Everyone else on the steps is in black, but Sheila Hicks is wearing burgundy and purple. It’s only fitting. She is the royalty here tonight, the honored maker of the hundred plus pieces in the exhibition Sheila Hicks: 50 Years. Organized by Joan Simon and Susan Faxon for the Addison Gallery of American Art, and reconfigured with some new work here at ICA by Jenelle Porter, this brilliant and colorful career survey is opening tonight. ICA’s lobby is full, the bar is open, and the chatter drifts and floats forty feet up to the ceiling, where the hanging sculpture, Baby Time Again, made of dozens of hospital infant shirts, flutters and ripples in the late afternoon light.
(Muñeca, Zapallar, Blue Letter, Dimanche, Tenancingo.)
Joan Simon takes the microphone. “The important part of the show for me,” she says, “is that we haven’t made a distinction between art, design, textiles, weavings, commissions. The question is: Why hasn’t there been a major show of Sheila in the U.S.? The reason is that the work doesn’t fit into a category.”
When I first started writing about Sheila Hicks I made the mistake of calling her a fabric artist, but I was quickly corrected. She’s an artist, period. Or sometimes: an artist of international stature who works with color and line. A born Nebraskan who has lived in Paris for 45 years, an independent, spirited artist who has worked with and for international corporations, Sheila Hicks is a woman of contradictions. Tonight one of the many curators in attendance says of her, “Sheila is original, innovative, international,” but the artist slyly interrupts:
“I’m most often accused of being ornery.”
(Willow, Squiggle, Vanishing Yellow, Serpent à Sonnette, Grand Prayer Rug, Linen Lean-to, Cicatrices.)
We make our way into the galleries for the members-only walk through. Standing between a woman with raised gold dots all over her shirt and another with daisies braided through her hair, I listen to the curators describe the work and to Sheila resist their analyses. Jenelle points out a hanging piece “that begins to punch out from the surface of the wall.” Sheila counters, “The show speaks for itself.” Susan says, “For the first time a body of work has been collected so the conversation can begin.” Sheila pipes up, “If I have made anything in this show that requires an explanation, I apologize.” But she herself can’t quite resist the temptation. “There are two words that I think of in this room,” she says, looking around. “Precariousness and permanence…those two qualities I play with throughout the show.”
(The Principal Wife, Banisteriopsis—Dark Ink, The Principal Wife Goes On, Self-Portrait on a Blue Day.)A little later, standing in front of Trapeze de Cristobal, which once hung in the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam, she reaches her hand through the thickly twined thread and asks the Stedelijk curator, who is in attendance, to reach in too and take her hand. “I like that you can enter the work,” Sheila says. “It’s an inextricable involvement of the eye, the mind, and the hand.” (Visitors to the show, however, should keep their hands to themselves.)(Footprints, Raining Baby Bands, Olympic Bravery, The Silk Invitation.)In the next room, gazing up at the cascading enormity of May I Have This Dance?, Sheila calls over Enrico Martignoni who installed it. “Enrico, tell us how you installed this piece forty feet high!”
Enrico beams. “It’s all about belief,” he says.
(Loosely Speaking, Kneeling Stones, Battle of Lexington, Battle of Lincoln, Battle of Omaha.)
As the walk through reaches the final room, Jenelle tells us how she tried to cull the show when she thought there wasn’t enough space to hang it all: “So I thought—because this is what curators do—does anything repeat?” Nothing did. As Jenelle told us, Joan Simon and Susan Faxon had made a perfect selection from Sheila’s hundreds of works. Luckily, there was enough room after all.
The tour is almost over. “Be sure to grab the gallery notes with the checklist,” Jenelle says, “because the titles take you places.” Titles like Les Escargots, La Lettre du Rupture, Déménageur, Embedded Voyage.
Sheila looks around. “Any pressing questions?”
Jenelle looks at her watch. “And I mean, really pressing,” she says.
Someone calls out, “What are you doing next?”
(A Certain Distance, Prophecy from Constantinople, Triumph.)
Sheila smiles. “Monday night, I’ll take a flight to Paris,” she says. “Tuesday at nine AM, I’ll be in my studio.”
Sheila Hicks: 50 Years, is on view at ICA through August 7, but don’t wait till summer.