Appreciation: Art critic Dave Hickey was known for his wits

Dave Hickey was the author. He wrote short stories, fiction and journalism – essays on Liberace, the mechanics of zone defense on the playground, and what made the loud, brash, vulgar Las Vegas America’s most American city.

Sometimes he wrote about music – country and rock ‘n’ roll – and sometimes he wrote the songs themselves. And he wrote about art, that’s how I got to know him in the 1980s.

Many wise people write clever things about art, but no one was a better writer than Dave. Hickey died Nov. 12 at his home in Santa Fe, NM, and succumbed to three weeks before his 83rd birthday after a long and difficult battle with heart disease. He is survived by his wife, Libby Lumpkin, a feminist art historian and professor at the University of New Mexico, and a younger brother, Michael, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (A sister, Sarah Henderson, preceded him).

Two books published by Art Issues Press in Los Angeles are at the top of his pile of writing. “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty” (1993), a slender cover book with a soft cover, shook an art world that was allergic to taking the b-word seriously, although “beautiful” was a common exclamation in response to exhibitions of the most seemingly resilient concept art. “Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy” (1997), a collection of 23 columns collected from the publisher’s monthly magazine, applied the dragon’s fearsome spirit to culture both high and pop.

Still available, eight prints and tens of thousands of copies later, “Air Guitar” is easily the most read book on art criticism popping up in our time. Its lament echoes art that was once seen as a controversial bourgeois forum, now flooded with the hard currency of investment markets. The democracy part of “Air Guitar”, which predicts much of the political catastrophe we are in today, is often overlooked.

The cover of Dave Hickey's book "Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy" shows a guitar floating in the night sky.

Dave Hickey’s “Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy” was released in 1997.

(Art Issues Press)

Hickey’s wisdom first made me interested in his work. My introduction was his essay in the 1982 catalog of “I Don’t Want No Retrospective: The Works of Edward Ruscha,” a traveling exhibition from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His essay made paintings that I loved understandable in clear, even obvious ways that the critical baggage of high art pretensions had hitherto obscured. The vernacular was good enough – for the artist and art critic.

But it was the music in his writing that kept me going. Hickey, an ingenious and weak-minded wit, wrote for the ear. His work required reading, not scanning, and rewarded effort with joy.

He was familiar with mystical philosophical dissertations (his abandoned PhD dissertation in linguistics from 1967 at the University of Texas at Austin involved critiques of Jacques Derrida and French structuralism). But with all due respect, he found the iconoclastic brevity of Waylon Jennings’ lawless texts and the post-doo-wop operation of George Clinton and the Parliamentary Funkadelic collective more effective than the greenhouse theory flourishing in academic journals.

He had learned to love painting from his otherwise distant mother, Helen, a businesswoman and amateur artist, and he inhaled the intricacies of music from his jazz musician father, David, a car salesman who tragically died of his own hand when Hickey was 11. If art were to be seen, then writing, like a song, was to be heard. No wonder he could illuminate Ruscha’s work – an artist of painted language, overheard.

Hickey could explain the soft sensuality and exotic drive of his childhood move as a child from Texas (he was born in Fort Worth), transported with the family for a year to the beach in Los Angeles, and infuses in his writing the wonder of a landscape dotted with “coco palms” . These are, of course, tropical trees, not imports found off the coast of Southern California. But if the narrative was to convey the confusing confusion of youthful dislocation, plus the sonic engine of a silly rat-a-tat given by a harsh repetition to move things further, then so be it. Coco palm trees in the Pacific Palisades were it.

It took half a dozen years after reading the Ruscha essay before I met him. When I was invited to speak in a panel in Texas, I only accepted because Hickey was scheduled as a local panelist.

At the time, I was filling out the back story. Since the late 1960s, he had run A Clean Well-Lighted Place, a short-lived but legendary art gallery in Austin; moved to New York and was director of Soho’s groundbreaking Reese Palley Gallery; become executive editor of Art in America, where he also wrote; made a break from writing and promoting music in Nashville; written for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice (“He is as good as it can get, beginning with his prose,” in the words of the esteemed Voice-rock critic Robert Christgau); and somewhere along the way he burned out of amphetamine and went home to stay with mom in Fort Worth to clean out. (He replaced the high-watt pressure of speed with a white-knuckle cocktail of non-stop nicotine and caffeine.) The Texas panel remains hazy for me – was it Houston? Dallas? – but the noisy showmanship of his captivating insights was clearly part of Dave’s resurrection from self-imposed isolation.

When I got back to LA, coincidences happened: Gary Kornblau, whom I knew in passing from his occasional reception service at the Margo Leavin Gallery in West Hollywood, asked if he could give me an idea for an artful, critically acclaimed Southern California magazine. . Yes, I said – and there’s a guy in Texas you should publish.

The fit between Hickey as a writer and Kornblau as an editor at Art Issues proved to be ideal – which is not to say easy. A deadline for Dave was an excellent excuse to procrastinate, only to screw up to hyper-speed in (or after) the last minute and then, in editorial consultation, to hone the essay’s music.

A line drawing of a building on the front of Dave Hickey's book "The Invisible Dragon: Four essays on beauty."

Dave Hickey’s “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty” was published in 1993

(Art Issues Press)

The “Dragon” cap book emerged as an intellectually ambitious statement about the critic’s work philosophy. The timing could not have been more unstable. The roaring, Reaganite 1980s marketplace that had collapsed in deep recession had identity politics pushed into the forefront of the art world. The institutional bureaucracies of museums and art schools that had grown up with it brought politics together in a tight embrace. That was fine with Dave – with a big warning. A work of art, he argued, does not represent a monolithic community.

Instead, he insisted that the best art creates diverse community – a free and open kinship between people who are attracted to it, now and in the future. The shared attraction among dissenting but committed participants was the “beauty part”. Beauty was an expression of motley desires, not a thing.

To those who did not pay attention, Hickey’s claim was received as an anachronistic, reactionary insult. The erroneous assumption was that beauty was promoted as an essential attribute within certain identifiable objects – what in the gray past was known as “the beautiful”, a marker of aristocratic taste enforced by privileged elites. The bug was even hoisted into the air in an incompetent UCLA symposium sarcastic, albeit revealing, titled “On the Ugly.”

“Air Guitar” was the collection that spoke most eloquently about Hickey’s move to Las Vegas, where he took a teaching position at the University of Nevada (along with visiting professorships at Harvard University and LA’s Otis College of Art and Design). He began to build something unprecedented – a small but lively community of artists and art participants.

He had seen an opening. Las Vegas, he wrote, was a city blessed “deprived of dead white walls, gray woolen carpets, ficus plants and Barcelona chairs,” the furniture of establishment in an established art world that colonized all global continents. Somehow, the dull conformity had missed a flashy desert water hole “where there is everything to see and not a single pretentious object that requires to be scrutinized.”

For authentic art, the city’s Clock Object, which defines a sense of opportunity and wonder, was the world’s largest rhinestone, proudly displayed at the Liberace Museum.

When the friendly people at Chicago’s John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation asked me to quietly nominate someone for the 2001 payout of their annual “genius grant,” a millennial candidate was obvious. Hickey was the closest thing to the vanishing race – a public intellectual – that America’s vain world of visual arts could claim. I wrote an absurdly long but successful recommendation in which I emphasized that the grant would reflect the magnificent foundation, not the recipient, as everyone already knew he was a genius.

Following the MacArthur Reward, he continued to deposit most of the half-million-dollar prize in video poker machines on and off the Strip. The virtuoso artist Robert Irwin was able to move to Vegas in the 1980s and become a skilled professional gambler to support himself, as the magnificent art he created could not. However, Dave had written to serve his team. As a player dedicated to amateur-standing, he knew the house would always win, but he wanted to know the game.

The game is over now, though we have at least one more Hickey ruminant to look forward to. Libby Lumpkin told me that over the course of the summer, Dave finished a long piece about Michael Heizer, the retired Nevada sculptor who has spent the last 50 years building a colossal fortress of mud and concrete called “City” in the middle of a rugged desert- nowhere. I imagine beauty is involved and I can not wait to read it.

Hickey will be buried Nov. 30 at 9 p.m. 13.00 at Rosario Cemetery in Santa Fe. Everyone is welcome.

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