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Sheila Hicks Blue Gros Point', ca. 1990, and Questioning Column, 2016.
Photography by Zachary Balber, courtesy of The Bass, Miami Beach.

At age 85, Hicks is one of the great artists on the world stage. Though often described as a fibre artist, there can be little doubt that she is primarily a sculptor, with a powerfully assured handling of space, scale, texture and colour. The stance she takes to her own discipline is relational precisely in the way that Krauss described: ‘My lifelong ambition’, Hicks told me, ‘is to be faithful to fibre, but free from it, too. I got hooked to the material early on, but I never followed its laws.’ Her gorgeous vertical waterfalls of yarn are like warps innocent of the loom. Her long braids, rhythmically wrapped into bundles, invariably spill open at their ends. Everywhere in her work, the up-and-down, side-to-side vectors characteristic of weaving wander off course, resulting in ‘a mischievous, even rebellious, geometry’, as Frédéric Bonnet, the curator of ‘Campo Abierto (Open Field)’, notes in the exhibition catalogue. There she stands, in other words, right at the nexus of ‘fibre’ and ‘not-fibre’.

Hicks also has strong recent form in ‘not-landscape’. The past few years have seen her exploring outdoor settings that would initially seem unpromising, given her medium. Using durable synthetic fibres, however, she has created installations for the gardens at the Palace of Versailles and the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, as well as the High Line in New York. In these projects, nature serves as a paradigm of flux – a theme that bears greater weight nowadays, given our belated awareness of climate change. Her iconography reflects the environment transforming before our eyes: melting glaciers, leafless tress, rising tides. Hicks says that this was uppermost in her mind when deciding how to approach the show in Miami: ‘When we think of Florida, we think first of landscape – the water, the sun, the elements.’ Yet, she is obviously no land artist; her works are hopeful gestures, not direct interventions. ‘I don’t want to make it sound triste,’ she says, ‘but it’s like you close your eyes and see paradise lost. A thrust to counteract desperation.’

As to ‘not-architecture’, this could be seen as her primary inheritance. From Bedouin tents to Native American tipis to Mongolian felted yurts, fabric has always provided a way to live without permanence. In keeping with these traditions, Hicks engages with architectural ideas, but always transiently, making them happen and then moving on. Her earliest works in the ‘Prayer Rug’ series (1965–ongoing) were a breakthrough in this respect: they allude to the Islamic custom of making sacred space with nothing more than a mat on the ground. More recently, with The Questioning Column (first realized for the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 and reprised this year for her show at The Bass), she temporarily transforms the syntax of a classical façade, adding a single exuberant polychromatic exclamation point. While her recent Baôli – big soft pads, made by wrapping bales of thread with netting – were inspired by steps leading down to sacred wells she had seen in India.

For Hicks, these various liminal situations are the very definition of the ‘open field’. If her idea of expansiveness differs from Krauss’s, the distinction lies in her greater emphasis on social encounter. Arthur C. Danto, in his 2006 essay on Hicks, ‘Weaving as Metaphor and Model for Social Thought’, speaks of the ancient Greek embrace of textile as analogous for the polis: a delicately interconnected web of dependency. The artist loves this idea of a ‘harmonious interlocking’. Indeed, an even better metaphor for her exhibition at The Bass might be an agora – a public square – rather than a field. For if this space isn’t populated, where is? 

If Krauss was right to say that every sculptural situation implies monumentality, then what, we might ask, is being commemorated in Hicks’s work? One possible answer is a certain ideal of public life. Hicks has seen quite a bit of history by now, enough to convince her that even democracy can be dangerous. She cites the work of her close friend, the essayist Dominique Eddé, who, writing last month in the Lebanese newspaper l’Orient-Le Jour, describes the way community sometimes ‘folds in on itself like a clenched fist, to strike a blindly defensive attitude, with no eyes for anything other than itself’. Instead of a closed system, Hicks offers an open invitation – of the kind that buildings and forests generally don’t. Not-architecture, not-landscape, not-hierarchical, her work offers a warm welcome and a tacit reminder: ‘Stay awake, because something’s happening.’ 


"Campo Abierto (Open Field)" is on view at The Bass, Miami, until September 29, 2019.

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