04 March 2011

Sheila Hicks at the Addison Gallery

Right, Trapeze de Cristobal, 1971. Left, Lianes Nantaises, 1973.

A blurry photo of Tresors et Secrets, 1990-1995.
Ms. Hicks calls these "soft stones."

In February, Jay and I drove to the Addison Gallery, on the campus of Phillips Andover Academy, to see the first-ever major retrospective of work by textile artist Sheila Hicks.
Nebraska-born Ms. Hicks, now in her eighties, works and lives in Paris. She studied at Yale, formally with Josef Albers and informally with his wife, weaver Anni Albers. Ms. Hicks’ education continued through travels in South America on a Fulbright. Later journeys to India influenced her palette; her saturated colors might be direct from the dye vats of Goa.
File:Indian pigments.jpg

Much has been written suggesting that her woven and wrapped wool creations are some kind of soft, feminine counterpart to the harsh, masculine materials of modern architecture – glass, steel and concrete. More interesting to me though, is the fact that she obtained large scale commissions from institutional and corporate clients, including entities as disparate as Air France and Target, as well as commissions for public art installations. The studies for some of these monumental works were in the show – for example, a mock-up of a large installation for a Ford Foundation conference room.

2.60 x 103 meters, five tons of linen thread
The Four Seasons of Fuji, 1999
Fuji City Cultural Center, Japan

 To create these large scale pieces, Ms. Hicks developed and managed teams of assistants; this aspect of her process is only touched upon in the videos accompanying the show and it would have been instructive to have learned a bit more about this aspect of her process. In largely ignoring the implementation of her ideas this show wasn't that different from most monographs of the famous architects who are Ms. Hicks' mentors and colleagues. When the work of a star architect is presented, the design and office staff are seldom credited in any way for their role in implementing the vision of the maestro. Museums perpetuate the cultural trope of the visionary genius with this approach. Were curators and biographers to sufficiently credit the management abilities and practical application exercised by designers in realizing their visionary concepts, we 'd have to recognize the teams of people whom the artists indirectly or directly supervise. Somehow, artist as supervisor is less romantic or impressive than artist solely as innovator. The "great man" - now expanded to include the "great woman" - approach to art history continues, and this approach doesn't feel particularly modern.

While I admire the large scale works, I wanted to see the small weavings Ms. Hicks has made throughout her career on a compact portable loom, and which she calls "minimes." In scale these weavings are like manuscript pages, narratives in warp and weft. These are exquisite, and prove that a soaring idea doesn't have to be three hundred feet long.

Olympic Bravery, 1979.

I wasn't able to satisfactorily photograph the small works, but more examples can be seen at http://www.davisandlangdale.com/Pages/SheilaHicks.html
There are also two recent books about Sheila Hicks, including the companion to this exhibit, Sheila Hicks 50 Years, ISBN 978-0-300-12164-3, and an award-winning book from a Bard Center exhibit, Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor, ISBN 978 0300116854.