This is a work of sublime simplicity by the Paris-based American artist Sheila Hicks. Created this year, it reveals her exceptional mastery over her material. For seven decades Hicks, born in 1934, has worked with thread as other artists work with paint or plaster or pencil, creating powerfully expressive artworks on every scale: from her intriguing ‘minimes’, like daily diary entries; to larger installations. In 2017, her environment ‘Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands’, 2016–17, a towering cascade of balls of coloured yarn, debuted to spectacular effect in the Arsenale at the Venice Biennale. It was a work of abstract art of the highest order, translating elements of abstraction, colour theory, and painterly gesture into thread.
It was while at Yale School of Art, studying painting for a Masters in Fine Art, that Hicks was introduced by her tutor (the Yale design department chair and former Bauhaus and Black Mountain College professor Josef Albers), to his wife, the renowned weaver, Anni Albers. Although Hicks only met Anni Albers a couple of times, the conjunction of Josef Albers’s ideas on colour with Anni’s deep feeling for structure in weaving kindled a line of creative enquiry that has fuelled her entire career. Travelling after her Bachelor degree on a Fulbright Scholarship to Chile in 1957, Hicks had encountered ancient Andean weaving techniques, leading to a thesis in pre-Incaic textiles; after her Masters, and brief period in Paris, she then moved to Mexico, where she began to work with textiles herself. Since then, she has explored textile traditions across the world – from Japan to India and Morocco – and combined significant private and public commissions with teaching and an ongoing experimental practice as a fibre artist.
Hicks’s originality was recognised early – the Museum of Modern Art was the first museum to acquire one of her pieces, ‘Blue Letter’ (1959), in 1960 – a monochromatic handwoven wool work. What is staggering is her facility in the specific language of thread, which in her hands becomes a universal key to all knowledge and experience. ‘Wish I Were a Wave’ is part painting, part sculpture, the thread reduced to its abstract essence of colour and form. In looking at it you understand that a wave is a weaving of threads of water and light – and your heart lifts with the same excitement that a real wave inspires even as your head appreciates Hicks’s audacious wit. This piece features in Demisch Danant’s online summer exhibition, Fresh Air, and speaks of summer.