View of “Sheila Hicks,” 2011. Foreground: May I Have This Dance? (detail), 2002–2003. Back-ground: La Mémoire, 1972/2010.

View of “Sheila Hicks,” 2011. Foreground: May I Have This Dance? (detail), 2002–2003. Back-ground: La Mémoire, 1972/2010.

Sheila Hicks

View of “Sheila Hicks,” 2011. Foreground: May I Have This Dance? (detail), 2002–2003. Back-ground: La Mémoire, 1972/2010.

Vanishing Yellow (1964/2004) is very small, at least in comparison to the many works Sheila Hicks has made whose scale verges on the architectural. Yet, at barely 9 x 8 inches, this simple cotton-thread composition exemplifies the genius of the seventy-seven-year-old fiber artist, whose first major career retrospective opened at the ICA Philadelphia this past spring. Employing a basic slit-weave construction, Hicks has anointed the lower-left quadrant of this coarse-threaded off-white woven “painting” with yellow horizontal bands. The resultant object is as intimate as a manuscript illumination and yet no less arresting for its materialism and compositional abstraction. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Hicks was a student of the great colorist Josef Albers, who instructed her in the mid- to late 1950s while teaching at Yale University, as well as of art historian George Kubler and the architect Louis Kahn. Vanishing Yellow is one of numerous small weavings that Hicks has produced over the course of her fifty-five-year career. Dubbing them “minimes,” Hicks considers these small linear pieces (often fashioned on looms wrought from stretcher bars) to be daily meditations. But though they are mere studies in color and material, these mini experiments hold their own beside the colossal fiber sculptures that have come to define the artist’s practice in recent years.

Hicks’s industriousness and compositional brilliance stem from a life of heterogeneous training: As a child she was taught traditional “woman’s work” (needlepoint and sewing); then at Yale she went on to learn loom weaving and painting. Researching traditional non-Western techniques, she traveled to Central and South America; and while affiliated with Knoll Associates in the mid-’60s, she developed an interest in the idea of sculpture in the expanded field. Post-Minimalism—namely the work of Robert Morris and Eva Hesse—was a touchstone for Hicks as she implemented her fiber-based skills to explore space and scale, variously moving her practice off the loom and testing the limits of weaving’s nominally two-dimensional complexion. The resultant oeuvre suggests a course that has moved uninhibitedly (and markedly apolitically) forward, drawing on all of these resources.

A keen integration of this sweeping education can be seen in Hicks’s massive freestanding (or, just as often, suspended) strands of twisted, brightly colored wool and immeasurable quantities of linen and other fibers. Take, for example, Bamian (Banyan), 1968/2001: Skeins of creamy white wool, hung from above, cascade over a horizontal bar before they are gathered about a third of the way down and tightly wrapped with red and orange acrylic yarn, only to pool in coils of entwined loops that dangle just inches from the ground. Through the brilliantly saturated encasement, hints of whitish wool peek out, the material’s linearity emphasized by the tension. Featuring the same technique of repetitious wrapping, Lianes Nantaises, 1973, hangs in a cluster nearby, its milky wool spiked with bands of maroon and purple that sprawl onto the ground; elsewhere, hanging some forty feet high, is May I Have This Dance?, 2002–2003, wherein tightly wound cables seem to gush from ceiling to floor in a spectacular looping circuit. Yet even as the exhibition’s pièce de résistance, in all of its glorious accumulations of handworked linen, wool, silk, and synthetic raffia, this sculpture cannot match the vivid ontological questions posed by Hicks’s “minime” exercises, however unassuming they may at first seem.

Surveying the 131 works in this show, one may note that it is often in Hicks’s simplest gestures that her practice is most compelling, as is the case with Loosely Speaking, 1988, a single strand of white linen, scarcely holding together the weight of its own form. Defined by its elemental warp/weft structure, the crafted object appears to be in the process of undoing itself, returning its labored form back into elemental line. Similarly, the graphic black-and-white geometries of Diagonal I and Diagonal III, both 2005 and woven using handspun wool, stand in an uncanny formal balance that profoundly illustrates the artist’s poetics. Through Hicks’s embrace, fiber is shown to be an expansive fine-art medium that far exceeds its common identity as a craft material.

Michelle Grabner