His name means “hickey” in English, and when you read three lines of him he marked you for life. Dave Hickey, one of America’s most controversial art critics, best known for two books published in the 90s (but never translated in France), Four Essays on Beauty and the most affordable (almost cult) Air Guitar, died Nov. 12 at age 82, at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Texan by birth and temperament, he opened an influential gallery in Austin in the 1960s which he called A Well Lighted Place (after the title of a Hemingway short story), before directing another in New York. He also stayed in Nashville, Tennessee for a time, writing songs for singers outlaw country (he would even have coined the term) such as Johnny Cash or Emmylou Harris. After ten years spent with his mother in Fort Worth to restore his health (destroyed by amphetas and barbiturates), he had recreated himself as a professor of fine arts in Las Vegas, where he taught at the University of Nevada and s ‘sometimes occupied the collections of billionaire Steve Wynn (who owns Renoir, Picasso, Van Gogh…). It was in one of his casinos, the Bellagio, that we had met him to tell us about his old friend the journalist Grover Lewis, whom he had known from college in Fort Worth. He was no longer drinking and had slackened off on drugs, but he was still talking with his feet to the ground. During a three-hour lunch at the Picasso, the Bellagio restaurant, he must have had 12 espressos down and smoked 20 Marlboro Lights 100s.
Hickey claimed to love Las Vegas. He liked high rollers and risk takers, just like in the art world. “You have to put your money where it catches your eye, you have to have faith in your own taste.” And also : “Bad taste is real taste, of course; good taste is the residue of privilege. ”
Born in 1939 in Fort Worth, Hickey grew up in Dallas, Louisiana and Southern California. His father was a frustrated jazz musician and Hickey recalled evenings at his house with Ornette Coleman or Art Pepper. He committed suicide when Dave Jr. was 16 (“With us, suicide was in the family…”). A linguistics graduate, Dave Hickey quickly took to the bush and his distances from teachers. No quibble, he could just as easily spend two weeks with Rod Stewart in a studio in Muscle Shoals (Alabama) as a month hanging out with Warhol or drinking with Rauschenberg. In his essays he is like a cultural guide who in the same article mentions the connections between, for example, Jackson Pollock, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Dickens. The paper begins with Warhol and ends with the Rolling Stones. In this regard, his book Air Guitar. Essays on Art and Democraty, is a real cultural pinball machine, we go from Vélasquez to Robert Mitchum or Hank Williams. In an article titled “Pontormo’s Rainbow”, he draws a parallel between discovering the Pacific Palisades district, in Los Angeles, and surfing after the grayness of Dallas, and his “Rapture” by the colors of the Renaissance painter Pontormo, contained in the title; but the paper also talks about Donald Duck and Vil Coyote, Tom and Jerry, Quincey and Djuna Barnes. Without forgetting Ruskin.
Hickey certainly wrote the best article on Robert Mitchum, in Art Issues, which began: “Compared to Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda or Ronald Reagan, Mitchum was like a switchblade on a plate of petits fours.” He has also been called all names by several women artists. His answer: publish a book called 25 Women, with essays on Elizabeth Peyton, Joan Mitchell, Alexis Smith or Karen Carson. “I wrote [mes essais] over a period of thirty years, but the only ones to be reprinted everywhere concerned male painters. “ He moaned all the same: “These identity politics tribalized the artistic underground and ended the dissonances that made it valid. […] Before, it was just all of us together, our asses in the dust. ” Dave Hickey, 1938-2021, a treasure to be discovered.