Sheila Hicks is one of the great woman fiber artists, working in the tradition established by Sonia Delaunay and Anni Albers, but boldly extending it into new esthetic territory. Their work is inseparable from the history of so-called “pure art,” and in fact was often much more adventurous, not to say innovative, than the work of their husbands, both by reason of its use of found material -- textile -- and by reason of its formal complexity.
Delaunay’s Blanket (1911) makes the point succinctly. It is an eccentric geometrical abstraction of appliquéd fabric, made before Kandinsky’s “improvised” abstractions and much more “advanced” -- if to advance means to eschew all hints of representation, which abound in Kandinsky’s works. Robert Delaunay’s Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun and Moon (1913) looks old-fashioned in comparison, not only because of its representational import and illusionistic space, but because it is structurally naïve compared to his wife’s intricate work.
Similarly, Anni Albers’ Black-White-Gold I (1950) is much more geometrically intriguing, not to say ingenious, than Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square: Apparition (1959), which tends to a sort of stale simplicity -- the simplicity of the square reduced to redundant absurdity. The work is also illusionistic. The square is an apparition, and as such an illusion, and the series of squares -- squares within squares, squares generating squares, an evolving series of space capsules changing color like a chameleon, planes acquiring an illusionistic third dimension of space by reason of their apparent arrangement behind each other (however all-in-one together) -- creates an illusion of infinite space (within the somewhat finite work), resembling, peculiarly, an accordion in slow motion, unlike Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912) -- which resembles an accordion in rapid motion. (Is the accordion -- not the guitar -- the secret muse of Cubism?)
The textural richness afforded by Sonia’s fabric and Anni’s weaving enlivens the surfaces of their works in a way the comparative flatness of Robert’s and Josef’s handling never does. Hicks studied with Josef, and undoubtedly knew his theory of color interaction, and she also studied weaving with Anni, who seemed to have inspired her to go her own textural way -- to weave linear strands of rich color together in eccentric abstractions, long before “eccentric abstraction” became a fashionable idea (it is often wrongly assumed that the artists who participated in the New York exhibition with that title invented the practice).
It seems that Anni also persuaded Hicks, who was born in Nebraska in 1934, to move to Paris in 1964, perhaps in order to escape the Pop Art scene that seemed to eclipse abstraction at the time (however subliminally if mockingly abstract it often is) -- as well as hyper-reductionist Minimalism, a sort of dead-end, cleverly sterile geometrical abstraction. And, possibly above all, to escape Conceptualism, a sort of dumbing down of art-theorizing which gave facile philosophical license to the labeling of any old activity as “art,” and of art making, which it made easy by reason of its so-called “dematerialization” of art, which suggested that one didn’t need any skill to make art. (I am told that in the current exhibition of work by the Yale MFA program graduating class, there is a work of “de-skilled” art, as the so-called artist calls it.)
Minimalism and Conceptualism inform each other, in part because the former involves simple forms and the latter involves simple ideas -- and art has become simple indeed if no skill is required to make it (that is, if it is still made, and not simply found).
Hicks was into rich material and rich color, and she was very hands-on and skillful; she was also full of abstract “ideas,” as her brilliantly innovative abstractions show. Sonia and Anni stayed on the wall -- their works “depend” on their own flatness, and are “backed up” by their solidity -- but Hicks’ abstractions leave the wall and stand (and seem to move) freely in space, sometimes suspended from the ceiling and sometimes dangling freely on the floor. She has many small pieces, which she calls “minimes” (miniatures), that are displayed on the wall like paintings -- they are, in fact, woven on a loom made of stretcher bars from paintings (she creates them by “dancing on the strings,” as though playing a harp, which might suggest that they belong in the tradition of musical abstraction and, however obliquely, Color Field painting).
But the seriously important, most distinctive works are her woven sculptures, sculptures made from many kinds of material, all differently colored and textured. Hicks uses not only familiar materials -- such as cotton, linen, wool and silk -- but bamboo, feathers, steel, slate, shell and paper (including paper tags). She is “multicultural” in her choice of materials: sensitive to their cultural meaning as well as to their physical presence.
Presence -- grand, often intimidating presence -- is what her sculptural installations have: Menhir (1998-2004), and May I Have This Dance? (2002-03), are major examples. They are site specific, in the sense that their form can be adapted to the exhibition space (thanks to the flexibility of their materials), but once installed they seem to exist independently of the space. That said, none of Hicks’ works seem fixed in place forever -- they always seem to be on the move, inherently dynamic forms caught during a pause in their dancing. They do not so much dance in place as dervish in space, swirling out -- beside themselves with energy, as it were. Their colors are dazzling, hypnotic, engrossing. Hicks’ works are sensuously exciting, even ravishing. The question is whether they are also emotionally expressive -- whether her colors have the symbolic import that Kandinsky attributed to color.
Hicks began as painting student, now and then incorporating string, twine, and yarn into her paintings -- apparently as collage elements -- but it was color that was most important to her. “If my paintings at the time were meshes of color, why not interlace colored lines of yarn?” she asked herself, implying that the yarn was materialized color and placing emphasis on its color rather than on its haptic materiality.
Yet Hicks’ works have a haptic as well as visual intensity: color and yarn seamlessly integrate, often to dramatic effect, however “meditative” she claims her “minimes” to be. That they have a meditative purpose suggests that they have a spiritual purpose, in Kandinsky’s sense of the “spiritual”: the “internal.” The physical must serve the spiritual, Kandinsky insisted, adding, more particularly, that color is not an end in itself but rather something that evokes the “sounds” in the soul.
Hicks’ works are conspicuously physical, and she gives color physical presence and density, projects it into space so that it seems to overpower, even occupy it: it is not simply “surface color.” However visceral her “intestinal” strands of yarn seem to make her color -- however much her works seem like embodied color, suggesting that color has uncanny body, and that the works are surrealized body parts and even symbols of the body as a whole -- the question remains whether her colors are as emotionally charged and “soulful” as Kandinsky claimed color was (a claim confirmed by the experimentally tested fact that colors arouse emotions), or whether she has been taken in by Albers’ idea that colors have no emotional effect but are simply visual facts, and, as such, are “pure” rather than “expressive.”
Albers’ “homages” suggest that his paintings have spiritual import and meditative purpose -- Hicks’s “minimes” follow him there -- but they are constructions of pure color with little or no projective and expressive power. In contemplating them, one recognizes their shallowness -- not only their failure of creative nerve, but the absence of the feeling that Kandinsky argued abstraction exists to express. They are not haunted by the internal, but are instead all external: outer space, not inner space.
Hicks’ color abstractions, whether two- or three-dimensional, are much more “moving” (literally and figuratively) than Albers’ -- and so are Sonia’s and Anni’s color abstractions. Yet they make us wonder to what extent Hicks was “taken in” by Albers ideas.
Not much, it would seem, as her organic materials and organic method of working suggest, especially considering the mechanical drawing or diagram look of Albers’ paintings, which seem like simplified Bauhaus architecture -- Bauhaus architecture reduced to an uninhabitable, expressively inhibited minimum. Josef’s use of the word “homage” was a hangover from a more idealistic abstraction, and, in my perhaps too-skeptical opinion, was used to give his works an ingratiating pseudo-spiritual aura, attempting to make them superficially more appealing than their rigid, engineered characters shows them to be.
Albers’ square seems as authoritarian as his color theory, whatever aesthetic authority it has by way of Malevich’s “Suprematist square.” (It is no accident that Hicks moved to Paris rather than Germany.) But Hicks didn’t repudiate Albers altogether, for her color is pure -- much more radiantly pure than Albers’ color -- even while her ambiguously expressive use of it suggests the impasse that abstraction is stuck in.
In any event, my larger point is that Sonia’s, Anni’s, and Sheila’s abstract works are better than Robert’s, Josef’s, and even Kandinsky’s -- more innovative, “advanced” and aesthetically subtle, not only because of their material, but because they have more spiritual effect -- immediate and even lasting internal resonance. But, of course, the women were considered to be less influential than the men.
“Shiela Hicks: 50 Years,” Mar. 24-Aug. 7, 2011, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, 118 South 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19104.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University. He is senior critic at the New York Academy of Art.