Sheila Hicks: We meet at last, and I see her newest work
April 17, 2010

This post is a followup to a January post about Sheila Hicks’s artwork at a NYC restaurant,  SD26.  (My earlier post is here if you want to catch up.)  In an interview for that post,  Sheila said that she was working on another piece for the Main Dining Room,  and at the beginning of March,  she posted this comment on my blog:

I’m trying to finish a large work for the restaurant SD26 and hope to have it ready in March.  It keeps changing and evolving but there is one constant — it is made of bright orange,  Greek wool with a coir core.

At the end of March,  I e-mailed to ask how the new work was coming along,  and Sheila’s reply was an unexpected invitation to meet her at Restaurant SD26,  since she was stopping in New York for a day or two on her way back to Paris.  So I had a quick manicure and was on my way.

Spoiler alert:  Fangirl gushing follows.

I had read about SD26 and seen many images of it,  but the reality was both more inviting and less imposing than I expected a two-level, 14,000-sq-ft restaurant to be.  In an excellent interview in Food Arts magazine (read it here),  Massimo Vignelli, the well-known designer of SD26’s interior, said that practically everything was designed by him to create an atmosphere that’s “serene, comfortable, simple.” I was there on a sunny weekday afternoon, between lunch and dinner, and the vibe was pleasantly serene.

When I arrived at the restaurant,  Sheila was already settled in a booth with two friends,  Cristina Grajales,  owner of the eponymous Soho  gallery that shows Sheila’s work,  and Claudia Steinberg, correspondent for the German design magazines Architektur & Wohnen and Country.  Over coffee,  conversation wandered from art world news, to  travel plans,  to mutual friends,  but as we chatted,  I noticed that the new artwork was already installed on a wall across the dining room.  After Sheila suggested that I might take pictures from the balcony,  I felt comfortable enough to roam around and take more.  Here they are,  as a slideshow:

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Some of the restaurant views will be familiar to readers of my earlier post,  but here also are several pictures of the artist (two with Ms.  Grajales and Ms.  Steinberg,  and one with Mr.  May);  her new piece,  Minerva’s Hideaway; and some less familiar views of the restaurant.

I had wondered how a “bright orange” piece would look with the restaurant’s red interior,  but SD26’s banquettes are a deep — almost brick — red,  and the orange yarn is,  as Cristina remarked,  the color of cinnamon,  making  Minerva’s Hideaway a harmonious addition.  In an e-mail,  Sheila described the structure of the piece this way:

“Minerva’s Hideaway” is made of coconut fiber (coir) and loosely spun wool [that is] wrapped with fine embroidery cotton,  husky linen,  and synthetic raffia.

Her e-mail also described the origins of the work:

Massimo (Vignelli) and I wanted to re-create an early sculptural work I had made for the dining room of his apartment in New York.  He gave that immense wool wig-shaped piece to his daughter, but he and his wife lamented the loss.  But when I delivered the orange cords and wrapped elements,  and Enrico Martignoni installed it,  we deliberated and modified its shape on the wall to become a soft,  solid square bas-relief.  For me,  it is the goddess Minerva’s hideaway.

After a while,  Cristina and Claudia left,  and Sheila and I moved into the sunny lounge to continue our chat.  Tony May,  co-owner of SD26,  stopped to say hello,  and sit for a bit,  but aside from that, we just sat and talked.

Until that day,  Sheila and I had a cordial e-mail relationship,  and I knew what she looked like,  but I had no idea what it would be like to meet her.  After we’d talked for a while,  I realized that my reaction to Sheila was similar to my reaction to SD26:  She was much warmer and far less imposing than I expected her to be.

She speaks softly,  but directly and with self-confidence.  From her e-mail messages,  I know that she is a good writer,  and hearing her thoughtful comments confirmed that she is an unusually articulate speaker.  She converses easily and answered my questions openly and interestingly which,  I guess,  is not surprising for someone as used to being interviewed (and photographed) as Sheila must be.

The close-up of Sheila is my favorite SD26 picture.  When I photographed her,  I began by focusing on the layers of colors she was wearing,  but looking at that picture now,  what I focus on is the beautiful face of a woman who is very much at  home in the world.

I was pleased to learn that Sheila Hicks will have many shining hours in the coming months.  The Addison Gallery of American Art,  in Andover,  Massachusetts  (link here), is organizing a traveling retrospective exhibition of her oeuvre,  Unbiased Weaves:  Sheila Hicks,  Fifty Years, that will open in the fall.  Other well-deserved honors and interesting projects are in the works,  and I’ll be writing about them when I have more information.

Before starting for home,  I left the lounge briefly (and discovered that the women’s restroom provides individual cloth handtowels),  and when I returned,  Sheila was sitting on a bench,  under her artwork,  writing in a book.  The book was Speaking of Art 1958-2008,  a collection of interviews with artists (including Ms. Hicks),  from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art,  and she graciously offered me the beautifully inscribed copy as a memento of our visit.

Meeting Sheila Hicks — and her friends — in the context of the restaurant that she is so close to was a delight,  and I thank her most sincerely for the invitation and for her company.  Oddly enough,  considering how curious I was about the food at SD26,  I’m glad that we didn’t meet for lunch,  because under the circumstances,  I wouldn’t have known what I was eating anyway.

I wished her a safe trip home,  read my new book on the subway,  and smiled all the way back to Brooklyn.

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Sheila Hicks: New work @ Restaurant SD26
January 25, 2010

Sheila Hicks with 5 "Sumo Balls." Photo: Massimo Vignelli office

Twenty years ago,  before I knew the difference between tiramisu and calamari,  I was at an Italian Trade Commission presentation and was served a simple pasta lunch so delicious that it made an impression on even my unrefined taste buds.  Well, no wonder:  the meal had been catered by San Domenico,  one of the finest classical Italian restaurants in NYC.  I never ate there,  but I never forgot the lunch or the name of the restaurant.

Last fall I read in the NY Times that San Domenico had closed,  and that the restaurant’s owners, Tony May and his daughter Marisa,  were opening another New York restaurant, SD26 (link here), with interiors by noted designer Massimo Vignelli (link here) and installations by fiber artist Sheila Hicks.  This was something that I wanted to know more about, because Sheila Hicks is one of the world’s preeminent fiber artists,  so it’s news that her work is a prominent — and permanent — part of the Mays’ new restaurant.

Ms. Hicks studied art with Josef and Anni Albers at Yale,  and she has been creating innovative work ever since.  If you want to know more about Sheila Hicks’s extraordinary career,  see my earlier blog post here and visit her website here.  Her site does not offer a complete catalogue of her work, but the exuberant colors and photographs, and the concise text, show very clearly who she is as an artist.

I also recommend the book Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor,  by Danto, Simon, and Stritzler-Levine,  which was published to accompany Ms.  Hicks’s 2006 exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center, NYC.  Design is central to Ms.  Hicks’s work,  so it’s not at all surprising that the book was brilliantly designed,  too.  At this moment it is going into its third printing,  which will be available in March.

But back to SD26.  The restaurant has been open for a few months and has gotten a lot of positive press attention,  but I wanted information specifically about Sheila Hicks’s installations.  Marisa May,  co-owner of the restaurant,  graciously agreed to a phone interview and provided Beatriz Cifuentes’s  striking photographs of the restaurant’s interior,  for both of which I am grateful.

Sheila Hicks also very kindly agreed to be interviewed (via e-mail) for this article.  My interview with her follows:

Q:  Because I want my article to be fairly short, and to focus on the SD26 commission,  I’m going to limit how much I write about your brilliant and prolific career,  but I can’t pass up the opportunity to ask you how you got into weaving.  I know that you studied art at Yale with both Josef and Anni Albers,  but was there any specific trigger for your interest in fiber arts?

A: When I moved to Mexico in 1959 after finishing two degrees in painting at Yale I applied my design ideas,  and by working with the local weavers,  made all of the textile-based accessories for my house in the countryside near Iguala/Taxco.  In doing so,  I learned about materials,  texture,  color and scale in a trial and error fashion  It was the best way to apply my studies and to actually see the results.

Q:  Marisa said that Massimo Vignelli fell in love with your work.  Was it his idea to commission you to create work for the restaurant?  Had you worked with him before?

A:  Yes.  Actually I have known him and his wife, Lella,  for more than 40 years.  We all worked on the Georg Jensen Center for Design in New York and have shared similar design concerns and projects on many occasions  but the SD26 restaurant was the first time we were able to work hand in hand with concepts,  drawings,  trials and models from the initial planning stages to the finished installation.  Massimo had clear ideas of how he wanted my work to fit into his master plan and he helped me in all phases.  As he was familiar with my work and my respect for architecture he felt our vocabularies coincided in a compatible and reliable manner.

Q:  Your work blends well with the restaurant’s interior.  Did you work from site visits?  Photographs?  Drawings or plans?

A:  I worked from all of the above.

Q:  Since this is the Mays’ third restaurant in New York,  did Tony or Marisa May offer input or make requests?

A:  They relied completely on Massimo’s master plan and concept.

Q:  You have created commissioned work all over the world.  Is this your first piece for a restaurant?  Did the fact that it was a restaurant create any unusual challenges?

A:  No,  I have worked on many restaurants — Paris,  San Francisco,  Tokyo.

Q:  Is this your first public work in New York City?

A:  The Ford Foundation auditorium and board room were my first large permanent New York installations.  Before that I made works for Saarinen’s CBS building on 52/53rd St.  and his TWA terminal at JFK.  Five years ago I was commissioned to make two tapestry bas-reliefs for the Federal Court House in Foley Square, NYC.

Q:  Each installation at SD26 uses one of your signature motifs: the wrapped ropes in the lounge, and the fiber balls that hang from the ceiling above the dining room.  What are the titles of the works?

A:  The sinuous cords on the two entrance wall panels are called: OR, OTHERWISE,  AND THEN AGAIN.  They are linen and cotton.  [See Beatriz Cifuentes’s photo below.]

The large hanging sculptures in the dining room are: EIGHT SUMO BALLS.  Silk,  cotton,  wools,  synthetic and metallic fibers.  [See Beatriz Cifuentes’s photo below,  and for a closer look,  see photo at the top of the post.]

Q:  Were they made in your Paris Studio?

A:  Yes, in the Cour de Rohan.

Q:  Marisa mentioned that you were working on another piece for the restaurant.  What stage is that work in?

A:  It is almost finished and will be installed in February.  it will hang on the far wall of the dining area above the red leather eating booths.

[Update:  Sheila Hicks’s new piece was installed in the restaurant in March.  To see it — and to read about it — click here.]

Q:  She also told me that you are a foodie.  Do you have a favorite dish at SD26?

A:  Seldom,  if ever,  have I seen such an attractive and varied cheese bar.  This combined with excellent wine and expertly prepared pasta are my favorites.  It sounds simple but sometimes that is the hardest thing to find in sophisticated New York eating meccas.

So having begun with and circled back around to the Mays’ pasta,  this seems the perfect place to end,  for the time being — but not before I mention how very grateful I am to Sheila Hicks for generously taking the time to help me with this project,  which started last September and isn’t over yet.