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Art critic Dave Hickey has never been shy about dissenting

Dave Hickey calls art and culture like he sees it, writing and stirring opinions well past 'retirement.'

February 05, 2014|By Deborah Vankin
  • Art critic Dave Hickey, seen reflected in a downtown hotel window, continues to ignite passions.
Art critic Dave Hickey, seen reflected in a downtown hotel window, continues… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

A cigarette dangles from the mouth of art iconoclast Dave Hickey as he cracks open the door of the Presidential Suite at downtown Los Angeles' Ace Hotel. Coffee cups, reading material and cigarette butts litter the room, which is dark except for one low-glowing lamp. The dim light silhouettes Hickey's sturdy, broad-chested frame as he shuffles toward the hotel room's patio.

"Come on in," he yells in a deep, Southern-inflected voice. "I'll be outside having a smoke. What is there to talk about anyway? Everyone's just stupid."

One thing to talk about — his remarks the night before at downtown's Grand Central Market, where Hickey set off a Twitter tempest while discussing his newest book, "Pirates and Farmers: Essays on Taste." 

"Uh oh," tweeted art writer Carolina A. Miranda during the Wednesday event. "This is where Hickey starts talking about identity politics. Apparently, identity politics killed the art underground." 

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Brooklyn-based artist Nayland Blake tweeted in response to her running account, "As a multi racial homo egghead, I sincerely apologize for breaking the art world." Blake has several works in the Hammer Museum's upcoming "Take It or Leave It" show and is chair of the International Center of Photography-Bard MFA program.

On the phone the next morning, Hickey seemed unperturbed by the Twitter critics, though he did say it was "kind of tacky that people were tweeting during my performance." He added that he wouldn't back down from his comments, but did offer to explain himself.

"Look," he said, "identity politics broke up the underground, but I'm a champion of women artists. Why don't you come downtown and we'll talk about it?"

Later that afternoon on his hotel room's seventh-floor balcony, Hickey plops down on a chair, ensconced in a cloud of cigarette smoke and nostalgia. With his silver beard, loose black sweats and physical heft, the 75-year-old Hickey looks almost Orson Wellesian. 

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Hickey's own self-description is "a sissy" and "an idiot" who puts his foot in his mouth. He's also "really darn smart" and entered college at age 15. He is "a feminist," "a serial monogamist" who's been married twice, "a big quitter" and, above all, "a pirate."

"Pirates," he says, "are people who don't care, who cross boundaries — outsiders."

"Dave's a cross between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Joe Cocker — profoundly American, profoundly democratic and profoundly independent-thinking," says art writer David Pagel, who appeared in conversation with Hickey at Art Los Angeles Contemporary last week. "He's almost a heretic in the church of art. He makes people mad because he wants them to think for themselves."

"[The tweeters] implied I wasn't feminist, which I am," Hickey says. "But identity politics tribalized the art underground and broke up the dissonant tone of it — a tribe of women, a tribe of black people, a tribe of gay people. It used to be all of us, together, just down in the dirt."

Stirring opinions, distilling art jargon into everyman language and igniting the passions, both positive and negative, of younger art goers — often with shocking comments and counterintuitive career turns — seems to be Hickey's specialty. 

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At times, he's been a hard-living New York music and culture writer for Artforum, the Village Voice, Vanity Fair, Playboy and Rolling Stone; a Nashville musician; an art gallerist in Austin, Texas, and Manhattan; the executive editor of Art in America; and a rabble-rousing, Las Vegas-based academic. But he's best known for his books on art. Newsweek named Hickey's 1997 "Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy" "one of the most important books of the century."

In 2012, he left his longtime Las Vegas home for Santa Fe, N.M., and very publicly declared he was retiring from art writing. But Hickey made a splashy return to Los Angeles and the art world last week with his "Pirates and Farmers" appearances.

And more is on the way. "Pagan America" is forthcoming from Simon and Schuster; "Connoisseur of Waves: More Essays on Art & Democracy" is from University of Chicago Press, as is a book that may surprise some of his critics, "25 Women: Essays on Their Work." He's also in the process of writing a mystery novel set in the Vegas poker world.

Clearly, one thing Hickey is not: retired.

"Oh, I just thought saying I was retiring would get me more work — and it did for a while," Hickey admits. "I retire all the time. I seriously intend to quit writing about art, though, as soon as all these little [assignments] dribble out. There's nothing worth writing about anymore." 

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Still, Hickey seems to spend a lot of time considering — and publicly waxing about — the state of the contemporary art world.

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