Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands, 2016–17. Natural and pigmented acrylic fiber, dimensions variable. Photo: Cristobal Zanartu

Sheila Hicks: The Irrepressible Trajectory of Lines and Color

Recipient of the 2022 Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award

The investigation of line, color, and fiber has been Sheila Hicks’s lifelong pursuit. She ignores borders, learns languages, and discovers materials as she migrates from painting to weaving to sculpture. Her immersive involvement with these mediums and formal concerns is enhanced by an obsession with light, photography, and architecture. As she describes, “I live in an immense labyrinth composed of great webs, masses of threads, uncharted tunnels, and mountains to climb.”

Last fall, I spent time with Hicks in Paris, where she had four concurrent exhibitions on view featuring work produced mostly during the pandemic lockdown. Since 1964, Hicks’s atelier has been in the heart of the city, in a quiet courtyard that enables her to work indoors and out throughout the year. Her studio is an oasis, a muffled cocoon lined floor to ceiling with gigantic spools of linen threads, bundles of cotton, cones of synthetic yarns, skeins of wool, and bolts of fabric surrounding projects in various stages of completion. She works closely with her assistants, shifting from one experiment to another—drawing, assembling, cinching, wrapping, bundling, twisting, weaving, stitching, and anchoring. Sometimes, just the touch of her informed hands is sufficient to evaluate a work.

Installation view of “Grace No Gridlock,” galerie frank elbaz, Paris, 2021. Photo: Claire Dorn, Courtesy the artist and galerie frank elbaz

Hicks’s color and painting studies with Josef Albers and research into pre-Columbian culture with the eminent scholar George Kubler, at Yale during the late 1950s, were defining. The rigors of these foundational disciplines were complemented by lectures on architecture by Vincent Scully and critiques with Louis Kahn. A subsequent Fulbright grant to paint and teach a basic design course for architecture students in Santiago, Chile, permitted Hicks to visit ancient archaeological sites and document Andean weaving techniques in Latin America. After completing her graduate studies in painting, she moved to rural Mexico, where she lived and worked for five years. There, impactful collaborations with sculptor Mathias Goeritz and architect Luis Barrágan influenced her deeply, as is evident to this day. Her contemporary perspective remains firmly grounded in these experiences.

During the 1960s and ’70s, most of Hicks’s work was in the vanguard. For centuries, tapestry ranked among the highest art forms in France, and her deviations challenged its noble traditions. Perhaps the ultimate vindication of her oeuvre came from the Encyclopedia Universalis, published in 1996. The last paragraph of its six-page essay detailing the history of tapestry from ancient Mesopotamia and Greece through the late 20th century ends with a jolt. The sole image used to illustrate a “new art form” is The Preferred Wife Occupies Her Nights, Hicks’s non-figurative bas-relief in linen, cotton, silk, and metallic threads. Its spinning sculptural formation, with twisted cords spilling off the work onto the floor, transcends the art form’s codified definition. The work had been Hicks’s entry for the infamous 1972 exhibition of contemporary art, “Douze Ans d’Art Contemporain en France,” at Paris’s Grand Palais.

The Preferred Wife Occupies Her Nights, 1972. Cotton, linen, silk, nylon, and metallic fiber, 157.5 in. diameter. Photo: David Housez

I first met Hicks in 1987, when as a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I proposed her seminal, presciently titled The Evolving Tapestry: He/She for the collection. The work had been featured in MoMA’s groundbreaking 1969 exhibition “Wall Hangings.” At the same time that sculpture began to enjoy an existence independent of pedestals, so, too, tapestries were leaping off the wall into space. Irreverently stacked on the floor, The Evolving Tapestry consists of a sculptural pile of tobacco-colored linen ponytails with bright-red silk insertions that can be arranged and rearranged at will. There is no internal armature: weight, gravity, and public participation dictate the form and contour, suggesting endless options.

The “Laundry” series, another example of Hicks’s early use of modular elements to show the beauty of textiles in volume, developed out of Démêloir, her notorious entry in the 1977 8ème Biennale Internationale de Tapisserie de Lausanne. These immense, ephemeral installations, whose forms and volumes were constructed of worn hospital garments and sheets, became sanctuaries embedded with memories that provoked deeply felt emotional responses. For the 1978 installation in Montreuil, a Paris suburb, 2,000 used nurses’ uniforms, suspended “as boulevards of blouses,” filled the municipal assembly hall. The series received widespread attention and was exhibited around the world during the next decade. Very little is absolute about Hicks’s work except aesthetic integrity. In fact, most of her pieces are conceived as “additive” or “subtractive” gestures, portable components that can be assembled, dismantled, reconfigured, collapsed, and transported in sacks or suitcases. The attitude is one of freedom, of spontaneity, achieved through the startling presence of threads and textiles.

Nurses’ Uniforms, 1978. Cotton, dimensions variable. Photo: Atelier Sheila Hicks

Architecture and light serve as Hicks’s collaborators. She enjoys inhabiting a space, whether intimate or grand, seeking new interactions and dialogues. Her woven and knotted Prayer Rugs, begun in the late 1960s, create the illusion of a portal when hung on flat walls, evoking a space that one can pass through. Even more radically, she poses the challenge: “Why does a rug need to be flat?” It can also become an undulating, knotted island on the floor. More recently, Hicks has produced multiple geometric panels to carve and partition rooms. These rigid, two-sided bas-reliefs, enveloped with sequentially changing colored threads, float, suspended, and can be viewed from all angles.

As new, large building projects proliferate throughout the world, so, too, do Hicks’s commissions and the scale of her work. She has installed major sculptural works in public spaces in Germany, Japan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and the United States. May I Have This Dance? (2002–03), commissioned by the Target Corporation for its headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is composed of long flexible cork tubes rigorously wrapped with linen threads. These building blocks were then assembled into a giant circular knot that animated a wall and provided a focal point for the main gathering area in the three-story lobby. Now permanently installed at the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, the components, donated by Target, have been re-configured and suspended vertically to invigorate the museum’s soaring entrance.

The Evolving Tapestry: He/She, 1967–68. Linen and silk, dimensions variable. Photo: Jean Michalon

The current demand for site-specific installations has enabled Hicks to create projects previously unimagined. An invitation to participate in the 2014 Whitney Biennial allowed her to engage the museum’s concrete coffered ceiling in an unprecedented way. A brilliant, experienced art handler, Enrico Martignoni, known for his expertise with challenging installations, devised a way to penetrate the ceiling, resulting in an enormous cascade of vibrantly colored cords that fell to the floor. Hicks recounts, “We then pulled the strands out of alignment, giving them different shapes that became dancing lines moving in space. The calligraphic experience captured the negative space and brought the tall totem alive. It wasn’t just raining; the tumbling cords opened and splashed with animated force.” The aptly titled Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column and its permutation, The Questioning Column, inspire conversations that respond to architectural environments. When The Questioning Column was erected in a moat at the 2018 Horst Arts and Music festival in Belgium, Hicks recalls, “I never thought I would have the opportunity to float thousands of threads on and in water next to an ancient castle where the glorious sunrises and sunsets turned my sculpture into a magical presence.” The work toured extensively to Sydney, Miami, Sarasota, and Houston, ending up in the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Intrigued with the infinite possibilities of her well-defined vocabulary, Hicks continually shifts scale, experimenting with size, form, and the behaviors of materials. She sometimes gravitates to non-museum spaces because “they give the works an energy, a friction that is absent from usual museum galleries.” Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands (2016–17), a massive avalanche of textured color installed at the 2017 Venice Biennale in the Corderie building (originally used for making ropes), was particularly unforgettable. For the first time, Hicks piled mounds of pigmented, fiber-filled nets all the way up the cracked brick walls to the rafters. This enormous mountain, flanked by two crimson woven hangings, was pure seduction. The artist’s most recent example of art-meets-architecture is La Sentinelle de Safran (2018), currently installed at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in Seville, where it has been reconfigured as part of the exhibition “Textiles Instalativos: Del medio al lugar” (on view through May 15, 2022). The work’s extravagant accumulation of orange, yellow, and white “boules” creates a surging sea of color that inhabits the vaulted chapel of a transformed, 15th-century Carthusian monastery, where Christopher Columbus lay in the crypt from 1509 to 1536.

La Sentinelle de Safran, 2018. Pigmented acrylic fiber, dimensions variable. Photo: Pepe Morón

Surprisingly, Hicks was commissioned to create an installation in the fall of 2021 at the prestigious Manufacture des Gobelins, France’s temple of tapestry-making since the 17th century. Its former chapel, a devotional space with stained-glass windows and a stone-tiled mosaic floor, is used to show contemporary works. The premise of Hicks’s “Carte Blanche” exhibition was to help rejuvenate the French wool industry. She piled the center of the cubic room with a billowing “haystack” of nearly invisible, fine-gauged nets stuffed with natural wools from a variety of French sheep breeds. The fluffy mounds were a child’s dream: irresistible to touch or jump into. The invented environment was Hicks’s playful invitation to viewers to become accomplices and participate in imagining what one could create with wool. Threads and yarns have always been a fundamental way for her to connect with people. Eager to engage audiences, she says, “I meet my public more than halfway. I depend on them for inspiration—and challenging my imagination.”

How does one choose a medium? When I asked the Japanese architect Tadao Ando in 2000 why he built almost exclusively in concrete, he said that he “wanted to work with a material that was available anywhere.” Similarly, for Hicks, the universality of fiber, especially non-precious kinds, has enabled her to work widely. She evaluates the world in terms of textiles, and color, and thread; they are the “language” that she uses to communicate. Fiber in any form is her alphabet—raw material, natural or synthetic, spun into thread or interlaced. She also embraces technology and new developments, keeping up-to-date on cutting-edge materials that produce surprises. While working in Japan, she participated in the innovative transformation of stainless steel into a pliable, weaveable thread. Hicks’s preeminent contribution as an artist lies in her exploration of form-making with color—color with texture. When she sculpts with three-dimensional, pliable lines and fiber, it is a wild and wondrous adventure.

“Off Grid,” a major exhibition of Sheila Hicks’s work featuring 70 pieces and a new commission, is on view at the Hepworth Wakefield, April 7–September 25, 2022.