A post-minimalist artist, Eva Hesse (1936-1970, American, born in Germany) completed a broad range of sculptural work within a prolific window of 5 years, her style and materials rapidly progressing. Vertiginous Detour (1966, collection Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) is a great example of her departure from the early wall reliefs of 1964/65, where she continued working with tightly wound rope, but now played with gravity, form, weight, and shifted to a grayscale color palette. This piece consists of a papier-mâché sphere – wrapped in ropes, painted, and coated in polyurethane – held in a net, and hung from the ceiling. The sculpture is lightweight despite its heavy appearance and is in constant suspension. A holistic approach of the care of this complex sculpture was considered through researching past interventions and looking towards the future, through the lens of current research and ethical conversations.
Upon assessing the sculpture in preparation for an upcoming exhibition at the Hirshhorn, traces of multiple – sometimes undocumented – previous interventions were discovered. Examination of these historic repairs revealed structurally unstable and failing mends with incongruous materials, including visible uncoated wire and epoxy. These repairs were failing from weak bonds (risking dissociation), too rigid (risking damage to the original material), and in certain cases, incorrect locations (risking loss of Hesse’s intent). These risks, paired with the inconsistency in the methods and materials used, ultimately led to the decision to remove all historic repairs. Detailed photography and image mapping, material mockups, and extensive adhesive research were completed prior to treatment. A strong, more reversible adhesive with better aging properties and an inconspicuous reinforcing bridge were selected to successfully reattach the ropes to the delicate papier-mâché sphere. This somewhat interventive, fully reversible treatment conducted in 2021 was carefully mapped and documented with the next caretaker in mind, as the entropic nature of this work ensures future treatment will be necessary.