One sweltering afternoon earlier this week, the artist Sheila Hicks was enjoying a blueberry popsicle as she leaned against a railing on the High Line on the far West Side of Manhattan and watched as construction equipment—cranes, elevators, dump trucks—moved this way and that, building towers that are part of the Hudson Yards development.
“See him lifting up there?” Hicks said, pointing toward a crane high in the sky and following its motion. “Imagine if he was flowing some kind of long banner.” That was part of her first plan for the High Line, she explained. “I said that I’d try to get permission from the union to get the guys who are working up in the cranes to do a ballet with textiles—long piece of fabric.”
That proved to be a bit too complicated to realize, but part of the piece that Hicks ended up making for the High Line was sitting right in front of her—tubes wrapped in strong, richly colored fabric that snake through the rough-and-tumble park on the walkway’s northern stretch for about half a kilometer. “It’s like peekaboo—now you see it, now you don’t,” Hicks said of the work, which stops and starts at various points, loops, and disappears under foliage. “Where are they coming from anyway? Are they coming in from over the fence? From where? Down below? What’s happening?”
Hicks, who is 83, speaks with a lilt that just barely conceals a mischievous streak, and when she became enthusiastic about an idea or the name of a plant she was examining (like Queen Anne’s Lace, also known as Wild Carrot) or a story, which was delightfully often, she reminded me of a slightly subdued Julia Child.
“Squirrels,” she deadpanned, when I asked what is inside her tubular sculptures. “Muskrats are hiding in these things! There are lots of little creatures giving birth in there.”
Helicopters were noisily making use of the nearby heliport and scores of tourists, including quite a few families with young children, were passing by. “Look at all the little people up here,” Hicks said, crouching to get a view of her piece below the railing. “So, therefore, we have to make it interesting down here.” It looked great from the height of about three feet, for the record, especially where the fabric cylinders press right up against the railing so that you can touch them, like wild abstract animals in some strange petting zoo. Tiny metal rivets hold the fabric in place. “These studs I think are nice—like little beady eyes,” Hicks said.
“This is exciting because it wasn’t like this when I did it,” Hicks told me as we walked along her piece, which she’s titled Hop, Skip, Jump, and Fly: Escape From Gravity. She hadn’t seen it since she installed it back in June, having been back to Paris, where she has lived since 1965. New plants had sprouted around and through the installation and its fabric—produced by a company called Sunbrella for outdoor furniture and marine use—had begun to change color.
“Look at the rails, look at the tie rods,” Hicks said, noting the rust that has developed on the High Line’s old tracks. “We’re in that spirit.” The piece will remain on view into next March, as the snow falls and then melts and new plants begin to join the festivities.
The play of shadows and light along the park over the course of the day—even moment to moment—causes the fabric’s hue to shift in places, washing out an already faded green or punching up a brilliant pink, so that it’s “like a kinetic painting,” she said.
For well more than half a century, following studies at Yale with Josef and Anni Albers in the 1950s, Hicks has conjured, with formidable élan, similarly remarkable feats with fabric and textiles and weaving, making everything from ingenious, intimate small-scale works she calls minimes to sprawling, delirious installations, as in the roughly 50-foot-long Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands (2016–17), which is the star of “Viva Arte Viva,” the main show at the Venice Biennale this year.
Visiting Diego Rivera’s murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts as a child made it so “that you’re not afraid of scale,” she said. (She was born in Nebraska, but her family later moved to the city, where, she once told an interviewer, she “joined a street gang…we marauded around the neighborhood on our bicycles and did terrible things to all the neighbors—terrible, like dumping garbage cans at their front doors.”)
When I asked about other public artworks that she admires, Hicks replied, “If you’ve got Machu Picchu as a reference and go to Mexico and you have Mitla and Monte Albán and all this, this is a piece of cake.” (She traveled throughout South America in the late 1950s and lived for five years in Mexico.)
Hicks finished her popsicle and kept gamely strolling along Hop, Skip, Jump, and Fly…, then stopped at a segment where the piece crescendos with a bunch of tubes of different colors gliding into the air and swooping around one another. “I was doing calligraphy in the air,” she said of the installation process, reenacting how she waved her arms to ask the High Line team to move her pipes, which are as long as 40 feet in some cases.
Hicks seemed pleased with the end result, and said that she was looking forward to seeing how it all changes while she is away. She will unveil a piece at Versailles in October, there’s a survey scheduled to open in November at the Museo Amparo in Puebla, Mexico, and in February she’ll be doing a project with the Centre Pompidou in her adopted hometown. She was also still mulling her textile ballet, and thinking about a place to stage it. “I bet the French are nuts enough that they might do it,” she said.
The sun was slowly setting, but it was still hot. Hicks looked up at Hudson Yards, squinting a little. “The sun is bouncing off the towers now,” she said quietly. “Tremendous.”