Contingent is made of eight banner-like elements that hang from the ceiling. Each of these elements consists of a large rectangular stretch of latex-covered cheesecloth embedded at each end in a translucent field of fibreglass. The banners hang parallel to each other and at right angles to the wall.
Eva Hesse began work on Contingent in November 1968.1 'I started the piece before I got sick', she told Cindy Nemser in an interview early in 1970. 'It was latex rubber over a cloth called ripple cloth which resembles another version of cheesecloth. It has a more interesting weave (I guess I have some kind of interest in material) and reinforced fibreglass — clear.'2
In making the first experimental forms in this material Hesse was helped first by Douglas Johns, a partner in Aegis Reinforced Plastics, and after January 1969 by Martha Schieve, a student assistant from the Great Lakes Colleges Association, who offered her assistance to Hesse after seeing her sculpture Sans 11 exhibited at the Whitney Annual in December 1968.3
A number of test pieces were made using different kinds of cheesecloth and latex.4 Although the test pieces, were already under way in January 1969, Hesse took the unusual step, for her, of putting down her ideas for the work in drawings. She discussed one such drawing, dated 15 January 1969, with Cindy Nemser.5
It was one of the first ideas for the piece. This was the original idea and I changed it. It's the same piece but it's got all sorts of subtle variances. The pieces were much thinner and on either end they had wire mesh underneath the fiberglass and they were going to be on hardware that turns. There were going to be many in a row … I did a whole group [of drawings] at one time — in one or two weeks. I did ten sketches and I think I worked then all out or they are being worked out — every one of them.6
Five pencil drawings on yellow lined paper, now with the Eva Hesse Archives at the Allen Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, are clearly related to Contingent.7 One of these drawings, extensively annotated suggest that Hesse may once have thought of the sculpture as a single piece hung from the wall. Her annotations consider various possibilities: '(1) stand up on lower section holes to attach to wall not necessarily straight can come forward (2) center rubber clutched together with rubber wires or cord, string or mixed [?] nothing form however it becomes naturally (3) top held up or fallen over, either way'. There is also a large drawing, in pencil and ink wash, which shows the arrangement of Contingent close to its final form.8
Hesse was working on Contingent when, on 6 April 1969, she collapsed. She was admitted to New York Hospital and on 18 April was operated on for a brain tumour. She was back in hospital in August undergoing a second operation for the tumour. She emerged from hospital on 15 October. Although too weak to continue her part-time teaching at the School of Visual Arts, she was determined to finish Contingent in time for the exhibition 'Art in Process IV', which was to open at the Finch College Museum of Art in December, less than two months away.
A group of students from the School of Visual Arts came to help: 'Two of the girls sewed pieces of cheesecloth together, because they were too narrow, and the boys rubberized'.9 More regular assistance came from Bill Barrette and Jonathan Singer, with Douglas Johns providing technical advice such as the correct amount of ultraviolet inhibitor to be added to retard the deterioration of the latex. They made five or six of the pieces in October-November, which they added to the previously made pieces, bringing the total to eight. According to Bill Barrette, Hesse 'had planned to have the work consist of at least nine irregular sheets of rubberised cheesecloth and fibreglass, but there was only enough latex for eight'.10 There were already differences between the earlier and later pieces, but these individual differences pleased Hesse:
There are eight of them and they hang fairly regularly but there is great divergency from one to the next … They are geometric but they are not. They are the way they are and the way the material and fiberglass worked out. Maybe a little self-conscious — maybe that was not so good. They are all different sizes and heights, but I said 'Well, if it happens, it happens'. One was too long and I could have cut it off but I said, 'No'. So it will stand different.11
Hesse's health began deteriorating again. She spent eleven days in bed before finally installing Contingent at theFinch College Museum of Art. She managed to attend the opening of 'Art in Process IV' on 11 December 1969, and was delighted with Contingent: 'Anyway, did go to Finch', she noted in the manuscript describing the course of her disease and hospitalisation, 'and it was an opening and I was told how great my piece was. I enjoyed [myself] despite feeling lousy.'12 But she was back in hospital over Christmas and New Year. On 30 March 1970 she underwent her third operation for a brain tumour. In May 1970 an image of Contingent filled the cover of Artforum. But this sudden recognition was, for Hesse herself, brief. She died in New York Hospital on 29 May 1970, aged thirty-four.
For the exhibition of Contingent at the Finch College Museum of Art Hesse wrote the following catalogue statement:
Rubberised, loose, open cloth.
Began somewhere in November-December, 1968.
Collapsed April 6, 1969. I have been very ill.
Resuming work on piece,
have one complete from back then.
Statement, October 15, 1969, out of hospital, short stay this time,
Same day students and Douglas Johns began work.
Piece is in many parts.
Each in itself is a complete statement,
together am not certain how it will be.
A fact. I cannot be certain yet.
Can be from illness, can be from honesty
irregular, edges, six to seven feet long.
textures coarse, rough, changing.
see through, non see through, consistent, inconsistent.
enclosed tightly by glass like encasement just hanging there.
then more, others, will they hang there in the same way?
try a continuous flowing one.
try some random closely spaced.
try some distant far spaced.
they are tight and formal but very ethereal, sensitive, fragile.
see through mostly
not painting, not sculpture, it's there though.
I remember I wanted to get to non art, non connotive,
non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non, nothing,
everything, but of another kind, vision, sort.
from a total other reference point, is it possible?
I have learned anything is possible, I know that.
that vision or concept will come through total risk, freedom, discipline.
I will do it.
today another step, on two sheets we put on the glass.
did the two differently
one was cast-poured over hard, irregular, thick plastic;
one with screening, crumpled, they will all be different.
both the rubber sheets and the fiberglass.
lengths and widths.
question how and why in putting it together?
can it be different each time? why not?
how to achieve by not achieving? how to make by not making?
it's all in that.
it's not the new, it is what is yet not known,
thought, seen, touched but really what is not.
and that is.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.390.