“Color is in my blood!” » : the living life of the artist Sheila Hicks | Sculpture

SHeila Hicks – textile artist of American origin, Parisian since 1964 and, at 87 years old, in fine fettle – has a plan for my visit, but it’s not entirely clear to me. She greets me outside her studio – the Platonic ideal of a cobblestone courtyard in the Latin Quarter, with buildings draped in startlingly beautiful creepers, an ancient well, even an old man elegantly crossing the bike gates. Speaking in the soft but decisive tone of a lady of great age who knows exactly what she is doing, she shows different windows – here Hockney had a studio, here Tony Richardson, you know? He was married to Vanessa Redgrave. Right here Robert Carsen, the opera director. Balthus had his workshop set up here. She strides majestically toward the back entrance to the yard. Right here Dr. Guillotin experimented. He placed his equipment here you see and the blood flowed down, here. He tried it on sheep.

Climbing beyond the chromatic lands (2016-17). Photography: Michael Brzezinski/courtesy Alison Jacques Gallery, London

We walk down the street. It eventually transpires, via more points of interest (here, a revolutionary journal has been produced), that we are going to have lunch in the platonic ideal of a Parisian bistro; I half expect us to go for a walk to Les Deux Magots for a coffee with Gertrude Stein. We’ll also, finally, talk about his work as an artist – if that word doesn’t sound too light when you consider a body of work that has encompassed design and magazine publishing and tapestry and sculpture and weaving and painting. and collaboration with architects. She is about to open an exhibition of her work at Hepworth Wakefield, which is just the latest chapter in a long life that began in Nebraska in 1934. Her artistic lineage is powerful: it goes back to the Bauhaus, since it was the great German painter Josef Albers who trained her at Yale – Josef being the husband of the equally great German weaver Anni Albers, both of whom had been mainstays of the school during the Weimar Republic before fleeing to the United States.

But first, it’s me, apparently, who has to answer a question. “What color do you think of when you think of Anni Albers?” Hicks asks, his mischievous gaze penetrating. Feeling that there can be a right and a wrong answer, I desperately rake through my memories of the Tate Modern exhibition in 2019 and end up muttering something about no particular color, in fact, that comes to my mind. spirit. “Exactly!” she says. “The color seems completely arbitrary.” She tells me that Albers’ textiles were all about structure. She, Hicks, meanwhile, is all about color. “Color is in my blood!” To each his own domain!”

This is the color she wants to talk about today. We discuss the sunflower gold of my blouse; his shirt, blue as the Paris sky in the first spring of the year; the buttery yellow jacket she wore last Monday at the Stella McCartney show. Later, back at the workshop – an enticing cellar whose shelves sparkle with spools of jewel-colored thread – our conversation is punctuated by whispered instructions to her assistants. They, four of them, sit around a long table, working long lengths of fire and scarlet and green and blue yarn into voluptuous cords, a possible sculpture. She works, she says, “like a painter. A little more here, a little more here, paint over it, pull it out. It’s not like working on a job where you set up a program. It’s intuitive: feature by feature. I can change it at any time. She whispers “On the right … A little less… to calm the orange down a bit…

Hicks in his studio in Paris.
Hicks in his studio in Paris. Photograph: Ed Alcock/The Guardian

What she does not want to address, for example, is the fundamental and ancient role of weaving in human society, its function as metaphor, its place in myth. She thought of all this many years ago when she was traveling in Latin America on a Fulbright scholarship in the late 1950s, studying pre-Columbian textiles. She had been inspired in this line of study by her art history professor at Yale, the highly influential George Kubler, author of The Shape of Time, who not only showed his students numerous slides of mummy packages Andes, but “looked like a walking mummy”. bundle…a fascinating man, he presided over his classes in such a powerful way”.

As a result of these courses, she had experimented with the reconstruction of old weaving techniques on a simple loom, which had introduced her to textiles, at the same time as she studied painting with Albers. Even today, she makes small weaves on a simple frame like a kind of diary. Later, she shows me some of those woven “books” into which she has incorporated feathers, or corn husks, or scallops like the ones left over from our pub lunch, or twigs picked up with his granddaughter from the Jardin du Luxembourg. But today, she dismisses all that ethnographic stuff that once interested her. “I moved on. I’ve walked around the block 10 times already! I have made it my task to work, to do, to think and to make art that deserves to be noticed strictly because it is art.

It does not, it seems, make any hierarchical distinction between things that are made to hold a place in a building, things that are made to respond to an order, and things that are intended for a gallery. “I get the feeling you don’t like being pinned down very much,” I said. “That’s certainly what my husband would say,” she replies as quickly as Katharine Hepburn. “Everything I do is for one person only,” she says. Herself, of course. “I like it, and I like doing it.” The rest – conversations with curators, or publishers, or architects – is a secondary matter. In the 1970s, she even made embroidered panels for the interior of Air France’s first fleet of Boeing 747s. Her assistants on this occasion were nuns from a silent Carmelite convent. They needed work. The background fell from the host market.

There are also other stories to tell: the time she pissed off all the Armenian carpet dealers in Paris by buying tons of carpets from the Drouot auction house, to use them in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining ( although they never were). And the time she edited American Fabrics and Fashions magazine, where she got Madame Grès a fancy Dutch art scholarship because the fashion designer, she claimed, “was really a sculptor.” The tiny, former Mrs Grès “in her turban and Jaguar drove to The Hague and got the prize and got in her car and came straight back” – skipping her own party. And afterwards, the great couturier made Hicks a black and red dress (which Hicks may or may not wear to his opening in Wakefield), the great lady sitting on the floor with pins in your mouth while Hicks said to her, “I’m so embarrassed,” and Grès replied sternly, “Ma’am, you too are a woman who knows what it’s like to do her thing. job.”

Sheila Hicks, in the courtyard in front of her studio in the 6th arrondissement of Paris.
Sheila Hicks, in the courtyard in front of her studio in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. Photography: Ed Alcock/MYOP

Color, however: Josef Albers was the great color theorist, his courses on the subject were famous – and Hicks taught her class herself, then in Chile, on her Fulbright. But she tells me that the first work in the Wakefield exhibition predates her lessons with him: it is a painting of a summer she spent in Taxco, Mexico, in 1954. She had already done two years at Syracuse University, until – and this story comes with a certain poise, its tragedy perhaps dulled for Hicks by time and narrative – a friend of his from the course suggested that they’re trying to transfer to Yale. The Ivy League institution at the time, aside from a handful of girls in art school, “only took boys. What we thought was fun. Not much competition, right? So her friend picked up their wallets over the Easter break, “and it was Albers who looked at them. He loved his job. He liked my work. He said ‘Yeah, put those girls in’. And then that summer, my friend stuck her head in the oven and gassed herself.

“What do I do now? I didn’t want to go back to school, because everyone was going to ask what happened. She took advantage of that summer in Taxco to think about it, and then decided “I’ll go to Yale because I don’t know anyone. I don’t have to answer to anyone. What happens happens. Of course, I knew the color before I got to Yale because that’s what Albers saw in me. She describes how he would organize weekly exercises for his color class, then he would collect student work anonymously and choose pieces to discuss in class. “And most of the time he would use my work – pulling it anonymously and using it as an example. So there was a kind of mutual appreciation – but anonymous. You were sticking to the topic. It wasn’t about gender. It wasn’t about race. It was none of that. It was the color.

Cordes Sauvages/Hidden Blue (2014).
Cordes Sauvages/Hidden Blue (2014). Photography: Michael Brzezinski/The Deighton Collection. Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London

And then there was Anni Albers. Hicks laughs when she tells me how she defines herself as Anni Albers’ student. Not even a little. When she started making these makeshift looms for her art history studies, Josef Albers introduced them. Anni didn’t teach at Yale – there was no weaving department and there were certainly no female professors. Josef “wasn’t even very polite. He said, ‘Come with me, my daughter, be in my office at four o’clock, we will meet my wife.’ Hicks, “like a stupid student,” had no idea who his wife was. The guy painting next to her hissed, “You’re not going home with your teachers!” And Hicks hissed back, “I don’t think I have a choice.” And what about Anni Albers? “Oh, she wasn’t impressed with my stuff at all.” You sense that Hicks doesn’t really care about the association, thinks it can be helpful, and she’s nothing if not a pragmatist, seizing opportunities along the way and working on nobody’s agenda. other than his. So I leave her, and she returns, perhaps relieved, to the demands of flame and scarlet and blue and green.

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