Dave Hickey was a writer. He’s written news, fiction, and journalism – essays on Liberace, the mechanics of zone defense on the playground, and what made Las Vegas America’s most American city, boisterous, brash. and vulgar.
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 knew him in the 1980s.
Lots of smart people write smart things about art, but no one was a better writer than Dave. Hickey died Nov. 12 at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, succumbing three weeks before his 83rd birthday after a long, difficult battle with heart disease. He is survived by his wife, Libby Lumpkin, feminist art historian and professor at the University of New Mexico, and a younger brother, Michael, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (A sister, Sarah Henderson, is deceased before him.)
Two books published by Art Issues Press in Los Angeles sit at the top of his writing heap. “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty” (1993), a thin, soft-cover chapbook, rocked an art world allergic to taking the b-word seriously, even though “beautiful” was a common exclamation in response. to exhibitions of the most resilient concept art. “Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy” (1997), a 23 column collection compiled in the publisher’s monthly magazine, applied the dreaded dragon’s breath to both high and pop culture.
Still available, eight prints and tens of thousands of copies later, “Air Guitar” is by far the most widely read art critic book of our time. His lament resonates for art once seen as a controversial civic forum, now overrun with hard currency in investment markets. The democratic part of “Air Guitar”, which foresightedly predicts much of the political catastrophe we find ourselves in today, is often overlooked.
Hickey’s intelligence first interested me in his work. My introduction was his 1982 catalog essay for “I Don’t Want No Retrospective: The Works of Edward Ruscha,” a traveling exhibit from the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. His essay made the paintings I loved intelligible in a simple, even obvious, way that the critical baggage of high art claims had hitherto obscured. The vernacular was good enough for the artist and the art critic.
But it was the music of his writing that kept me going. Hickey, a bright and cantankerous mind, wrote for the ear. His work needed reading, not digitization, and rewarded effort with pleasure.
He was aware of obscure philosophical treatises (his abandoned 1967 doctoral thesis in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin involved critiques of Jacques Derrida and French structuralism). But, with all due respect, he found the iconoclastic conciseness of Waylon Jennings’ outlaw words and the post-doo-wop campaign of George Clinton and the Parliament-Funkadelic collective more effective than the theory of the greenhouse that blooms in academic journals.
He had learned to love painting from his distant mother, Helen, a businesswoman and amateur artist, and he breathed in the intricacies of the music of his father, a jazz musician, David, a car salesman who tragically died of his own hands when Hickey was 11. If art was to be seen, then writing, like a song, had to be heard. No wonder he was able to illuminate the work of Ruscha – an artist of painted, heard language.
Hickey could explain the sweet sensuality and exotic drift of his childhood move as a kid from Texas (he was born in Fort Worth), transported with his family for a year to the beach in Los Angeles, and inserts into his writing the wonder of a landscape strewn with “coconut palms”. These are tropical trees, of course, not imports found by the Southern California seaside. But if the story needed to convey the baffling bewilderment of the dislocation of youth, plus the sound engine of a stupid rat-a-tat given by a hard-c repeat to get things done, so be it. Thus. This was the case with the coconut palms of Pacific Palisades.
Half a dozen years passed after I read Ruscha’s essay before I met him. Asked to speak on a panel in Texas, I accepted only because Hickey was scheduled as a local panelist.
At that time, I was filling in the story. Since the late 1960s, he had been running A Clean Well-Lighted Place, an ephemeral but legendary art gallery in Austin; moved to New York and was director of the pioneer Reese Palley Gallery in Soho; become editor-in-chief of Art in America, where he also wrote; writes and promotes music in Nashville; written for Rolling Stone and Village Voice (“He’s as good as he gets, starting with his prose,” in the words of esteemed Voice rock critic Robert Christgau); and, somewhere along the way, ran out of amphetamine and went home to live with mom in Fort Worth to clean up. (He replaced the high-powered push for speed with an unbroken cocktail of nicotine and caffeine.) The Texas sign remains blurry to me – was it Houston? Dallas? – but the boisterous staging of his fascinating insight was clearly part of Dave’s re-emergence from self-imposed isolation.
When I returned to LA, a coincidence happened: Gary Kornblau, who I knew from his casual job at the reception at the Margo Leavin Gallery in West Hollywood, asked if he could let me know about it. ‘an idea for a rich, critically-poor Southern California art magazine. Of course I said – and there’s this guy in Texas you should post.
The fit between Hickey as a writer and Kornblau as the editor of Art Issues has proven to be ideal – which is not easy to say. A deadline for Dave was a great excuse to procrastinate, only to speed up at the last minute (or after) and then, in editorial consultation, to refine the music for the essay.
The “Dragon” chapbook emerged as an intellectually ambitious statement of the critic’s working philosophy. The timing couldn’t have been more unstable. With the roaring Reaganite market of the 1980s collapsing into a deep recession, identity politics came to the forefront of the art world. The institutional bureaucracies of museums and art schools that had grown up with him brought politics together in a tight embrace. It was fine with Dave – with a big caveat. A work of art, he argued, does not represent a monolithic community.
Instead, he insisted, the best art creates a diverse community – a free and open kinship of people drawn to it, now and in the future. This attraction shared between dissimilar but committed participants was the “beauty” part. Beauty was the expression of various desires, not a thing.
For those who were not paying attention, Hickey’s claim was received as an anachronistic and reactionary affront. The mistaken assumption was that beauty was put forward as an essential characteristic contained in certain identifiable objects – what was known in the past as “the beautiful”, a marker of aristocratic taste imposed by privileged elites. The error was even tossed about at an inane UCLA symposium, sarcastically, though revealing, titled “On the Ugly.”
“Air Guitar” was the collection that spoke most eloquently of Hickey’s move to Las Vegas, where he assumed a teaching position at the University of Nevada (with visiting professors at Harvard University and Otis College of Art and Design of LA). He began building something unprecedented – a small but bustling local community of artists and art participants.
He had seen an opening. Las Vegas, he writes, was a blessed city “devoid of dead white walls, gray wool rugs, Ficus plants and Barcelona chairs,” the establishment furnishings of an established art world that all colonized. the world continents. Somehow, the lackluster conformism had missed a flashy desert waterhole “where there is everything to see and not a single pretentious object demanding to be scrutinized”.
For authentic art, the city’s Ur object defining a sense of possibility and wonder was the world’s largest rhinestone, proudly on display at the Liberace Museum.
When the sympathetic folks at the John D. Foundation and Catherine T. MacArthur of Chicago asked me to quietly nominate someone for the 2001 portion of their annual “genius grant”, a millennial nominee was evident. Hickey was the closest thing to this endangered breed – a public intellectual – that the vain world of American visual art could claim. I wrote an absurdly long but successful recommendation, pointing out that the grant would reflect beautifully on the foundation, not the recipient, since everyone already knew he was a genius.
After the MacArthur Award, he proceeded to deposit most of the half a million dollar prize in video poker machines on and off the Strip. Virtuoso artist Robert Irwin was able to move to Vegas in the 1980s and become an accomplished professional gamer to support himself, as the splendid art he made couldn’t. Dave, however, had written for a living. As a dedicated bettor of amateur standing, he knew the house would always win, but he wanted to know the game.
The game is over now, although we have at least one more Hickey rumination to look forward to. Libby Lumpkin told me that over the summer Dave completed a long article on Michael Heizer, the lone sculptor from Nevada who has spent the past 50 years building a colossal fortress of mud and concrete called “City “in the middle of an arid desert. nowhere. I imagine beauty is involved, and I can’t wait to read it.
Hickey will be buried on November 30, at 1 pm, at Rosario Cemetery in Santa Fe. Everyone is welcome.