Dave Hickey, an art critic whose polarizing writings obtained a cult following, has died. Daniel Oppenheimer, who published a biography of Hickey this year called Far from Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art, reported in Texas Monthly that Hickey died at 82 last month.
Although Hickey had been writing cultural criticism for decades, it was only in the 1990s that he accrued a large fan base. His criticism blends high and low, often putting well-known works of art alongside musings on basketball and fast food, and often refuses to cater to the sensibilities of the art-world intelligentsia it may have once been aimed at. Engaged, incisive, and at times contrarian, Hickey wrote in a way quite unlike others of his generation—or any other that followed. Critic Peter Schjeldahl once called him “the philosopher king of American art criticism.”
Hickey wrote two books of criticism that achieved widespread fame: Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy (1997) and The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (1993), a wide-ranging set of musings on Hickey’s various aesthetic interests and a defense of beauty in contemporary art, respectively. Neither were widely read upon their release, however. Earlier this year, in an Art in America review of Oppenheimer’s biography, critic Travis Diehl recalled that he retrieved his tattered copy of The Invisible Dragon from an artist’s recycling bin.
Yet a set of loyal followers had been stumping for Hickey’s writing for years. Back in 1995, in Artforum, Schjeldahl presciently labeled The Invisible Dragon “the biggest little book of our time.”
The Invisible Dragon exemplifies Hickey’s sensibility. It mounts an argument that beauty still mattered at a time when it was viewed as being anathema to relevant art-making, and it does so elegantly and seemingly effortlessly. In one essay, he compares Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit photography of queer subcultures to Caravaggio’s religious paintings. Using language indebted to art theory of the postwar era, he muses on sleek Mapplethorpe pictures that had been the subject of a culture war in the early ’90s, writing that they “seem so obviously to have come from someplace else, down by the piers, and to have brought with them, into the world of ice-white walls, the aura of knowing smiles, bad habits, rough language, and smoky, crowded rooms with raw brick walls, sawhorse bars and hand-lettered signs on the wall. They may be legitimate, but like my second cousins, Tim and Duane, they are far from respectable, even now.” Such a statement came alongside an honest disclosure: he had first come across these works in a coke dealer’s penthouse.
Evidence that the art world was loathe to accept Hickey’s views on beauty can be glimpsed in a response from Amelia Jones, a feminist art historian. She once wrote that Hickey’s writing served to please “a particular group of critics (almost all white men) as having access to the truth.” The book remains divisive, even today.
Air Guitar, on the other hand, has a firmer place within the canon of art criticism. Whipping between meditations on Stan Brakhage’s experimental films, basketball player Julius Erving’s technique, and Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, Air Guitar synthesizes Hickey’s personal life with his artistic influences. Importantly, it does so in a way that owes less to accepted forms of criticism than to the kind of casual, albeit sophisticated, talk one could have over drinks.
Praising the book as “often perfect,” Greil Marcus wrote in Artforum, “His writing is like great talk–especially great graduate-student talk, where the smallest details of speech or dress can assume impossible significance only to be cut off at the knees by a wisecrack, then raised up again by ‘But what I really mean is–.’”
While Hickey is often commonly regarded as a prominent art critic, he had an unusual, and sometimes ambivalent, relationship with the art world. In his own writing, he portrayed himself as an outsider confused by the art world’s contradictory social mores and obsession with money.
While on assignment to cover the openings of Frieze London and Art Basel Miami Beach for Vanity Fair in 2008, he wrote, “Think of the art world as a beach and money as the surf. Waves roll in but they always suck back out, leaving a few masterpieces, taking some beach with them. When a really gnarly monster rolls in, the best we can hope is that it will leave some beach behind and a few treasures in the sand, along with the wreckage and the bodies—because the wave will suck away. And when it does, as it is doing right now, the whales will either hold or dump. If they hold, art will remain a stable-valued, low-liquid commodity. If the whales dump at cut-rate prices, the art world will undergo its first catastrophic value re-adjustment in 40 years. It won’t be pretty, but it will be exciting to watch.”
In 2012, Hickey announced that he was retiring from the art world altogether. “I plan to disappear like Marcel Duchamp, which is to not quite disappear,” he told the Observer. “I’m about to leave…oops, I haven’t left yet but keep on looking.”
David Hickey was born in 1938 in Fort Worth, Texas, and went on to live “all over the place,” as he recalled in a 2014 Los Angeles Times profile. His father was a musician, and his mother was a painter and a teacher. They moved to Los Angeles, though Hickey did not often discuss his childhood, which was marred by many unhappy memories, including his father’s death by suicide when Hickey was 11.
Briefly, Hickey took a turn in the art market. In 1967, he opened the short-lived gallery A Clean, Well Lighted Place—its name a reference to an Ernest Hemingway short story—in Austin, Texas. Though it was only in operation for a few years, the gallery became known for showing offbeat contemporary art. Then, in 1971, when he moved to New York, Hickey ran Reese Paley Gallery. He reportedly departed when his boss said he would show Yoko Ono’s art.
Also during the ’70s, Hickey served as executive editor at Art in America (which is currently ARTnews’s sister publication). Writings from that era predict the style for which Hickey would later become known. In an essay on Land art published in Art in America in 1971, he mentions artist Dennis Oppenheim in the same breath as the country music singer Terry Allen. Hickey’s writings also appeared in ARTnews, the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and other publications.
During the ’90s, Hickey took a post as a professor in the art department of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where his persona rankled colleagues, despite his renown in New York. He became the first curator of the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, and went on to accrue a reputation in the city. In 2010, when Hickey and his second wife, the art historian Libby Lumpkin, left Las Vegas for good, the Las Vegas Sun devoted an entirely profile to the couple, which the paper said “will go down in Las Vegas history.”
All the while, Hickey’s fame rose on the international art circuit. In 2001, he won a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, the most esteemed of all art awards in the U.S. And in 2004, he curated the SITE Santa Fe biennial.
In his final years, Hickey sought to undo some of the perceptions about him and his work that he felt were erroneous. One was the idea that he wrote only about men. To remedy that assumption, he published 25 Women: Essays on Their Art (2015). “Most of my favorite people are women,” he wrote in that book’s introduction. Despite the feminist underpinning of the book, some critics detected whiffs of veiled sexism. Chloe Wyma, writing in the New York Times, said that the book “makes him look less like the art world’s enfant terrible than its dirty old uncle.”
All of Hickey’s writing is characterized by a direct engagement with art itself. Shorn of the art-world theatrics surrounding it, good art, he seemed to suggest, makes itself known by being just that: good art. “If the work is not look-at-able, it just doesn’t matter, he told critic Saul Ostrow in a 1995 Bomb interview. “It’s not interesting art to me.”