When Sheila Hicks first conceived her vibrant, larger-than-life installation Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands for the Arsenale at the 2017 Venice Biennale, she faced a unique dilemma. “They gave me a space to exhibit that no other artist wanted because there were holes in the roof,” Hicks, a renowned fiber artist who once studied under Josef Albers, recalls. “I thought, I can handle it.”
Escalade would ultimately be remembered as one of the Biennale’s most striking, and tactile, moments, and was recently reconstructed in full at The Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach for Campo Abierto (Open Field), an ambitious survey covering six decades of the pioneering fiber artist’s career. A floor-to-ceiling wall of multicolored bundles of pigment fiber pairs with tapestries in cotton and linen, which Hicks wove at a loom in Antigua, Guatemala, in collaboration with bespoke textile designer Mitchell Denberg.
Though the museum certainly appears more structurally sound than the Arsenale—the roof and walls here are entirely intact—The Bass had to reconstruct its upper story to properly accommodate Hicks’s colossal installation, not to mention some 30 other works, many also ambitious in scale, spanning her oeuvre.
While this is Escalade’s third iteration—it was also exhibited last year at Kunstenfestival in Watoui, Belgium—its hundreds of rainbow bundles are as bright as ever. They’re not dyed; rather, Hicks crafts each one of pure powdered pigment that, with the help of a binding agent, transforms into a fiber.
“Do you know the difference between a carrot and a radish?” Hicks teases, likening each fiber bundle to the former. “A radish has color on the outside, but not the inside. A carrot is color through and through.”
The fiber is produced in Turkey, processed in Western Europe, and finally woven in the United States. It fiercely retains its color in both sunlight and water. (Hicks even claims that she once left the material in a bathtub full of Clorox for two weeks to see whether the color would change. It did not.)
This retention of color makes it a choice medium for an artist whose works are frequently exposed to the elements. Take, for example, her 2017 installation Hop, Skip, Jump, and Fly: Escape From Gravity, where she wrapped aluminum tubes in another extremely durable material, Sunbrella solution-dyed acrylic, and installed them along New York’s High Line.
“It’s a big advantage to take a supple, friendly material, to be able to walk it outdoors, leave it, and come back six months later to find it’s still okay,” she says of the pigment fiber. “That’s been exciting to me because I’m so interested in three-dimensional sculptural and environmental works. It’s a possibility I didn’t have six or seven years ago.”
Campo Abierto (Open Field) is on view through September 29, 2019.
In 1994, a year after the release of Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List, the director founded a nonprofit organization to videotape and preserve the testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust (or Shoah in Hebrew). Initially, its home was a series of trailers on a Universal Studios Hollywood backlot. A dozen years later, the organization relocated to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where, renamed the USC Shoah Foundation–The Institute for Visual History and Education, it occupied cramped offices on the ground floor of the Leavey Library.
Designing and constructing the new headquarters was a 3 1/2-year, multifaceted project, but one that was full of resonance and personal meaning for Belzberg Architects. While the firm had already shown poetic sensitivity in its 2010 design of the mostly subterranean Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, founding partner and Interior Design Hall of Fame member Hagy Belzberg can also recall hearing stories of his own father’s escape from Poland and the Nazis.
The foundation’s previous chopped-up quarters had fostered tribal work habits among the permanent staff, which now numbers 82. “We aimed for an open, hyper-functional plan,” Belzberg begins. “There would be a level of scales: from neighborhoods and clusters to the larger whole,” lead architect Lindsey Sherman Contento adds, outlining the collaborative, flexible environment they envisaged, which would include opportunities of respite from the frequently harrowing work.
This dual essence—remembering hatred in order to overcome it, an endeavor at once painful and healing—is palpable right out of the elevator into the central lobby, which functions as both reception and an exhibition space. “It’s intentionally warm and dark,” Belzberg notes of this public zone, an environment designed to generate a sense of safety while providing museum-quality viewing conditions. Subdued LED light filters through perforated powder-coated-aluminum ceiling panels. Opposite the elevator bank, a wall sheathed in seven floor-to-ceiling touch screens offers a panorama of interactive content. Visitors can further explore foundation programs at freestanding digital kiosks—individual touch screens set in totemlike panels of backlit perforated aluminum framed in dark walnut—that fill the room. “It’s like walking through a forest,” Belzberg says.
The tenebrous space doesn’t feel claustrophobic, however, because a broad portal at one end opens onto a semicircular skylit area that commands views of the campus and cityscape beyond. Suspended beneath the skylight, Nicola Anthony’s stainless-steel text sculpture incorporates the testimony of a Holocaust survivor. Passageways on the left and right lead to private wings.
The larger, predominantly open-plan wing houses most of the full-time staff. A broad blond pathway of engineered-oak flooring and nylon-carpet tiles cuts a diagonal swath through the light and airy work space. Right up front, a casual visitors lounge hugs the wall of windows so that its colorful ottomans and cushy lounge chairs sit in the abundant sunshine. Facing them across the central aisle is an open kitchen that, for film screenings and other events, conjoins with adjacent classroom and conference spaces via sliding glass panels.
As the pathway proceeds deeper into the office area proper, it is flanked by open bays of workstations that provide bench seating, sit-stand desks, and other individual or group work options. Every staff member has a designated place, but each “neighborhood” includes a central table that encourages collaboration. Sculptural built-in banquettes, finished in gleaming white paint, line one section of the path, which culminates in what Belzberg calls the “think tank”—a quiet space divisible by pocket doors into two separate niches.
The smaller wing accommodates distinguished guests and researchers needing the privacy of enclosed rooms. It also has facilities for recording and editing survivor testimonies—the most compelling example of which can be viewed in the distinguished guests lounge: Here, Pinchas Gutter, a Polish survivor born in 1932, appears as a life-size interactive-screen image to tell his story and answer viewers’ questions with the help of AI.
The wing is notable for its tranquil, light-filled atmosphere. “Early on, we learned that trauma victims can be sensitive to certain triggers,” interior design lead Jennifer Wu explains, which determined the calm, neutral palette with particularly thoughtful textile and wall-covering choices. “We called for artwork and artifacts from affected countries and used them as inspiration for digitally printed patterns.” Examples appear on lounge seating, pedestal cushions, and phone-booth walls.
Despite the overwhelmingly painful histories with which the foundation must deal, its aura remains positive and hopeful. “We were able to avoid genocide tropes,” Belzberg says. “There is no manipulated emotional response.” With perseverance, study and education will preserve the past and help prevent its recurrence.
Project Team: Cory Taylor; Ashley Coon; Adrian Cortez; Barry Gartin; Aaron Leshtz; Corie Saxman; J. Joshua Hanley; Alexis Roohani; Susan Nwankpa Gillespie; Katelyn Miersma; Melissa Yip: Belzberg Architects. Egg Office: Custom Signage. Maude Group: Exhibition Consultant. Mad Systems: Audiovisual Consultant. Newson Brown Acoustics: Acoustics Consultant. Burohappold Engineering: Lighting Consultant, Structural Engineer, MEP. USC Capital Construction Development: Project Management. Clune Construction Company: General Contractor