Sheila Hicks, weaving her own fabric of modernism

Hicks’s “La Clef’’ (1988) features rubber bands and a metal key. Hicks’s “La Clef’’ (1988) features rubber bands and a metal key.
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / November 14, 2010

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Modernism was hard. All those boxy shapes, those unforgiving materials, that inhuman absence of clutter.

Sheila Hicks is soft. She works with fabric. She weaves with wool and cotton. She lets looping skeins of linen and wool droop from hooks. She piles ponytails of colored cotton on plinths. She lets things fall, spill, pile up, and generally relax.

And yet Hicks, the subject of a superb 50-year retrospective at the Addison Gallery of American Art, is in many ways a classically modern artist. Her work just happens to represent a strain of the movement we tend to forget about.

Most of Hicks’s career has unfolded during modernism’s aftermath. But she came to prominence in the 1950s, the heyday of modernist design. And as a student at Yale, she was taught by one of modernism’s foundational figures, Josef Albers, who came to this country with his wife, Anni, when the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis.

From the beginning, Hicks’s work was clearly inspired by Bauhaus precepts: She ignored traditional boundaries separating art, craft, and design. Her work revealed a love of geometry and abstraction. And she pursued an ethos of uninhibited exploration even as she accepted commissions from corporations and collaborated with prominent architects.

There was something about modernism (and I’m thinking primarily of architecture and design) that seemed to require brilliant, uncompromising, and frequently belligerent men to champion its charmless ethos in the face of what they no doubt saw as nostalgic, benighted obstinacy. (“The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects,’’ proclaimed Adolf Loos. “Less is more,’’ said Mies van der Rohe.)

But it also boasted artists of flexibility, feeling, and wit. If aesthetic tyrants like Mies and Loos were modernists, it’s important to remember that so were Paul Klee and, a generation later, Hicks.

In fact, a lot of Hicks’s work suggests intimate connections with Klee. Her miniatures, or “minimes,’’ as she calls them, are, like Klee’s watercolors, about the size of a sheet of paper. There are dozens of them on view at the Addison (the show was co-curated by independent scholar Joan Simon and Addison curator Susan Faxon).

They’re wonderful — small, woven works in jewel-like colors that use the warp and weft as a natural grid to play with patterns, divisions, asymmetry, varying degrees of tautness and looseness, and above all, color.

Some have threads hanging out in tufts or lolling arabesques; others are cut on the bias, creating jaunty diagonals.

Each one is like an evocative perfume, with an immediate impact conjured by color and shape, then a tantalizing dry down as subtleties and layered relationships between color, material, thread thickness, and shape gradually emerge.

Hicks has made these “minimes’’ throughout her career. Many are initially unprepossessing. They’re like studies or sketches. But they do one of the things that modernism always strove to achieve (though not always successfully): They enhance our awareness of things as they are, rather than as representatives of other things.

Hicks made many other works that were more overtly ambitious, and certainly much larger. A good smattering of them can be seen here.

There’s “Tenancingo,’’ an upside-down cone of tumbling, beaded braids of black cotton, like the lavish dreadlocks of a giantess. There’s “Linen Lean-To,’’ a huge wall hanging constituted by hundreds of hanging bunches of white linen, each one like a mop or a carefully coiffed horse’s tail.

There’s also “La Mémoire,’’ a dazzling wall piece made of hanging tubes of yellow, orange, and red fabric with randomly placed hoops in different colors clutching the vertical tubes in twos and threes.

Various other pieces were made by piling woven and tied linen, wool, and synthetic raffia on the floor. Two of them — “Banisteriopsis’’ (named after a hallucinatory plant extract from the upper Amazon), which is the color of saffron; and “Banisteriopsis — Dark Ink,’’ in deep blues and indigos — rest on the floor in the same room. They’re ravishing.

Many others, too, rely on gravity for their ultimate form. They sag and tumble, reminding us less of the work of Bauhaus artists and designers than of contemporary artists like Tara Donovan and Lynda Benglis, poets of spilling forms, impermanent materials, and (in Benglis’s case) bright, artificial colors.

So do these classic dichotomies — between hard and soft, contained and formless, colorless and colorful — finally just come down to a guy/girl thing?

One could be forgiven for thinking so — although whether this speaks to an inherent feminine sensibility or to the creaky machinations of “culture’’ is harder to say. It’s worth remembering, for instance, that Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius tried to solve the “problem’’ of the school’s high ratio of female students by confining women to its Weaving Workshop. Anni Albers — a great influence on Hicks — was one of the women so confined.

Hicks, who was born in 1934 in Hastings, Neb., has been persistently peripatetic, but she made her home in Paris in 1964. That may be one of the reasons her name is not better known in the United States. (A similar fate befell Jackson Pollock’s older brother, Charles — a terrific artist who moved to France at precisely the moment the art world’s attention was switching from Paris to New York.)

But Paris has been a stimulating environment for Hicks. There, in the late ’60s, she befriended Claude Levi-Strauss and his wife, Monique Levi-Strauss, a textile historian who wrote a book on Hicks in 1973, and interviewed her for the archives of the Smithsonian Institution in 2004.

In that interview, Hicks explains how it all began:

“I learned, from my grandmothers and from my mother, to sew, to embroider, to knit, to crochet, to cut patterns, to drape. These were normal pastimes.

“However, when I was at Yale I had exposure to art history. I took ‘Art of Latin America,’ with Dr. George Kubler, and I chose to write about textiles because he had given a lecture showing beautiful old Peruvian mummy bundles.’’

Those textiles, she recounts, made a strong impression on her. She realized she needed to find out how they were made — not just how they looked.

“At that point, Albers — Josef Albers — saw me struggling in my painting booth on improvised looms that were not looms; they were just painting stretchers that I used to tie yarns into tension, and he said he would take me home and introduce me to his wife.’’

Anni Albers, a pioneer in modern textiles in prewar Germany, had not been able to find teaching work here because there were no female faculty members at Yale and weaving was not on the curriculum. So it’s perhaps not surprising that Hicks had no idea who she was. Josef had simply said: “She’s interested in these things, too.’’

When he took Hicks to meet Anni, she was weaving on a floor loom, making textiles. They “didn’t appear to be utilitarian,’’ recalled Hicks. “It seemed to me she was giving meaning and expression to this soft, pliable material.’’

To see how far Hicks has taken these early, formative experiences is to recognize what a brilliant, pliable, and unfettered imagination she has. Seeing the range of her work and its originality, it’s impossible not to admire her particular combination of fierce ambition and modesty — a modesty that has kept her open to collaboration and influence, keeping her work looking fresh, and liberated from modernist strictures.

In the long run, she has taken her inspiration as much from non-Western cultures — from the indigenous art of South and Central America, and from Islamic and Asian cultures — as from the Bauhaus tradition.

Hicks needed modernism. But even more, I suspect, modernism needs figures like Sheila Hicks.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

SHEILA HICKS: 50 Years At: Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover. 978-749-4000. www.andover .edu/museums/addison