Sheila Hicks and Danielle Mysliwiec met on a snowy Saturday in a café on the Upper East Side to discuss Hicks’s work in the current Whitney Biennial. On the cusp of her 80th year, the artist looks back on her career, which spans five decades and numerous disciplines. While all of her final works vary in form, they share a common thread, the thread itself. In addition to the Biennial, Hicks has a current exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., an upcoming installation at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and work included in three current group exhibitions, L’Almanach 14 at Le Consortium in Dijon, France, International Biennal of Contemporary Art in Cartegena de Indias, Colombia, and Pliage/Fold at Gagosian in Paris.
Danielle Mysliwiec (Rail): Sheila, you have a jam-packed spring.
Shiela Hicks: I have a jam-packed life!
Rail: There are three curators in this Biennial and they’ve each chosen to curate a floor of the Whitney. You are in Michelle Grabner’s section on the fourth floor can you talk about the genesis of your work for the exhibition?
Hicks: There’s an 18-foot-high coffered ceiling. Remember the Marcel Breuer architecture? I usually respond specifically to the architecture when I’m showing something. I went to that space before I knew about the Biennial because I went to see the Robert Irwin show. It was spectacularly beautiful—specifically sited. It made me think long and deeply about that space and I imagined I would like to make something there. When I met Michelle Grabner for the first time to discuss my possible inclusion in the Biennial, she told me that she’d contemplated situating my work there. So, coincidentally and perfectly, I’m very happy. Joshua Rosenblatt, master installer at the museum, gave me permission to penetrate the ceiling in order to drop a supple column to build a fiber pillar. Though it is sculptural, it doesn’t remain static because it’s a pliable material of dancing strands that the public, especially children, will inevitably touch.
Rail: Tactility is central to your work.
Hicks: I want the desire to touch to be very much alive. I think that is important, the wanting: the desire to hold it in your hands, to befriend it, to see if it bites, or if it’s compatible to your existence, and in what way. Have you ever noticed how certain areas of classical bronze sculptures where people have touched over and over and over again are shinier than other areas? I think that’s wonderful. You can look at—
Rail: A pattern of wanting?
Rail: Can you describe the material in “Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column”at the Whitney?
Hicks: It’s a material I’ve used only once before, in London, at the Courtauld Institute last January. It has a memory. When massing, manipulating, pushing, pulling, and compacting, it retains its form—material doesn’t often do this. Some materials have a memory, others don’t.
Rail: Is the material organic?
Hicks: It’s a manmade material. I’m still figuring out what it can do. I’m partially undoing and reconfiguring what spinners have perfected with a lot of effort. They have brought it to a certain stage and I’m returning it halfway, releasing tension, selectively undoing their work, and then creating my personal version. I’m working with three different entities to evolve this.
Rail: Can you name them?
Hicks: If I gave them to you, I’d probably give them to you in a screwed up, reversed order so you couldn’t figure it out. [Laughs.]
Rail: So this is highly classified information! [Laughter.]
Hicks: I’ll let go and deliver particulars as soon as I’ve created more things with it and had some fun. At the end of the show we can share and even give away some of the material so others can make their own discoveries.
Rail: That would be great and it’s in keeping with your practice. Since the ’60s you’ve created sculptural works out of modules that are then taken apart and reconfigured.
Hicks: Yes. One day I was sick in bed and my son, Cristobal Zanartu, came over to visit me. He was bored and pulled out a volume of the Encyclopædia Universalis and looked up “Photography,” because that’s his interest. He then looked up “Tapestry.” The history of tapestry starts off with the tapestries of Bayeux and the Apocalypse, and when he gets to the end—from the French point of view—it describes the period when tapestry leapt off the wall and became sculpture with a photograph of my work exhibited in 1972 at the Grand Palais in Paris. [Laughs.]
Rail: Unbeknownst to you?
Hicks: Unbeknownst to me. I bought the set of encyclopedias for my family to use, but I hadn’t opened them. And he said, “I think I remember this thing. Where is it?” I thought about it and realized that sections of that work, “L’epouse préférée occupe ses nuits,” are in seven different museums. How did they get into seven museums? I took the piece apart and recycled segments to make other works because the whole point, for me, is to keep working. The idea is to keep taking works apart and putting them back together in whatever new configuration occurs to me that day. Free-standing sculpture may morph into a bas-relief—that’s the wide-open approach I have always taken to my work.
Rail: Your exhibition “Weaving As Metaphor” at the Bard Graduate Center in 2006 highlighted your “minimes,” the miniature woven works you’ve been making since the late ’50s. They showcase an incredible range of organic and manmade materials that you’ve experimented with over the years—porcupine quills, silk, and stainless steel fibers among others. Will you be showing any of these?
Hicks: Yes, four of them. “Pineapple Crossword Puzzle” is made of pineapple fiber, dried, and then shredded. It stands up by itself actually! I didn’t realize that it had so much internal stiffness and that when you cross the threads at right angles they lock and hold. “Embedded Thoughts” is made of narrow strips of fragile paper wrapped in tiny threads of silk. I stretched quadruple layers of warp on my little rack and then made the different layers appear and disappear, bringing up the lower level to the top, sending it back down the elevator, bringing it up again in a different way so that it looks like the fiber lines are meshing, tangling, and organically growing together. Before I took them out of tension, they were aligned.
Rail: So there’s a moment of surprise when you take it off the rack, when it becomes itself?
Hicks: Yes, the lines relax and waves happen. And both the front and back are equally interesting. In traditional tapestry you don’t see the warp because the weft insertions cover it.
Rail: And in your work it always comes through.
Hicks: Yes, usually all the structure is evident, all of the threads are actors on stage and none of them are hidden. They’re all part of the oeuvre.
Rail: In your explanation of the surprises you experienced when making these, it seems the “minimes” are very much a laboratory for you.
Hicks: Everyday, that’s it!
Rail: The titles indicate your intention to go beyond formalism and to convey metaphorical meaning. They reference places you’ve travelled, people you’ve known. Can you say more about “Pachacamac Visits Vauvenargues”?
Hicks: Vauvenargues is the village near Aix-en-Provence where Picasso’s last studio was and Pachacamac is one of the high deities in the Andean culture. Pachacamac is a great name. I would like to have met him. I think I would have fallen for him. [Laughs.] When I’m making things I start having flashes of memory that don’t make sense. When I’m finished and the work is off the loom, it sits there and ruminates. Then it starts having a name in spite of myself.
Rail: In that title, you pair the ancient with the modern, the “non-Western” and the “Western.” Where did this interest in ancient traditions begin?
Hicks: In George Kubler’s Pre-Colonial Art History class at Yale I saw Machu Picchu and tried to imagine people who had lived in those beautiful places—those ancient citadels in the mountains. The weaving culture in the Andes is the most sophisticated weaving culture in the world. The variety, the vocabulary, the alphabet for constructing and imagining different ways to cross threads and connect threads was so rich. It’s a culture that didn’t have a written language. That interested me: that they could write their language in textiles. I was profoundly impressed by the architecture and the ceramics, the costumes, the mode de vie, but the vehicle that I found for my investigatory work was following their highly developed thread cultures.
Rail: You went to Chile on a Fulbright in 1957 at the age of 23 and immediately after graduating from Yale with an M.F.A. in 1959, you left for Mexico. Following that you moved to Paris in 1964, where you’ve since centered your life and studio. Where did you get this gusto for travel?
Hicks: It is based on curiosity, pure and simple. I am not an enthusiastic traveler. But I am extremely curious. Travel, encounters, experiences—they feed my imagination and stimulate associations. Junius Bird and Josef Albers pushed me off the diving board. I hadn’t applied for the Fulbright yet, and Albers told me, “You should go to the office, I left papers for you which you should fill out.” I had confidence that if they were directing me to do something, it was worthwhile. So I decided to visit all the countries of South America. Like Motorcycle Diaries!
Rail: Junius Bird was the curator of South American Archaeology at the Natural History Museum: Is it true that you were taking photographs for him on your travels?
Hicks: Well, he’d say to me, “If you can get into the archeology site at Teotihuacan, because nobody can get in, and if you can photograph it—or if you can wind your way into the archeology site near Lake Titicaca and photograph everything you can see for the Museum of Natural History…”
Rail: And were you able to do it?
Rail: How did you permeate the barrier?
Hicks: Well, I didn’t have any official capacity so I was let in. They even invited me to stay there, and I’d eat with them, hang out with them—they didn’t have any other girls wandering around! [Laughter.] I photographed a lot, with my Rolleicord.
Rail: Photography has also been a huge part of your practice. I imagine your studio having a gigantic archive.
Hicks: Who told you?
Rail: At this point, you’ve practiced so many different disciplines, which have historically been separated: painting, photography, design, architecture, tapestry, and art. In a recent interview Michelle Grabner said she is “looking for artists who have emerged several times over the course of their lives.” You’ve had a recent rush of attention from the art world in the United States; a touring 50 year retrospective in 2010, joining the roster at Sikkema Jenkins shortly after that, and your inclusion in this Whitney Biennial. Do you feel this is another “emerging” for you? You’re shaking your head no.
Hicks: Emerging from where? I keep trying to expand my involvements in different challenges. Instead of saying emerging, I would say eclipsing. Just when they’ve got it labeled and named and configured, it’s like a solar eclipse takes place. It disappears and then appears in another form, shape, and place, with another name. I have worked through many different expanding notions of form making—I won’t even call it art. There has been an explosion of form making in different contexts, enriched by the discovery of unfamiliar areas and geographies. To not be tuned into that, I would have missed out.
Rail: The integrity that you’ve demonstrated in following your interest in thread as a medium stands out to me.
Hicks: No integrity.
Rail: I feel it is integrity because you’ve said in previous interviews that at times you’ve questioned certain categorizations of your work, for example the new tapestry movement—
Hicks: History. The French tapestry history. Five centuries, maybe!
Rail: And yet you never abandoned the medium even though it was landing you in a “camp” in which you did not want to be situated.
Hicks: You don’t calculate that. Just because your photography isn’t going anywhere, it doesn’t mean you’re going to start ballet.
Rail: Certainly artists, especially as the market has grown, have made choices to bend their practice toward the contemporary art market, and you have not done that.
Hicks: Well I haven’t been in it either. And a way of not being in it was to blow that scene. Don’t forget I’ve been working in the trenches, not in the art milieu. I’ve been working in factories, design offices, and on architectural projects. I haven’t been cloistered in the so-called art world with its terminology and its hierarchies.
Rail: And as much as you haven’t been cloistered, have you ever felt excluded?
Hicks: I’ve always been pleasantly surprised to be included.
Rail: I think that brings us back to another reason Grabner has gravitated to your practice, because of your choice to “blow that scene” as you put it and commit yourself to your genuine interests, your own path.
Hicks: I never looked for a gallery in New York because my feeling is that it would be absurd for them to want to work with me. [Laughs.]
Hicks: I could only have disappointed them because I wasn’t interested in turning my adventure into a commercial enterprise. My ability to earn a living came by working in existing structures, like a hand weaving workshop in India designing textiles for export. I found myself in Malabar with enormous sheds of materials: yarns, threads dyed in every color. Imagine how hard it is when we have to go out and buy a kilo of this or so many tubes of paint? One of the most difficult things is figuring out how to get your supplies. I parachuted into other existences where there were masses of supplies. That gave me the chance to play and the ability to really immerse myself in the materials.
Rail: The choice not to center your practice in New York—
Hicks: It was never an option for me. When I was graduating from Yale I had job offers in teaching because there were very few women art teachers available. For a lot of women, and men too, teaching is their opportunity to be able to work in the field of art.
Rail: And you chose vehemently against that.
Hicks: I really wanted out of the academic world because I had seen the poisonous atmosphere that prevails in some schools and I thought it was counterproductive.
Rail: The issue of gender and opportunity as an artist, but also in terms of fiber as a medium is important. In her catalog essay for your retrospective, Whitney Chadwick discussed your practice in the context of Eva Hesse, a classmate at Yale, and Robert Morris, both contemporaries who were exploring material, process, anti-form. Your practice paralleled those movements in many ways, but was often framed in different terms.
Hicks: A difference is that they were in New York and I moved to a beekeeper’s ranch in Guerrero, Mexico for almost five years and then left for France.
Rail: And in France, you mentioned the tapestry history there.
Hicks: I ran across a few problems in France with its long and fascinating history of pictorial tapestry making. My work with thread, yarn, and fiber was abstract. This was rather unique at the time. Also, since I was a foreigner I was never actively drawn into any of the political or sociological programs of lobbying for women in France. My way of lobbying for women in art situations has been by collaborating, hiring, and giving work to women, organizing shows, and leading workshops.
Rail: I see so many of your investigations as influential to this younger generation of artists who are exploring abstraction, painting, and textiles. I think of Dianna Molzan, Sarah Crowner, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Michelle Grabner, Rebecca Morris, some of whom will be exhibiting in this Biennial. From the get-go you had the materials of painting, reconfigured them, and set a different priority. You repurposed your stretcher bars as a loom, replaced the canvas with an experimental construction of threads and located meaning in that construction, then took the color theory concepts that you learned and propelled them into a personal, evocative language of your own. There’s a merging of painterly thought and woven form which took place during modernism’s fixation with separating all of the disciplines, seeking purity. It was an innovative move to begin weaving while you were at Yale. Did you hesitate to make weavings?
Hicks: No. I thought what I was exploring was good. And, while in school, my classmates wanted to trade works! This continues. Last night an artist suggested a trade at my opening in Chelsea. That’s the best.
Rail: You began your undergraduate studies at Syracuse and then transferred to Yale where you completed your B.F.A. and your M.F.A. Josef Albers was the chair of the design school, championing Bauhaus fundamentals—
Hicks: I wasn’t aware of all of that. A big advantage of coming from the Middle West—Illinois and Nebraska—is that you’re really quite unaware of a lot of things. When I went to Yale in ’54 I would go so far as to reveal that I didn’t know who Josef Albers was, nor had I heard of the Bauhaus.
Rail: I read an unbelievable story that a fellow student from Syracuse took your portfolio to New Haven, filled out an application to Yale for you, and you were accepted.
Hicks: We were both accepted! But I’m the only one who transferred to Yale. I went there not knowing what I was getting into. There were masses of Cooper Union students—mostly talented and somewhat aggressive young men coming up from Cooper Union into Yale through word of mouth and through networking.
Rail: Josef Albers was married to Anni Albers, the Bauhaus trained textile artist. She had been on the faculty at Black Mountain College, but was not on the faculty at Yale.
Hicks: There were no women on the faculty.
Rail: Did you interact with her and did her weaving influence you at the time?
Hicks: Josef Albers drove me to the small house where he and his wife lived on the outskirts of New Haven and introduced me to Anni. He instructed me to bring the experiments I was attempting to make in string, wool, and cotton. These were meant to be illustrations for my B.F.A. thesis about Pre-Columbian textiles. Kubler had led me to a book about the subject but I think Albers thought Anni could guide me more readily and give some helpful advice. It was most welcomed because I was struggling. I don’t remember her weaving. We spent time examining thread junctures and the basic vocabulary of textile structures.
Rail: The woven works and paintings in your M.F.A. thesis exhibition lean heavily toward abstraction. When you began at Yale, Clement Greenberg gave the Ryerson lecture at Yale entitled “Abstract and Representational,” attempting to make a case for abstraction. Given the climate, do you remember your first explorations in abstraction? Did you experience a debate in your own practice?
Hicks: The first year was a compulsory course conducted by Sewel Sillman. We made watercolors of melons or onions. We did figure drawing, exercises in perception of all kinds, and I took Albers’s course on color, Interaction of Color. Anyone who’s ever taken Interaction of Color, or taught it, which I taught to young architects when I had my Fulbright in Chile, inevitably thinks in terms of color as an exercise. Color is an emotion, it’s an idea, but it’s also a visual exercise. What happens if a color like this slice of lemon is next to this hot chocolate and then moves next to bougainvillea? Consider what kind of emotional response it evokes. When I exhibited both my paintings and weavings for my M.F.A. evaluation, there were definitely landscape references from Chile. Chilean landscape is overwhelmingly beautiful. I traveled with the photographer Sergio Larrain all the way down into the Beagle Canal and Strait of Magellan where there are immense manganese blue glaciers. I saw spectacular landscapes and seascapes. Inevitably I think that migrated into my work—not seeking to represent it, not seeking to portray it, but to emulate the sense, the feeling one has in perceiving that aura.
Rail: Carrying over the visual, emotional, and tactile experiences?
Hicks: Well, in painting you don’t get too much of the tactile, though I paint with my hands, so there is a certain tactility.
Rail: Without brushes?
Hicks: Yes. And the paintings I’ve been making lately are on woven linen canvas, smearing and mixing pigment with my hands on the front and on the back, then puncturing the surface with a serrated, edged tool and pushing it through to reveal the fraying, the broken threads, which are beautiful. Along the edges of the threads one can see color. In a way they’re related to a project I’m working on now: re-creating the tapestry bas-reliefs I made for the Ford Foundation here in New York in 1968. I’m remaking them out of fire-resistant materials. They consist of stretched linen cloth and cotton embroidery thread, which is sewn, pierced into the canvas, and returned, and then pushed back. A kind of bas-relief of medallions, shaped by sewing.
Rail: With the three-dimensional twists in the center?
Hicks: Yes, they are made by two people, like a confessional. You’re active: you’re in the front, you’re aware. There’s someone in the back but you don’t see them. They’re unaware of what’s happening but you’re feeding them something. What they send back to you is usually very minimal, but it’s enough to enable you to develop your thoughts. I’m looking all the time and seeing things as façades. I’m always curious what’s going on behind? I’ll go and scratch it or actually break through. Travelling and working with people in so many different places is interesting because at the first sight, the first encounter, it’s like a film or a photograph, so how do you go into it? It’s by working with people that you gain access to multiple layers of meaning and learn, like ethnographers, or archeologists.
Rail: This idea of façade and the hidden, did you read Donald Moffett’s recent review of your work?
Hicks: “Sex with Sheila Hicks”?
Rail: Yes! He viewed your work through a sexual lens, discussing openings and slits. He wrote of wanting to “probe behind” a masked area in your “minime” “Nuit Blanche.”
Hicks: I thought he was very brave. He let his imagination express itself in print and he must have gotten a kick out of that. I did!
Rail: Do you agree that those themes are present?
Hicks: Present in my work? Of course! How could you not think about disguised, erotic dreams?
Rail: I was so curious to hear what you thought of his interpretation. We’ve discussed your titles conjuring places, portraiture even—
Hicks: You know I’ve been sitting looking at you for two or three hours now. I could go home and weave your portrait. But it might not be woven, it might be squashed together. [Clasps hands, smiles.]