Sheila Hicks, on the outskirts of Contemporary art

[02.07.2024]

At 90, Sheila Hicks is a true pioneer who broke through prejudices surrounding textile art, bringing it to the heart of Contemporary art and giving it deserved recognition.

Born 90 years ago in Hastings, Nebraska, Sheila HICKS has led a life of substantial mobility. Her nomadic childhood, marked by her father’s professional traveling, set the stage for a story that really began at Yale University where, for five years, she was immersed in the teachings of Josef Albers. An eminent color theorist at the Bauhaus school, Albers embarked on a fascinating series of more than 2,000 works exploring the juxtaposition of colors. Albers’ passion for color and his Bauhaus spirit, seeking to break down the barriers between fine art, design and decoration, influenced the future directions of Hicks’ work. It was also at Yale that the young artist immersed herself in the world of pre-Columbian textiles thanks to the famous art historian George Kubler, who introduced her to Raoul d’Harcourt’s book, Ancient Peruvian Textiles and Their Techniques (1934), a real revelation for Hicks.

Observing Hicks’ strong interest in textiles, Josef ALBERS introduced her to his wife Anni, a virtuoso weaving artist. Throughout their discussions, Anni guided Sheila Hicks in structuring her textile work. However, it was during her travels in South America, after her training at Yale, that Hicks made the definitive choice of textiles over painting. In 1957, she won a scholarship to study ancestral weaving from the Andes in Chile. This opportunity led her to explore traditional textiles and learn the techniques of indigenous weavers during trips to Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and finally Mexico, where she settled until 1963. With these artisans she discovered that thread is much more than a simple line on a page: it is a tactile color that can be stretched in space, and sculpted in specific environments (places and buildings). She created her first work on a portable loom that she herself designed and created.

While thinking about her next destination, she was captivated by the artistic excitement of Paris and the country’s textile heritage, notably thanks to the Manufacture des Gobelins. She set up her first workshop a stone’s throw from this illustrious institution, on the Quai des Grands Augustins, in 1964. Since then, she has lived in Paris, constantly deepening her knowledge of textile techniques and traditions around the world, while participating in prestigious international exhibitions.

From the second half of the 1960s, the works of Sheila Hicks disrupted the traditional model of textile art to embrace new forms of expression. She began creating wall suspensions which assert themselves as magnificent abstract paintings, then she designed tactile and colorful bundles, immense chromatic vines, trails of colors which stretch on the ground, flexible sculptures of intertwined threads, as well as other shapes that are less expansive. With her impressively rich technical knowledge, Sheila Hicks has explored all the potential of textiles, which she sees as a living material serving color and space.

Sheila Hicks: geographic distribution at auction (copyright Artprice.com)

Recognition of textiles in the field of Contemporary art

Throughout her long career, Sheila Hicks has skillfully navigated between her personal work, exhibited in galleries and museums, and decorative works made to order. In 1977, she hand-wove rugs for the set design of Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, while presenting her works at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, alongside artists like Christo and Antoni Tàpies. Large-scale commissions, such as those placed in the 1970s by Air France, Knoll and the Ford Foundation, allowed her to create major wall tapestries. Among these creations, there is a series of 18 wild silk bas-reliefs for Boeing 747s, an imposing composition for the headquarters of IBM France, and even a tapestry designed for one of the halls of France’s National Assembly.

Although these projects fall more into the field of decoration than that of pure art, Sheila Hicks managed to create a coherent link between her two practices, thus rendering the boundaries between ‘fine art’ and ‘applied’ or ‘decorative’ arts more permeable. In the 1960s and 1970s, several major museums, recognizing the resolutely innovative aspect of her work, included her works in their collections. First the MoMA in New York, then the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, which devoted an exhibition to her work in 1974. In France, where the museum environment tends to compartmentalize disciplines, the recognition of her textile pieces as artworks came didn’t really occur until the early 2010s: in 2014, Sheila Hicks exhibited a monumental work at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and in 2018, the Pompidou Center (Paris) finally hosted its first retrospective of her work titled Lifelines triggered by a donation to the National Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris. Hicks was 83 when she received this tribute from the French institutional environment that recognised her as a pioneer of textile art and one of the most virtuoso and creative artists of her time.

This year, she has made a notable appearance on the stand of the Claude Bernard gallery at Art Paris. One of her works was included in an “Arts & Crafts” route at the show, a theme that would have been denigrated at a Contemporary Art fair around fifteen years ago. However, today collectors are looking for hybrid creations, particularly those which revitalize traditional skills. Hicks’ textile works are now present at all the major fairs, from Art Paris to Art Basel, from the Armory Show to the Tefaf, and they are gaining value on the auction market.

For example, her Satellites, woven sculptures evoking cushions in their roundness, can now fetch more than $30,000 in a small format, whereas they struggled to sell for a quarter of that price in 2010. Although the majority of her works, all unique, are still trading for less than $50,000 in auction rooms, their prices are gradually rising and some of her larger works have fetched healthy 6-digit results. In December 2022, the Parisian auction company, Millon, hammered $556,000 for an exceptional assemblage of silk, linen and cotton mounted on eight panels, measuring approximately five by three meters, and produced for the head office of the Rothschild Bank in Paris in 1970. The result tripled her previous auction record set in 2019, suggesting the growing acceptance of textile art on the art market.

After decades of resistance, collectors now support textile creations that were formerly considered too close to the artisanal and domestic spheres to be symbolically admitted into the field of ‘Contemporary creation’. By breaking down these boundaries to broaden her scope of creativity, Sheila Hicks has fully contributed to placing textiles in 20th century art and bringing them into the hearts of collectors.

Article artmarket by artprice published in our partner magazine Gestion de Fortune