Lignes de vie (Life Lines), an exhibition of Sheila Hicks’ textile-based artworks currently on display at the Centre Pompidou, is truly retrospective of the 83-year-old artist’s work, dating back 60 years. Curated by Michel Gauthier, the exhibition features artwork from as early as 1956, and as recent as 2018. During my visit, the artist herself was seated elegantly on a bench only three feet away from her work “Pêcher dans la rivière,” a work based in white fibers that incorporated brown, rusty eel fishing spears. After a brief jest about children who run around her exhibition only to pounce on “La Sentinelle de safran,” a collection of differently colored balls of yarn placed in a corner of the Pompidou Gallery, the artist talked briefly about her work by referring us to her exhibition’s brochure:
What is my work? I studied painting, sculpture, photography, and drawing, but textiles were what most attracted me. I practice a kind of textile art. I create environments, make objects with thread, weave fabrics, build soft sculptures and bas-reliefs; I devote myself to design and produce functional objects using thread. (Hicks, Life Lines)
Having asked another guest at the exhibition to read this out, Hicks then asked her audience: Does that really sound like art to you? Hicks’ attitude towards her own work is reminiscent of the original definition of ‘art’ in English, which is not an abstracted art, but art as skill and craft. Hence the phrase ‘a work of art’, Hicks seemed to want to say, follows a kind of circular path: art is work; a work of art, then, is a work of work.
Hicks’ biography, too, points us towards that definition of ‘art’. Born and raised in Nebraska, Hicks has been living in Paris since 1964; combatting the strict hierarchies of the art world in Paris must have been difficult for her. During our discussion, she revealed that when she first started exhibiting in France, her work in fabric was immediately classified as tapestry, a classification she did not particularly feel at home with. Hicks is truly a citizen of the world, manifest not only in her life in Paris, but her life outside of the city, in Chile, Mexico, India, Israel/Palestine, and so forth. From each of these places, she has collected fiber-based as well as non-fiber materials to incorporate into her work.
This idea of travel and mobility is filtered, however, by Hicks’ own strong and individual sense of self, which at the age of 83 is perhaps stronger than ever. I make these things in my dining room, on my table, Hicks told me when I asked her how the experience of these different ‘exotic’ places factor into her work, and how she deals with the Orientalist discourse that must accompany a work by a white American woman working with material from Chile, Israel/ Palestine, and so on. For instance, “Cordes Sauvage”, the very first work that greets the visitor at the entrance, is unlike all of Hicks’ other works at this exhibition. Featuring, dark, mysterious colors, “Cordes Sauvage” is, in a particular way, savage — its use of ‘chords’ is, unlike Hicks’ other works, unruly, tangled, messy. In fact, the work’s so-called savageness is captured aptly by a comment that another friend overheard: These look like dreadlocks. Driven by these specific considerations, I had asked my question to her. Although her answer at the time had been dissatisfactory to me, I later realized a central tenet to Hicks’ work: memory and self.
Memory is a powerful tool that helps internalize the sense of an artwork; the profundity, meaning, idea, significance; that which we think is the essence, or aura, of a piece of art. And of course, memory is linked intimately with the self. Hicks works not only with material that she gathers from her travels, but also from what she can gather from people close to her — her friends and family. All of her works are therefore ‘pockets of memory’: the use of fabric and textile, wrapped and twisted to form shapes, things, and ideas, turns tangible things into a pocket for an abstraction like memory. In “Scattered Memories”, a more recent piece (2017-18), a wall is covered with balls of cloth, fabric, and things that Hicks has gathered. From afar, the piece looks like a wallpaper in 3D, but closer examination reveals that each of these tiny balls of memories are complex objects themselves, created by Hicks in a moment of synthesis (of memory). The raw facts of synthesis — the threads uniting different pieces of memory, the objects that represent memory themselves — are available to the viewer, but so is the synthesized picture: the plain and simple wall of the Pompidou Gallery on which Hicks’ piece rests.
Underneath “Scattered Memories”, as shown in the picture below, was a glass vitrine displaying various diaries, notebooks, and other memorabilia that have belonged to Hicks over the years. One diary, opened to a random page, read “Nebraska”, while another was labelled “Hebrew; Israel”. The cabinet’s position underneath “Scattered Memories” is not accidental: Gauthier wants to link the re-creation of memories through artwork to Hicks’ own intimate memories. The privilege of meeting Hicks in person completes the retrospective in the fullest way possible: it allows the viewer to link the artworks to these pieces of memorabilia to the artist herself. In a serene and melancholic way, the artist, through this exhibition, pays tribute to herself, to her own life and experiences of 83 years. Even in her absence, the visitor is invited to think about the artist behind the work, the strength of her artistic gesture so strongly evident in her work.
But this long life, too, has not been an easy or conventional one, the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou wants to tell us. The use of fabric to create ‘high art’ was not unchallenged when Hicks first began her foray into the artworld, fabric being not just an everyday, mundane media, but also a ‘woman’s media’, which for many ought to be confined in the domesticity of the home. Hicks’ enormous success, against all odds, is captured precisely by the Centre Pompidou, which itself has travelled a similar path of criticism. Completed in 1977, the Centre Pompidou was lambasted by critics, its modernity considered an insult to the Hausmannian beauty of a hard-to-please Paris. In 2018, when this site is considered an iconic monument of modern Paris, Sheila Hicks’ Lignes de vie asks us to think about modern art and modernity in a critical and perhaps welcoming way.
Hicks’ works interact intricately with the Pompidou Gallery: “Chapultepec”, named after the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, hangs down from the gallery’s open ceiling. The viewer, whose eye starts at the bottom of the hung fibers touching the gallery’s floor, and travels up their path to the very top, is invited to continue following the blue metal pipes and plumbing of the Pompidou’s exposed architecture. This path ends only when the viewer’s eyes reaches the end of the gallery, terminating not in a concrete wall, but the transparent glass windows, connecting the Pompidou to the rest of Paris.
The transparent glass windows are intended to welcome viewers from outside the Pompidou, as well as to urge viewers of the exhibition to view the rest of the world through the lens of the exhibition. Hicks wants ‘high art’ to descend from its pedestal, to create it so close to everyday humanity that there is a certain kind of immediate arrivability — not accessibility, but precisely arrivability; the potential to arrive at an understanding of their significance — to her works. Hicks stressed the importance of being able to carry the works into the gallery before the start of the exhibition without having to mediate; her fibers were so simple and practical that they could be packed tightly into a duffle bag and brought into the Pompidou through the transparent glass doors as opposed to painting, which has to travel in caskets (I believe ‘casket’ is the word she used — denoting not only the box in which the painting travels, but also the coffin in which the business of the museum metaphorically kills it). Similarly, the exhibition viewer is asked to see the rest of the world through Hicks’ lens: a recent work titled “North-South-East-West” (2018), placed against a window, exposes the viewer to a vision of Paris, especially during a sunny afternoon, filtered through primary colors of linen. Although the linen threads are wrapped around opaque panels, to the viewer they produce the illusion of translucence that paints the exterior world in different lights. These are Hicks’ lights, constructed through each and every single piece in the exhibition and painting the rest of the world the way she sees it.
Curating over 100 artworks produced during Hicks’ life, Lignes de vie intends to and ultimately succeeds in painting the portrait of a phenomenal woman in art. The visitor will do well not to miss the “Minimes”, smaller fabric pieces framed like photographs and exhibited along the west wall of the Gallery, which tell the artist’s story through these tiny experiments, almost a magician’s sleight-of-hand captured in fabric. These little works, constituting a major wall of the exhibition, help us conceptualize the exhibition and its subject: Lignes de vie, in particular the life of Sheila Hicks, whose work, life, and contribution to art is captured by the suspended yet living, breathing, fabric — her domestic, all-pervading medium, which she manages to freeze in time and place at the Centre Pompidou.
Cover Image “Five Rose Thorns” by Sheila Hicks