber brings their organic textures into thrilling focus. “Art doesn’t last,” Hesse insisted. But in her pieces, the impact of the ephemeral couldn’t be clearer.

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'Eva Hesse'

No rating. 

Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

Playing: Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; and on weekend mornings: Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Claremont 5, Claremont

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