Dave Hickey: A Graceful, Incisive and Mischief-Making Art Critic

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Dave Hickey, roguish and erudite art critic, dies at 82”:

Dave Hickey, a graceful, incisive and mischief-making art critic who wrote about high and low culture while championing the old-fashioned concept of beauty, arguing that what an artwork looked like was far more important than what it meant, died Nov. 12 at his home in Santa Fe, N.M….

A chain-smoking renegade who savaged the self-importance of museums, universities and other art-world institutions, Mr. Hickey had a wheezy Texas drawl, a fondness for black monochromatic outfits and a colorful and expansive taste in art. He admired the abstract paintings of Ellsworth Kelly and the surreal experimentation of Edward Ruscha; defended the sexually explicit photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and the tender, sentimental illustrations of Norman Rockwell; and spoke rapturously of “Perry Mason” reruns and Karen Carpenter pop songs.

“Whatever is a little off kilter,” he once said of his taste, “I’m your guy.”

Mr. Hickey insisted that his views on art were essentially democratic. Beauty was in the eye of the beholder, he argued, and a work of art could be meaningful and worthwhile even if it was rejected by most critics. “Bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege,” he wrote.

Urging museumgoers to stop reading exhibit labels, he declared that “art ain’t rocket science” and suggested that it was far from necessary to get a PhD or read French theorists like Foucault and Derrida to truly appreciate a painting or sculpture. He spoke from experience, having studied for a doctorate in linguistics before running galleries in Austin and New York; before becoming an art critic, he also wrote shorts stories, worked as a professional songwriter in Nashville and chronicled the country, punk and rock scenes as a music journalist.

“You can kind of divide the art world into those people who find that art’s closest analogy is with literature and those who find its closest analogy is with music,” he said in 1999. “And people like myself, who find it to have been with music, have been radically out of fashion for many years. You know, people are concerned with ‘what it means.’ I’m much more concerned with what it does.” Distilling his ethos further, he said, “I’m not interested in the intentions of artists; I’m interested in consequences.”

Mr. Hickey was perhaps best known for two essay collections: “The Invisible Dragon” (1993), which promoted his views on beauty, and “Air Guitar” (1997), which included essays on Hank Williams, Liberace, the art market and car design. While the latter sold more than 20,000 copies, enough to qualify as a hit work of art criticism, the former sparked a backlash at a time when conceptual art was king.

Critics labeled him a reactionary, noting that traditional standards of beauty usually seemed to benefit straight White men. “It’s a very dangerous thing to call for a return to such a notion of beauty,” art historian Amelia Jones said in 2000. “There’s a long history of that being invoked to exclude [what isn’t thought beautiful] and to empower the person making the call.”

Others called him anti-intellectual, lamenting his insistence on treating high and low art with the same seriousness. At times, he was also accused of casual sexism; in a Times review of his 2016 book, “25 Women: Essays on Their Art,” writer Chloe Wyma said Mr. Hickey occasionally came across “less like the art world’s enfant terrible than its dirty old uncle.”

Yet his essays and articles — for publications including Artforum, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Vanity Fair and Harper’s — brought him a devoted following, making him one of the few art critics to acquire national recognition in recent decades. He received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2001 and was celebrated by fellow art critics such as David Pagel, who called him “a cross between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Joe Cocker,” and Peter Schjeldahl, who crowned him “the philosopher king of American art criticism.”

“He uses style to tell truths otherwise inaccessible,” Schjeldahl wrote in a 1995 article for Artforum. “You can’t separate his meaning from the timbre of his prose, whose repertoire includes plain American (which dogs and cats can understand, as Marianne Moore noted), philosophical precision, polemical scorched earth, and defrocked scholarly mandarin. His arguments are places of the heart: bright pastures or dark alleys where you are accompanied by a voice explaining things you suddenly feel you always knew.”…

Hickey was born in Fort Worth. The family moved frequently, with stops in Oklahoma, Louisiana and California, and both parents moonlighted as artists. His mother was an economics professor and amateur painter, while his father worked at car dealerships, playing the saxophone and clarinet in jazz bands at night. He killed himself when Mr. Hickey was 16, according to a recent biography, “Far From Respectable,” by Daniel Oppenheimer.

Mr. Hickey studied engineering at Southern Methodist University before transferring to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where he switched his major to English after taking a class with John Graves, the author of “Goodbye to a River,” who became one of the state’s most beloved writers….

While traveling to New York and Europe, he discovered the work of Ruscha, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, deepening his interest in contemporary art. Dropping out of graduate school, he borrowed $10,000 and opened an Austin art gallery — A Clean, Well-Lighted Place — with his first wife, Mary Jane Taylor, in 1967. They named their gallery after a short story by Ernest Hemingway and helped promote young Texas artists including Mel Casas, Jim Roche and Jim Franklin.

In 1971, Mr. Hickey and his wife moved to New York, where he became the director of the Reese Palley Gallery in SoHo and edited the magazine Art in America. Within a few years, he was working as a freelancer, covering music for publications including the Village Voice and Creem and chronicling the burgeoning outlaw country movement, which he is sometimes credited with naming.

As he told it, he honed his musical prose style while typing out the first 50 pages of “The Great Gatsby” “just to see what it looked like to have good writing come out of your typewriter,” and while listening repeatedly to the “long, lapidary lines” of Chet Baker’s trumpet, which inspired the rhythms of his sentences.

His late-night writing sessions were also accompanied by growing drug and alcohol use — he snorted speed with author Billy Lee Brammer and took codeine with folk singer Townes Van Zandt over the years — which contributed to the breakup of his first marriage. “I screwed it up,” he later told the Los Angeles Times. “I was sleeping with everybody I could lay my hands on. Cocaine. Trashy living. It’s the only thing I ever did that I feel sorry about.”…

Although Mr. Hickey’s views on beauty seemed to gain increasing currency over the years, he remained defiantly out of step with the rise of identity politics, which he blamed for breaking up the art-world underground.

“Being an art critic is one of the few professions in which one is actually paid for one’s eccentricity, and paid to be disagreeable,” he once told the New York Times. “In other words, if two art critics agree, there’s no real reason for one of them to be there.” He was annoyed by the suggestion “that there’s a right-thinking world in art,” he added: “I mean, most of us get into art to get out of that world.”

Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

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