Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor (Yale U P)

Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor charts the development of the artist’s miniature weavings over the past fifty years. The handsome book, complete with an embossed cover that suggests the texture of woven cloth, was published to coincide with the 2006 exhibition held at The Bard Graduate Centre for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture in New York City.

Sheila Hicks is well known to many by way of her large-scale textiles, which is why this compact book is an intriguing surprise. It also stands quite alone, with the only other English-language study of the artist, Monique Levi-Strauss’ Sheila Hicks, long out of print. The artist estimates that she has woven over a thousand miniature textiles throughout her career. 195 are illustrated in the text. Today, some inevitably look dated. Others elicit the “I could have done that” syndrome. Most of us couldn’t, of course, if for no other reason than the technique in which they were made, which creates four selvedge edges to each weaving. A helpful work-in-progress image sheds light on Hicks’ simple, but unusual, technique developed on a small, self-fashioned portable frame. And a selection of sketchbook pages dating from 1958-1965, reproduced at the end of the book, offer insight into Hicks’ creative process and the roles of art, craft and design in her work.

Small but substantial, this book is both well designed and considered. The majority of pages are designed with a single colour plate on the right hand page accompanied on the left with caption information. Some pages include Hicks’ explanation of the work. Sequence is determined by chronology. This style allows each work necessary breathing room and provides a welcome frame of white on all four sides of each weaving that draws attention to many of the weavings’ four selvedge edges. If we are to approach these works as sketches or notations, then it is understandable that some are inevitably of more interest than others. Some of the work is exquisite, such as Vanishing Yellow (2004) and Badagara Yellow (1966), while others such as Miniature Textile (1987) fail, at least in reproduction, to excite. A few curious deviations from the loom can also be found, such as the assemblage Amor de l’Ama (1989).

The one exception to this well considered book is the essay “Weaving as Metaphor” by Arthur C. Danto. Where much of the book reflects the balance and symmetry apparent in so many of Hicks’ weavings, the decision to publish the essay in font size that decreased from page to page meant that it read awkwardly. More importantly, we learn by way of a footnote that the essay was commissioned by the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia and published, in part, under the title “The Tapestry and the Loincloth”. Considering the dearth of critical writing on contemporary textiles it seems a shame that the opportunity was not taken to commission and publish a new piece of scholarship on weaving capable of providing more specific insight into contemporary textile practice. Two further essays, Joan Simon’s essay “Frames of Reference” and the exhibition’s curator Nina Stritzler-Levine’s “A Design Identity” both offer far more illuminating responses to Hicks’ work.

Modern Carpets & Textiles (spring 2007: 15)