Installation view of Sheila Hicks <em>Nowhere to go</em> 2022, at Hepworth Wakefield, West Yorkshire, 2022. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, NGVWA, 2022. Photo: Michael Brzezinski<br/>
© Sheila Hicks

Painting space

Donna McColm

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

That Sheila Hicks began her career as a painter is perhaps not surprising. Hicks’s capacity to saturate the eye in the experience of pure colour echoes the influence of her teacher at Yale School of Art from 1954 to 1957, the Bauhausler Josef Albers, and, although painting was not to be Hicks’s chosen medium, she has said, ‘I felt more comfortable with artists who were painters or sculptors’.1

Hicks has also said that she likes to draw inspiration from a broad range of materials, like an architect.2 In the context of the emergence of her work in the 1960s and 1970s, where neat conventions of painting and sculpture were increasingly challenged, her work nestled in its own place. She utilised many different materials and artistic traditions, while at the same time not adhering to any one specifically, so that, in her own words, ‘my work was equated with a kind of graffiti’.3 Along with the threats that post-minimal painting or so-called ‘expanded’ sculpture of the time made to the purity of these mediums, an artist’s choice to work with certain materials could also quickly result in stereotyping, often gendered – fibre and weaving as feminine, industrial materials and sculpture, masculine.

Even since her earliest works, Hicks has evaded these boundaries and definitions. Her first work to enter a museum collection, Blue letter, 1959, acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1960, is an almost-square blue monochrome textile work. The wall hanging could easily pass as a painting, a field of blue colour that draws the eye across the surface by subtle undulations in texture. With her capacity even at this early stage in her career to learn from diverse influences and synthesise these into experiences of both colour and form, Hicks has ensured that her work has existed across boundaries rather than within specific confines. The reduction of her work to the categories of painting, sculpture, architecture or indeed ‘fibre art’ is not necessary.

More recently, Hicks has considered her works in the twenty-first-century context of art in museums, where installations often form the backdrop for photographs or social activity. She says:

I’m not intentionally making backdrops; I’m making, probably, landscapes. Sometimes people look at them and sometimes walk into them, and sometimes people stay inside, like they say, ‘Can you do that for me in that space where I live?’ They say, ‘I’d really like to live with that’.4

This space of openness and confidence has been made possible by Hicks’s deep and longstanding connection to a wide range of materials, cultures and histories, going back to her studies and personal experiences as an emerging artist. Chair of Yale’s Design department from 1950 to 1958, Josef Albers had come from the Bauhaus (first as a student in 1920 and as a teacher from 1922–33) via the influential Black Mountain College. His teachings instilled in Hicks the value of an interdisciplinary approach; painting, sculpture, graphic arts and architecture were all seen as design, and process was Albers’s primary emphasis, rather than achieving specific outcomes. He encouraged the use of readily available materials as well as new ways of looking and visualising, which were captured in his 1963 volume Interaction of Color.5 Published after Hicks’s graduation, it served as a handbook for students, artists and teachers alike, with instruction ranging from topics such as colour juxtaposition and intersection to gradation – all elements that we find in Hicks’s works, though uniquely her own.

From Yale art history professor George Kubler – Hicks took his classes in pre- Columbian and Ibero-American Art – Hicks gained insight into the embedded nature of materials and artistic traditions within cultures, which provided an expanded view of art history and with it new opportunities for experiencing and making art within the context of life rather than theory. Not wanting to learn of these cultures solely second-hand and wanting to experience them for herself, ahead of her graduation in 1957–58 Hicks travelled on a Fulbright grant to paint in Chile. While there she experienced ancient Andean weaving techniques and, after returning to Yale to graduate with her MFA, in 1959 Hicks travelled again to live and work in Taxco el Viejo, Mexico for five years before moving to Paris, where she has since based her life and practice. Throughout this time, Hicks has supported workshops and maintained connections with communities in Chile, Mexico, Morocco and India.

Of more informal encounters during her student years, such as with the weaver Anni Albers via introduction by her husband Josef, Hicks says:

If Josef had awakened me to the world of colour and ways of using colour in his teaching at the school, I believe that, in the six or seven brief meetings I had with Anni, she helped me to think about structure.6

Throughout her career, Hicks has developed an ever-expanding way of sharing her experience of the world through colour, materials and space. In a 2022 interview Hicks attributed this to her defiance. It is a strong, but apt, word. Persistence also comes to mind:

I think when I was very young someone spotted me as a contrarian – a little kid who asked, ‘Why?’ Because when I was told to do something, I think in my mind I processed it always as, ‘Why?’ And then I’d be told how, and again I would ask, ‘Why that way?’ Maybe there are many ways. Maybe there are other ways. Maybe there is my way. It sort of became a way of life.7

Recent works such as Nowhere to go, 2022, featured in the NGV Triennial 2023, encapsulate Hicks’s sensibility. Monumental in scale, Nowhere to go is a defiant work. Firstly, it defies gravity. Piled high, the installation expands upwards both physically and visually, guided by the gradation of deep blue to light and emitting a lightness while seemingly composed of heavy, material bulbs. The work also defies its materiality. The overall form appears as woollen but is woven with an industrial pigmented acrylic fibre that, unlike natural materials, resists water, humidity and fading.8 Finally, the work resists being defined by its making. Handmade by Hicks’s small studio, it is nonetheless epic in scale – almost 7 metres high – challenging notions of textile works as intimate, small, gendered. Contrarily, Nowhere to go is expansive and architectural, bringing us back to Hicks’s connection with architecture. As she says, ‘I think about the scale more than I think about the materials’.9

Hicks emphasises that in its saturation of colour, Nowhere to go can be experienced as sea or sky. But the work is not illusory. There are no visual tricks to be discovered. Nowhere to go is grounded in experience and firmly connected to the world. One is reminded of the wealth of experience gained by Hicks throughout her more than sixty-year career, going back to her time living in Mexico from the late 1950s, where she was captured by the reality and value of materials and their connection to daily life: ‘I lived in the countryside, and it was very enriching because people made everything that they wore, including their shoes’.10

Nowhere to go reminds us that we are connected to the people and places we inhabit and surrounded by materials embedded with meaning. Hicks’s gift of defiance in this work encourages us to explore the spaces in between those we inherit or are taught, and to move beyond the definitions we may seek to give meaning to the world around us – to swim in both the sea and the sky.

The NGV warmly thanks the NGVWA for their support.

DONNA MCCOLM is Assistant Director of Curatorial and Audience Engagement, National Gallery of Victoria.



Martina Margetts, ‘Common threads’, Crafts, no. 294, May–June 2022, p. 72.


Nina Siegal, ‘A weaver’s journey’, Modern Painters, May 2018, p. 90.


Leslie Camhi, ‘A career woven from life’, The New York Times, 31 March 2011, p. 26.


Siegal, p. 90.


Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1963.


Sheila Hicks, ‘My encounters with Anni Albers’, Tate Etc. <>, accessed 26 May 2023.


Gwen Burlington, ‘Constant discovery: Sheila Hicks interviewed by Gwen Burlington’, BOMB, < constant-discovery-sheila-hicks-interviewed>, accessed 26 May 2023.


Other recent large-scale works using this technique include Hop, Skip, Jump, and Fly: Escape From Gravity, High Line, New York, May 2017 – April 2018, curated by Cecilia Alemani; Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands, 57th Venice Biennale, curated by Christine Macel.


Siegal, p. 88.


Anicka Yi, ‘Sheila Hicks: my work is associated with sensuality’, Interview, 2 April 2018,, accessed 26 May 2023.