The crew has been working in the gallery for weeks, transforming it from the shape it was when it held Set Pieces to the shape it needs to be to hold Shelia Hicks: 50 Years, which opens on Thursday. By this morning when I got to work, the walls were painted and the floor exposed and the light barrier in place at the entrance. The crates and cartons containing Sheila’s pieces were lined up neatly on the left, while on the right thick snakes of color were coiled inside translucent plastic, looking like lifeboats. This, I could see, was “May I Have This Dance,” specially loaned to ICA by Target for our presentation of the show. Enrico Martignoni, Sheila’s son-in-law, has come all the way from France to install it.
At ten Sheila herself arrives, smiling and carrying bags.Enrico kisses her on both cheeks and greets her in French (she lives in Paris,even if she grew up in Nebraska). Sheila sets down one of her bags and takes out a small framed piece she has brought for the show: muted gray and white stripes, very much the mood of this cloudy, not quite spring day.
I introduce myself and explain that I’ll be poking around, waiting to see something interesting, but with Sheila there’s no need for waiting. She takes me by the arm and leads me over to a crate marked Stedelijk, Amsterdam. “The most interesting thing,” she says, “is here in this crate.” The work inside, she explains, used to hang in the entrance to the Stedelijk museum. “People who are forty and fifty come up to me and tell me this is the first work of art they ever saw,” she says.“Their parents would drag them to the museum, and they wouldn’t want to go, and there it would be when they went in! They’d go over and touch it, and it would be their friend.”
“You mean they’d sneak a touch?”
“There weren’t any guards in the front,” Sheila explains. “Just the ticket sellers.”
We look at the crate, on which are neatly printed the words: Trapeze de Cristobal. “It was named for my son,”Sheila says. “He and his friends would climb up it when it hung over the balcony in my studio, so I named it “Cristobal’s Trapeze.” When the curators at the Stedelijk wanted it, I took it over to the museum in duffel bags in an old Volvo station wagon. And now this crate! It’s a work of art. Wait till you seethe inside—how beautiful.” The inside of the crate, she means.
The outside of the crate is pale and smooth, not so different in size itself than a Volvo station wagon. Sheila tells me it’s made of poplar—it took three poplar trees to make this crate! When she expressed her dismay to the people at the Stedelijk, they told her it was all right. “Poplar grows very fast,” they said. “We make our klompen out of it”—their wooden clogs.
Sheila says she always wanted to make things she could roll up and carry under her arm; but many of these works have been loaned by places like MoMA and the Met, so no one will be tossing them under any arm, or even so much as touching them without art handling gloves.
At noon, a young photographer on assignment to The New York Times shows up. He takes photographs of the crates; of Sheila sketching with rectangular crayons; of the crew starting install. Music plays quietly over the sound system. Some of the guys are sweeping the floor. They unfold plastic sheeting and tape it down with blue tape. Then Enrico and Isaac slit the heavy plastic around the colorful lifeboats and begin to unfurl the huge coiled snakes of linen thread.
“Flip it this way?” Isaac asks.
“Just twist it,” Enrico says.
“It’s kind of like a garden hose, you know?” Isaac says.
More like a fire hose! Or like an anaconda, or maybe a family of anacondas. One long tail of it stretches the entire length of the room.
At one o’clock, Enrico is 30 feet up in the air on the Genie. Somehow he has attached an end of one anaconda to the ceiling. It cascades down in indigo and green, olive and black. “It has to look like it’s coming down from the floor above,” Sheila says. “I want it to be part of the architecture.”
An hour later, four strands are dangling, a red and a brighter blue moving into green and black—underwater colors—and suddenly I see what the piece looks like. Not a hose, not a snake, but rather the tremendous tentacles of an unimaginably large sea creature whose body is hidden somewhere out of sight. Up on the next floor, I guess! The blues are sea water in and out of sunlight, the green is seaweed, the red is coral. The silvery gray bands are fish scales, or fragments of the fleshy skin of sharks. The dusky purple is the inside of an oyster shell.
Down on the ground, three men are wrestling with another tentacle. They twist it one way, then back the other way, lifting it high over their heads with their white gloved hands until they finally get it right. “There we go,” Paul says, and carefully they pile a heap of tentacles on a platform while Enrico gives directions, and Sheila smiles her inscrutable smile, and the photographer snaps away. The aquarium gallery grows still. Fifty years of work are condensed by a kind of dream-time into this single moment.
Sheila Hicks: 50 Years, is organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art. The exhibition opens to the public at ICA on Thursday evening, March 24, at 6:00.
Uncredited photos above are of: Sheila Hicks, Variation of “May I Have This Dance?”, 2002-2003, dyed and twisted linen with cork and synthetic core. Courtesy of the artist and Target Corporation. Photos by J. Katz.