Most of Homer’s many references to weaving have to do with working at the loom as one of women’s prescribed activities. That is what Hector had in mind when he ordered Andromache back to her loom and away from the concerns of men. Though there have been enough male weavers over the centuries to dispel the notion of weaving as a feminine craft, Hector’s bias continues to lurk in our cultural exaltation of paint over yarn, brushwork over needlework. It takes a man to be an action painter, some think. Yet the most vigorous and innovative abstraction in New York this season was not painting at all. It was a series of miniature textiles by master weaver Sheila Hicks, on view at Davis & Langdale in Fall 2008. “Minimes: Small Woven Works” presented twenty small—less than ten inches high—irregular rectangular structures that testified to her early studio training as a painter. It was a stunning display on an intimate scale that proved the falsity of lingering uncertainty over the status of textile art. Born in Hastings, Nebraska, in 1934, Ms. Hicks is internationally known for her role in the so-called fiber revolution of the sixties, which sought to transform textiles into a three-dimensional contender as an art form. She studied painting at Yale (1954–59), immersing herself in Josef Albers’s color courses and absorbing a passion for the ordered relationship of hues. She taught his approach, in Spanish, at the Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile, during a Fulbright year there. Before taking up permanent residence in Paris in 1964, she studied weaving techniques in Chile and Mexico.
Her textiles represent a sophisticated melding of textural originality, high craftsmanship and striking color, inherited from her Yale apprenticeship. Ms. Hicks speaks of her own explorations of color relations within a singular fiber piece as “Albers’s model with deviations.” Her work, in its entirety, builds on the strength of her early studio training while it navigates the terrain between art and design. Each one of these diminutive seductions is a complete work of art in itself, scaled to perfection and no less magnificent than her monumental commissions. Ms. Hicks achieves a rare level of refinement using the simplest—almost primitive—means. Her first loom was nothing more than four short canvas stretchers fitted with a row of nails along the top and bottom to hold warp threads under tension. Her current frame, in use since the sixties, looks much the same. Hand-held and portable, it can be worked in the lap, like an embroidery hoop. Ms. Hicks has shuttled the weft back and forth with something as low-tech as a cactus spine perforated like a needle.
A lively vocabulary of devices repeat in dynamic combination throughout her work: wrapped warp threads that create columnar breaks, under-and-over techniques common to basket weaving, an occasional addition of simple stitchery, petit-point, a rug-maker’s knotting techniques and more. Ms. Hicks’s exceptional feeling for composition and artisanal repertory fuses cross-cultural traditions with modernity. Ancient textile techniques combine with contemporary innovations, traditional materials with modern ones. The textural interaction of woven cotton, linen, wool, silk and stainless steel or bamboo monofilament creates surface variations of remarkable subtlety and richness. Tonal shifts among muted colors—ochres, siennas, umbers, russets, terra rosas, a whole palette of earthen tones—invite close examination.
An assertive movement of variegated blues, Eccentric Barrage underscores the dependence of the modernist grid on the warp and weft of weaving, among the first relics of civilized life. On reflection, our vaunted grid is simply the ancient structure of textiles on stilts. Five rectangular panels, each length diversified by shifting color notes and textural changes, rise to a lateral plateau by means of an ascending diagonal or extended twill effect. Silken flecks of red accent a composition constructed on tonal harmony between woven cotton and wool in blues and dark greens. Abbey in Seclusion, a finely ordered arrangement of neutrals, ends in three falanges that introduce light and the illusion of motion into a serene composition. Environs of Blaru conveys intimations of landscape by the undulating curve of weft threads and the lovely accumulation of citron and persimmon zones that enliven what reads as the foreground. As in all her miniatures, combinations of thread weight and density, together with the material play of matte and sheen, create a sense of spatial depth that would be the envy of any painter.
In a cultural climate in thrall to taxonomy, the question of whether Ms. Hicks creates art, craft or industrial design carries more weight than it should. With good reason, she has an aversion to questions about categorization: she chooses resonant titles that deflect attention from materials or construction methods. Whatever ambiguities exist in curatorial classifications, these are compelling works of great distilled power. Davis & Langdale, 231 East 60th Street, New York, New York 10022. Telephone (212) 838-0333. On the web at www.davisandlangdale.com