Dave Hickey has written about art by cantankerously taking down the academic art establishment, languaging his outrage in a spectrum that ranges from snarky to lyrical, oscillating in tone between a Walt Whitman-like effulgence to just one more Western cowboy dopey dude. He’s not my favorite critic (that spot will always be held by Carl Belz), but I agree with him more often than not. What’s more, I always read what he writes. And given his refusal to engage in the mumbo-jumbo terminology of Art World Mandarin, he reaches a larger audience than most art writers.
His latest book is 25 Women: Essays on their Art. For the most part these short pieces were previously published, commissioned by museums and galleries, so the tone is one of appreciation and advocacy rather than critique. I don’t know every artist included here, but the book is full of those Hickey moments that no one else can deliver.
“Most of my favorite people are women,” he proclaims in the introduction, which might surprise some of his detractors who think of him as just more more white guy art critic. But two deceased women appear larger than life as his reasons for writing this book: the curator Marcia Tucker (“my first rabbi in the art world”), and his own mother Helen Hickey, an academic and an artist with whom he had a very difficult relationship.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Hickey wrote the book “because I couldn’t find one book of collected essays out there about women artists. There’s a lot of books about menopause, and a lot about how you get a gallery, but nothing seriously addressing the work women make.” May this be the first of many.
Two of my favorite essays in the collection are, understandably, artists whose works have influenced my own: Joan Mitchell and Vija Celmins. Hickey captures essential qualities in Mitchell’s work with epigrammatic clarity: “She could make any mark but she never fell in love with one, just with the speed of it.” On Celmins: “Celmin’s work for all its coolness is always haunted by an atmosphere of loss.” Hickey pairs Mitchell with words from Catullus (“I hate and love. Perhaps you’re asking why I do that?/I don’t know but I feel it happening and I am racked.”) And for Celmins, he turns to heavyweights Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: “History is always written from a sedentary point of view, even when the topic is nomads. What is lacking is a Nomadology, the opposite of a history.” These pairings felt pitch perfect.
I resonated with Chloe Wyma‘s conclusion to her review in the New York Times:
Hickey is neither art criticism’s reactionary philosopher king nor its populist Robin Hood, but a sensualist with an acquired taste for art that is resistant to interpretation and unapologetically elitist, a term he halfheartedly redeems as a positive value. He’s a colorful essayist and a perceptive critic. His popularity points to a real problem: Many people feel alienated by contemporary art and the obscure, pleasureless language that encrusts it. Those who don’t cringe at the mention of identity politics, who maintain hope for art as a space for beauty and justice, pleasure and politics, would do well to borrow Hickey’s tools to dismantle his house.
Ain’t it the truth: Many people feel alienated by contemporary art and the obscure, pleasureless language that encrusts it. I’m grateful to Hickey for offering up something else.