Alan Shields, American (1944-2005)

Alan Shields created vibrant collages from scraps of cloth, thread and pipe cleaners. That were stained with acrylic and attached to upstretched canvas. Their zany titles, recall the atmosphere of the 1960’s, as do their glowing bold colors. Yet Shields did not actually make much of an impact until he made his name with a very successful show in 1969 at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York.

Shields was born in Herington, Kansas and raised on his family’s farm. His mother and two sisters taught him how to sew, a skill that he was to use spectacularly in his collages.

Shields was fired by a spirit of adventure, encouraged by the stories of the Santa Fe Trail with which he was brought up, even though his own epic journeys were to take him in the opposite direction to New York, Europe and India.

Shields move to the East Coast did not take place until 1966, after an indecisive period in which he studied engineering, theatre and art at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. Eventually he left, without graduating, for New York, where he set himself up as an artist, while also briefly acting and designing stage sets in summer workshops at the University of Maine.

After his success with Paula Cooper, with whom he continued to exhibit throughout his career, he found himself in demand across the country. His work entered major collections – including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His rejection of oil paint; his interest in the traditionally female techniques of stitching and sewing; and, most crucially, his apparent indifference to the art market, had a remarkable result: the price of his works soared.

Throughout his career, Shields also practiced a variety of printmaking techniques. He combined etching and aquatint with relief printing, producing grid-like compositions on overlapping sheets of paper, many of which he had himself made by hand in a mill in Ahmedabad, Western India. He also experimented with jewelry, animation and what could loosely be described as sculpture, displayed in installations throughout the world.

Shields passed away in 2005 after battling with emphysema.