Whenever I look at a work by Sheila Hicks (b. 1934), I feel like I’m in a chapel. It’s easy to slide from looking to contemplation to a trance. It’s sensual and intellectual, often buoyant and even joyful, but it’s intricate, too. Lots of her work is small, so it feels precious and jewel-like. Her big things command a space. She’s a fiber artist or, as I prefer, a sculptor working in the medium of textiles. She weaves, which is a gestural but slow type of work. Weaving is as old as humanity. Her materials are mostly linen, wool, silk, and cotton. She’s been working since the 1950s, so she’s venerable.
Over the past few months, I’ve written from time to time about artists I consider to be exceptional but, for one reason or another, under the radar of the New York art press and the big New York dealers. Angela Lorenz did artist books. Henri Broyard is a 30-year-old painter whose dealer is in Portland, Me. Hicks weaves. She’s become better known among connoisseurs but only in the past few years.
She’s fabulous, both amazingly good and the stuff of fable. If you’re looking for an artist with an original vision, she’s the one. I’ll start with a fable. The term “labyrinth” is a good one to use to describe Hicks’s work. The original Labyrinth was meant to baffle, made by Daedalus for King Minos of Crete to hold the Minotaur, a monster eventually killed by Theseus. Theseus used a ball of red thread to penetrate the labyrinth, kill the Minotaur, and find his way out to triumph. Hicks’s work, which is always a puzzle and a mystery, starts with thread.
Cukulcan from 2018 is wool, cotton, copper, and silk. It’s about 8 by 11 inches and one of her miniatures. Hicks works in all scales and does flat art and massive three-dimensional sculptures. It was on view in Sheila Hicks: Line by Line, Step by Step at the Demisch Danant Gallery in New York. A big exhibition of her work, Sheila Hicks: Seize, Weave, Space, is now at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. Last year, a retrospective of her work ran at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
This small work is a chromatic feast, first of all. Rose, lilac, orange, green, and yellow do a disciplined dance. It’s horizontal but not dogmatically or insistently so. The lines bob — sometimes they’re dense, like gnarls of yarn — and dip and rise like tiny ripples in water. Hicks’s work is joyful, with saturated, rich color, but we immediately see that it’s what I call “slow art,” made methodically, thread by thread, intimate, and meant to be looked at closely to the point of study, like a complicated text filled with allusions.
Color, texture, and scale are in equipoise. In the 1970s, she started using metallic fiber. The copper adds shine and sparkle to what is a tactile surface, both flat and plush, like sparks. It’s a labyrinth in that it seems arbitrary. It’s easy to get lost in color that evolves by the millimeter and line that’s so irregular, yet it has ballast. It has registers, more or less, and a foundation of regular, monochromatic lines at the bottom, again more or less.
I can call her work elaborate, fanciful, lush, sensual, colorful, buoyant, or mysterious, but I’ll always think of it as honest. Textile is one of the few materials in art that’s consumed by the object’s form or narrative. It’s materiality and manufacture — threads, warp, weft — are always there.
Some of Hicks’s work is big. May I Have This Dance from 2002 was commissioned by Target Corporation for its corporate headquarters in Minneapolis. When the space was reconfigured in 2010, it was dismantled and reinstalled at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. It is both complex and very wonderful. It’s made of linen surrounding cork tubes. It is what I call “transcendent sculpture,” which means it can be adjusted for spaces of different sizes and completely rearranged. It’s strongly structured, but it’s anti-structure in that it has infinite shapes and sizes. Escargot is a small three-dimensional work. It seems to writhe like a critter, organic and animated, but it’s blues and greens could come from the sea or from art deco pottery or from old French porcelain.
Hicks is an outsider, and I love outsiders. She’s not an outsider artist, which is the term applied to the amalgam of folk artists, unschooled artists, artists working obsessively with unorthodox materials, or any artist working under a rock someplace far, far away. First of all, textile art is a grand tradition. Think tapestries. On the one hand, it’s the art of kings and courts. On the other, her art is mostly wool and cotton, and these are among the most ephemeral materials. She’s a woman of an age when women artists faced mean streets on the way to recognition, acclaim, sales, and a spot in the high-art canon.
I thought about Hicks on my trip to France. This was the Un-Paris trip. In Lille, Dijon, and Lyon, I saw some wonderful Renaissance and Baroque tapestries. Each was a tapestry and textile center for centuries. I didn’t see any stained glass. The Antifa-minded of the French Revolution smashed most of it once they ran out of heads to lop off. Hicks’s work has the chromatic character of stained glass, though it is threads of pure color rather than pieces of glass. I was in Caen, though, in Normandy, and saw plenty of impressionist landscapes, not paintings but the actual scenes the impressionists painted. Hicks’s work makes me think of Camille Pissarro, the earliest impressionist and the one with the knottiest, most yarn-like paint surfaces. He always struck me as an artist who weaved with paint.
And what about textile art in America? There’s a hierarchy as ruthless as any in the marketplace of status. Painting is at the zenith, then sculpture and drawing, now but not always photographs, the “decorative arts” like furniture and silver, and textiles near the bottom. If you’re looking for a bathroom in a museum, a helpful hint is to look for the textile galleries. These and the bathrooms are usually a doleful ensemble, in the basement.
I did a show of Hicks’s work when I was a museum director. I was surprised at how difficult it was to find other venues for it. Museum directors and chief curators usually were once paintings curators. Mostly, they either don’t understand textiles or roll their eyes. It’s not important enough. Most fiber artists are women, and I’m sure that was a factor. A more subtle problem shocked me. The director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a woman and someone I admired a great deal and still do, wouldn’t take the show because Hicks was “too commercial,” which referred to her time working for Knoll and Target. Most fiber artists work in the textile business. Their art isn’t making them millionaires. And, by the way, doesn’t the art world stink of money? That didn’t move her. Her loss. It was a lovely show.
Hicks got her B.F.A. at Yale in 1957 — yes, Yale conferred bachelor’s degrees to women in some disciplines long before it went co-ed overall — and studied with Josef and Anni Albers, George Kubler, Louis Kahn, Vincent Scully, and the abstract sculptor José de Rivera. I don’t like classifying artists in schools, since it’s dreary and confining, and Hicks is unique, but if I must, I would call her a minimalist or a conceptual artist with a thread, so to speak, leading more or less directly to the Bauhaus school. Hicks is an adventuress in the finest sense of the word. In 1957, her degree in hand and only 22, she traveled to South America to absorb textile traditions in Chile and Peru. Eventually, after living in Mexico, she settled in Paris, where she works today.
Hicks is an American — she grew up in Hastings, Neb. — but what is American about her work? I would start with the term “bits and pieces.” She’s a child of the Great Depression. Her father ran general stores in tiny towns. Her family moved a lot. Hicks remembers assembling collections of “bits and pieces,” of tiny things she found. The attraction to the found object, the “making do,” and the focus on simple materials like thread and yarn are qualities that are unusually valued by Americans. So is busting hierarchies and boundaries, which Hicks has done in art and in life.