Not many people get asked by the Louvre to deliver a lecture on tapestries. It seems a reasonable request of an artist who has dominated the field of fibre art for decades, but it’s left Sheila Hicks feeling slightly awkward. While her own star has never been higher, the prestige and authority of the famous Gobelins tapestry workshop has begun to fade.
For Hicks, who has spent her life as a creator of anti-tapestries, it’s puzzling to think why these wall hangings, which were among the glories of France, lining the stony castle walls of kings and nobles, no longer hold the same appeal for today’s kings of commerce. It may be that they prefer gigantic LED screens, but it’s also because innovative artists such as Hicks have exploded the traditional idea of a tapestry as a woven translation of a painting that sits flat to the wall.
Hicks has never theorised about where she fits into art history. She says: “When I’m given a venue I don’t worry about the light or the architecture. I simply ask myself, ‘How would I like to occupy that space?’”
At the age of 90, Hicks is the undisputed empress of fibre or textile art. Her large-scale works push out from the wall and cascade into the room. They pile up in huge, soft, colourful masses, or stand like pillars within galleries or in the open air. Few artists have been more proficient at transforming a space or making such bold use of colour and texture. A tapestry can’t compete.
In recent years Hicks’s achievements have been recognised by a succession of museum shows, including a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 2018, and one at the Hepworth Wakefield, in the north of England, in 2022. The Pompidou show celebrated Hicks as a leading Parisian artist of long-standing. She especially loved the Hepworth exhibition because the building, designed by David Chipperfield, let in abundant natural light, showing the colours of her work to great advantage.
Hicks is set to be one of the chief attractions of the NGV Triennial in December, a show that turns the entire building on St. Kilda Road into a showcase for some of the most striking international art. Other drawcards include sculptures by Scandinavian duo, Elmgreen and Dragset; the offbeat humour of David Shrigley, and the robot dogs of Agnieszka Pilat.
Although she will be the senior artist in the show, Hicks wears her age lightly. She comes across as shrewd and confident; elegant, charming and forthright. She takes delight in showing me around the historic, cobblestone courtyard just off the Boulevard Saint-Germaine, where she lives and works. It was once the headquarters of Dr. Guillotin, who perfected his famous invention on sheep carcasses, right where we happen to be standing. Another resident was the painter, Balthus, and for a while, David Hockney. The Giacometti Foundation is housed on the other side of the courtyard.
Hicks has lived in Paris since 1964, always on the Left Bank. Leaving the studio we stroll around the neighbourhood while she points out former homes and studios, reflecting on how the steets have changed – or not changed. Compared to most major cities, Paris is a museum. It’s as if Baron Haussmann’s sweeping makeover in the late 19th century exhausted the Parisians’ appetite for urban renovation.
For Hicks, who was born in Hastings, Nebraska, and spent her childhood roaming around the mid-west, Paris is her ideal city. it’s long been the only place she ever wanted to live, although in 1959 she had thought to settle in Mexico, where she married a beekeeper and worked on a farm. It was an impulsive union, and after five years the rural idyll had lost its appeal. She took her infant daughter – “kidnapped” is her word – fled to Paris and has never left. A second marriage followed, to Enrique Zanartu, a Chilean painter born in France. Her son, Cristobal, who does much of her photography was born in 1965.
Photography is important to Hicks. The black-and-white images that appear in many catalogues are her own work and are of museum quality. There’s also a memorable photo portrait by an old friend, Josef Koudelka.
Nowadays Hicks is married for the third time, to a New York lawyer she has known since her student days. They talk every day on the phone and exchange occasional visits, which sounds extraordinarily civilised.
The stories of Hicks’s early life have been told many times: how she became one of the few women admitted to the Yale School of Art in 1954, on the authority of Josef Albers, the renowned colour theorist of the Bauhaus, who had migrated to America.
“I met Albers when I was a student at Syracuse University and had to change schools,” she recalls. “A fellow student said she was going to apply for Yale, for both of us, and asked me to give her something she could carry. She went and interviewed, and Albers accepted us. When he saw my painting, he said: “Take her on and give her advanced standing.” He was very sure of himself. When he made pronouncements, everyone knew that was the way it was going to be. Later on he would send me to Chile in the same commanding fashion.”
It was only after she had arrived in Santiago that Hicks realised Albers had intended for her to teach his colour theories at the Universidad Catolica.
Albers, who always called Hicks, “girl”, introduced her to his wife, Anni, a famous textile artist. Everyone thinks this must have been a life-changing meeting, but Hicks confesses they didn’t have much to say to each other.
After graduating from Yale, Hicks would relocate to Mexico, where she became friends with the legendary architect, Luis Barragán, whose use of strong colour has remained a lifelong influence. By this stage she was making small, woven works that sat somewhere between craft and art. It was another Mexico-based architect, Mathias Goeritz, who arranged for Hicks to fly to New York in 1961 and meet with a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. To her great surprise she would find herself in a room with director, Alfred H. Barr Jr. and other luminaries, who agreed to acquire her works but told her she needed to make them bigger.
As Hicks tells these tales, one can only feel she has had a very lucky life. She managed to escape unscathed from the picaresque adventures of her youth to carve out a career that gathered early momentum and has never faltered. Her friend, Monique Lévi-Strauss, the widow of the great anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, suggests that Hicks owes some of her success to her personal beauty, but the artist believes this didn’t always redound to her benefit.
Her first meeting with Monique, who remains one of her closest friends, came via a strange coincidence. Hicks recalls: “At dinner with a mutual friend, she asked me where I was from. I said ‘Nebraska,’ knowing full well she would have no idea where that was – but she told me she’d been there twice, and her mother is buried there! She said: ‘Can I bring my husband and visit you some time? I think he might enjoy seeing your studio.’”
I didn’t even know who they were, but by then Claude’s book, Tristes Tropiques, had made him the most famous anthropologist in the world. He was ageless. He wrote on my work when I first started in Paris, and I didn’t even ask him. It was Monique who asked me if I’d like Claude to write something. We’ve had a steady friendship since ‘65.”
One of the things that drew Lévi-Strauss to Hicks’s work, was her early fascination with ancient Peruvian textiles. He saw it as a living connection between the past and present, and a counter to the soulless aesthetics of Brutalist architecture. “Nothing better than this art could provide altogether the adornment and the antidote for the functional utilitarian architecture in which we are sentenced to dwell,” he wrote.
This need to compensate for “utilitarian” architecture proved to be a lifesaver during Hicks’s early years in Paris. She scored a contract with the international design firm, Knoll Associates, who took her on at a first meeting. This would bring her to the attention of leading architects who plied her with commissions. She soon learned how to use assistants and workshops to produce pieces on a large scale. By 1974, at the age of 40, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam had offered her a retrospective, and she was launched on the world.
Hicks laughs at the idea that she might be due for some extra attention today because of the way art museums are putting a new emphasis on female artists. She says: “I’ve always had attention! I’ve had steady clients for more than 50 years, ever since I moved to Paris.”
Along with the museum shows there has been a succession of large commissions, and regular commercial exhibitions, in which she includes pieces on a user-friendly scale, called minimes. In her studio there is a big box of minimes, consisting of brightly coloured and stitched balls of fabric, and ‘talking sticks’ – an idea she got from Lévi-Strauss. In a tribal meeting, whoever holds the stick is the only one empowered to speak. The domestic applications are obvious.
The piece she is contributing to the NGV Triennial is called Nowhere to Go (2022). A mass of soft forms in shades of blue, grey and lavender, it could be stacked against a wall or heaped together in the centre of a gallery. The imposing scale of the work doesn’t make it any less tactile. The pile almost invites viewers to plunge in, although the gallery might discourage this approach.
Like so much of Hicks’s work, Nowhere to Go is scarcely definable, being a work of fibre art, a monumental sculpture, and a feat of flexible design intended to interact with the kind of architecture that might have drawn the disapproval of Lévi-Strauss. One suspects it will make the NGV’s commissioned tapestries, hung in the great hall, look rather staid.
She says she feels a deep attachment to Australia, which she visited in 2016, when she was included in Stephanie Rosenthal’s Sydney Biennale. “I was doing a workshop,” she says. “The participants sat on the floor in a big circle, at the Sailors Home down at the Rocks, and I was trying to get to know them – who they were, what they did… So many of them would be crying, expressing their loneliness and their isolation, saying how they’d driven for two hours to come to the workshop. For me, the whole thing was perplexing.”
“Then I got a toothache on a Sunday and had to go to the dentist. He pulled it, so I left a wisdom tooth in Sydney. When I think of Australia, I think of the tooth I left behind, and those women with their heartbreak stories. I didn’t want to be a therapist, but I felt as if I was doing something important by giving them an ear. Things like this are an integral part of my daily life. The language of fibre is universal – it connects country to country. You can connect Australia to the rest of the world through fabric.”
When once asked what she hoped to achieve with her work, Hicks replied: “To startle people and to capture their imaginations.” It’s an ambition she still maintains today. “What do I want to do with an audience? Wake ‘em up! Wake ‘em up! Most people are sleepwalkers. They live in their own universe. They reach their metro stop and get off automatically. Everybody’s on-line. I want them to stop for a moment and look.”
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Fin! Magazine, 14 October, 2023