by Grant Klarich Johnson
Free Threads, The Textile and its Prehispanic Roots 1954-2017 & Lifelines
MUSEO AMPARO | NOVEMBER 4, 2017 – APRIL 2, 2018
CENTRE POMPIDOU | FEBRUARY 7, 2018 – APRIL 30, 2018
Today, as a rising tide of isolationist nationalism challenges globalism’s utopian promise, Lifelines, a concise retrospective of greatest hits at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and Free Threads, a quixotic excavation of more obscure works, at Mexico’s Museo Amparo, surveyed Sheila Hicks’s cross-cultural ambitions. Hicks is renowned for her sculptural fiber works, which triumphantly fill both exhibitions, as well as for her work as a consultant and designer of mass-manufactured textiles, only briefly represented in both. Unique among her American peers, Hicks produced both exhibitions and objects in Latin America, Africa, India, and the Middle East, all before 1980, arguably a pioneer of global contemporary art. “Textile is a universal language,” she has said. “In all of the cultures of the world, textile is a crucial and essential component… There’s a level of familiarity that immediately breaks down any prejudice.”1 Following Hicks’s cue, this coincidence of curatorial attention reminds us how to recognize difference with dialogue and connection, rather than division and isolation.
By settling in colonial Puebla, Mexico, Free Threads surrounds itself with the visual culture of Mexico and Latin America, not unlike the beginning of Hicks’s own peripatetic trajectory. Beginning with four pages from Hicks’s undergraduate thesis, Andean Textile Art (1957), along with two oil paintings—the long-unseen gestural, abstract expressionist flurry of cool indigoes, greens, and white of Snow Garden (1957), and the smaller jade-and-brown patchwork landscape of rectangular brushstrokes, Iquala (1954)—Free Threads plots Hicks in relation to abstract painting and Pre-Columbian textiles, two distinct references that have long framed her career, usually via biographical recollections of her education at Yale. In the loose album pages of Andean Textile Art, we see Hicks’s recreations—fragments woven, knitted, and knotted in synthetically bright pink, orange, and purple readymade yarn, collaged beside black-and-white photographs of artifacts they imitate—first witnessed in lectures by the art historian George Kubler (author of the influential The Shape of Time, 1962) and crafted under the tutelage of Anni and Josef Albers.
Mirroring the method of Andean Textile Art, Free Threads punctuates its selection of works by Hicks with twenty Pre-Columbian artifacts on loan from Peru’s Lima Art Museum, positioning them as both formal and conceptual precedents for her practice, and putting a familiar postwar history of abstraction grounded in European or American abstract painting and sculpture at a distance. Evoking the shared present of anthropological comparison as opposed to the divisions of a historical timeline, Free Threads stages a non-linear art history that narrows the gap of temporal and cultural difference. Some comparisons—such as Hicks’s Quipu (1965–66), a braided white hanging peppered by red bands, displayed beside its knotted ancient namesakes—deliver this point quite literally. Drawn with the Wind (1988) a slight, web-like weaving achingly echoes a frail geometric lace by the Chancay people (undated, between 1000–1470), severed and partially dissolved over time. Hicks’s Fajas (Belts, 1956–66), which succeed on the wall but would fail the waist, and Falda (Skirt, 1960), hangs near a hat (600–900) and an Unku tunic (1100–1400). These comparisons to now-antiquated clothing chart Hicks’s occupation of a conceptual in-between and her revival of an ostensibly remote past into a present ongoing tradition, through her work. Hicks enlists textile as a kind of third term, straddling art and functional craft—she’s content not to force it in either direction, a medium that flirts between painting and sculpture. Pointing to clothing also nudges the viewer, enrobed as we are, to register how even sculptural works—as in the anthropomorphic, vertical silhouette of the grey apparition Menhir (1998–2004), or the leering, psychological threat of the black specter Shadow of Oracle from Constantinople (1997)—ominously scale up to mimic and trace their human witnesses one-to-one.
Highlights like Perruque Aubergine (1987), a cascade of eggplant cords, and Peluca Verde (1960–61), a seaweed tangle of hunter, moss, and kelly greens like a psychedelic adaptation of Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus (1880), are both physically pliable, soft to their core and free of any internal armature, and open to shifting interpretation. Other works, like a monumental shaped relief (ca. 1980), a symphony of color commissioned by Vanderbilt University, comparatively locked by hue and style in the 1970s, evidence that, distinct from the Pre-Columbian comparisons nearby, Hicks both contributed to and was shaped by the trends and textures of the more recent past, ones that an exhibition more eager to explicitly visualize other contemporary artists and art histories might better explain. The unruly variety of Free Threads exposed an experimentalism that we’ve only begun to understand.
Lifelines at the Centre Pompidou buffs out the surprises of Free Threads into a stunning arena of professional triumphs. Between majestic cascades like Lianes de Beauvais (2011–12) and ponderous stacks like The Evolving Tapestry: He/She (1967–68), one stands among monuments, a sublime landscape crafted by one of the greatest colorists since Joan Mitchell at least. While references surface to Latin America, as in Chapultepec (2018), Lifelines refrains from the anthropological comparisons of Free Threads. Evoking the infrastructural complexity of late capitalism, the colorful cords of Trapeze de Cristobal (1971) or Lianes Nantaises (1973) draw out and rhyme with Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s decorative conceit of exposed wires, pipes, and other infrastructural conduits. Such sharp echoes disclose this art’s role as foil and salve to the motifs, the cables and fiber-optics connecting Marshall McLuhan’s techno-utopic global village, a planet rendered as intimate as a hamlet by electronic communication.
If Free Threads at times lost its proverbial thread, Lifelines, curated by Michel Gauthier, largely avoided argumentation, staging the entire exhibition in one large room without chronology. This all-at-once presentation risks concealing the textures of time that inform the work, not to mention repeating the tack of earlier retrospective efforts, such as 2010’s Sheila Hicks: 50 Years, organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art, which traveled to the ICA in Philadelphia and Charlotte’s Mint Museum.
Not unlike her generational peers, Hicks cut her teeth in a proto-feminist art world long before charges of cultural appropriation questioned who could speak for whom, and has never mobilized her work as a vehicle for explicit critique. Still, among the polyglot titles of Baby Time Again (1978), a curtain of linen baby clothes, the Primitivist poles of Bâoli Chords/Cordes Sauvages Pow Wow (2014–15), and weavings bright as a Holi festival like Palghat (ca. 1966), some kind of intersectional identity politics takes form. Hicks has only rarely been identified with her own Native American heritage, as when critic John Russell described her in 1974 as “a young artist of mixed Anglo-Cherokee and German-Dutch descent” in The New York Times or, in 1977, when the artist acknowledged her “Father was part Cherokee, but he didn’t think much of that background.” And yet, with talismanic bundles named Navahoe and Algonquin (both 2018), Hicks invokes not only the ancient, but also the contemporary Native American, announcing them by name and aligning them with her particular style.
Indeed, a half-century into the tête à tête between Hicks and the modern art museum, something’s still getting lost in translation. Curated by Frédéric Bonnet, Free Threads eschewed “textile artist,” a category it deemed “simplistic.” Meanwhile, for Lifelines, Hicks stated, “I practice a kind of textile art.” Such double talk recalls the foibles of standardized language and museum hierarchies that arguably sidelined “fiber art” into a separate and ultimately unequal milieu during the 1960s and 1970s, obscuring its protagonists still today. That said, Hicks’s appearance at the Pompidou (not to mention the Venice Biennale last summer) indicates the art world has shifted, discouraging not only the re-inscription of such beleaguered nomenclature as “textile artist,” “art fabric,” or “new tapestry,” but also whatever anxieties such linguistic panic repressed. To adapt Darby English’s recent remarks on color and race, synthesizing Hicks’s craft as part of art’s history, “may offer a way to account for the changing materiality of difference… to confront abstract art is to confront the world as it exists for another person.”4 In an art world that less and less regards craft as its other, Hicks’s objects encode not only a hierarchy of media but also people.
- “Sheila Hicks: Begin with Thread,”Vimeo,uploaded by Ford Foundation, October 7, 2014. https://vimeo.com/108250843.
- John Russell, “An Unnatural Silence Pervades Estes Paintings” in The New York Times, May 25, 1974.
- Originals: American Women Artists, edited by Eleanor C. Munro (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 364.
- Darby English, 1971: A Year in the Life of Color (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 40, 48. Emphasis in the original.
ContributorGrant Klarich Johnson
Grant Klarich Johnson is a critic and curator based in New York, and a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Southern California.