by Jarrett Earnest
Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art
by Daniel Oppenheimer
University of Texas Press, 141 pp., $24.95
The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty, Revised and Expanded
by Dave Hickey
University of Chicago Press, 123 pp., $15.00 (paper)
When Dave Hickey died last fall at the age of eighty-two, he left behind a singular contribution to the history of art writing, along with a badly bruised reputation, both routinely called “iconoclastic” for lack of anything more precise. The magazines he’d published in since the 1960s hardly took notice. The perfunctory obituaries that did appear treated him as a kind of Hunter S. Thompson of the contemporary art world, ensconced as he was in Las Vegas at the height of his fame. But alongside the bluster of “the bad boy of art criticism” was a neon Walter Pater of the Southwest who almost single-handedly remade the practice of art writing with his first two collections, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (1993) and Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (1997). In Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art, Daniel Oppenheimer complicates the cartoon version of his life that continues to shadow his reputation as a writer. What remains is the difficult task of taking stock of Hickey’s literary achievement.
In the 1960s Hickey all but defended a Ph.D. on the syntactical structures of D.H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway at the University of Texas, wrote his own fiction and a column in the Texas Observer, and started the first contemporary art gallery in Austin, called A Clean Well-Lighted Place. In the early 1970s he moved to New York City, touring the outskirts of the Warhol scene and briefly serving as director of the Reese Palley Gallery, from which he was fired, followed by a short stint as editor of Art in America magazine, from which he was also fired. One day he went into an exhibition, saw pieces of white paper pasted on the gallery wall, and decided that rock and roll was where he belonged. “Richard Tuttle or Keith Richards?” Music was more fun and the drugs were better.
Hickey then moved to Nashville, where he worked as a songwriter, composing lyrics for Dr. Hook, Bobby Bare, and his then girlfriend Marshall Chapman, and helped to define the “outlaw” sensibility of his friends Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson with journalism that appeared regularly in Country Music magazine. “Most professional lyrics,” he said in a glowing review of Dolly Parton in 1974,
are made from literary, written English while country lyrics are made from the language as it is spoken. So what a country lyricist gives up in vocabulary, she gains by being more sensitive to the interplay between the sound and meaning of the language.
That nexus of word and sound was his recurrent passion.
By the end of the 1970s Hickey was living with his mother in Fort Worth. His father, a jazz musician also named Dave, had committed suicide when he was a teenager. Afterward, feeling like the “leftover Dave” in his mother’s affections, he’d moved into a converted shed behind his grandparents’ flower shop. Now pushing forty, he was back in West Texas, a physical and financial wreck with a serious drug problem. His old friend Anne Livet was starting to organize the first retrospective of the California artist Ed Ruscha for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She felt Hickey was just the person to confront Ruscha’s insouciant wordplay—enigmatic slogans like “WASH, THEN DANCE” or “HOSTILE POLYESTER” painted on large-scale colored canvases.
The essay he produced, “Available Light,” opens with a mise-en-scène of Ruscha’s studio, set up by winking Hollywood clichés:
Tuesday turned up a dazzling California morning, my last in Los Angeles and by nine o’clock the artist and I were in his studio on Western Avenue; and, I had no doubt, some suntanned C.B. De Mille nymph fluttered just without, pouring washtubs of sunshine over the transom into the clean, cluttered space. A radically horizontal canvas (20 inches high by 159 long) rested on a double easel, glowing with an empty, blue, empyrean field, awaiting the day when the artist, having made the heavens, decided to make the earth.
Hickey then drops back to reality: “At the moment the artist was on his hands and knees painting, in red enamel, the words ‘NO DUMPING’ on an aluminum sheet.” The dialogue between artist and critic unfolds like a play, dense with unexplained references to things seen and conversations held over the preceding days of their visit.
In Hickey’s telling, the more you find out about Ruscha as a person, the more mysterious his art appears. While the critic asks questions and postulates about its motives or meaning, the artist evades and deflects. Ruscha acts dumb about reliquaries and purports ambivalence about the Catholic God’s “incarnate word,” until Hickey ties up the scene with a thesis statement that would reverberate throughout his criticism for decades to come:
Edward Ruscha just looked at me and grinned, but I knew he believed in the power of the word. He would have been just as happy if I’d kept my mouth shut, but being a critic is like being a medium, when it comes on you you can’t not do it. Usually, though, you can avoid writing it down. When you can’t, you should be careful to point out that criticism is not about art, it is only thinking “in the neighborhood of art.” We really don’t need to know the esthetic and moral parameters of a work to love it—only to know they are there.
As the essay proceeds, all the unknown names and allusions seeded in the opening reappear and blossom. Hickey becomes an art critic Philip Marlowe, cruising the LA freeways, going to dinners and parties with Ruscha and his friends. All the time he’s letting the reader in on his thinking, gathering clues to form an argument and then letting them drift away, never satisfied. (“The little bell went off at this point, like an alarm awakening me from a sweet dream. In ten minutes or so, I would have a tidy little hypothesis printed up. Just what I wanted. An Hypothesis. I’d rather have a hat.”) Broken into five sections, the narrative goes from daydreams to ecclesiastic fantasia, interlaced with references as vivid as they are various: Karl Kraus, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Under the Volcano (“I am all the time buying people copies of this book”), Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ellsworth Kelly, and Thomas De Quincey, to name just a glittering few. The essay ends on a desert roadside with the two shoulder to shoulder pissing into a ditch and looking at a mountain silhouetted by sunset. “That’s the back of the Hollywood mountain,” Ruscha tells Hickey.
“I started doing Back of Hollywood drawings when I started building my house and had to make this drive pretty regularly.”
“Neato,” I said.
“You know what?” Ruscha said.
“I don’t know what in the hell I’m doing.”
“Neither do I,” I said.
“I guess it can’t be helped.”
Nothing is explained or resolved. This abrupt stop leaves readers with the strange feeling that they might comprehend less about Ruscha than they did at the beginning, but also with the sense that they have thought deeply about his art and could go on thinking, bringing it into their daily lives, where, according to Hickey, art truly belongs.
“Available Light,” which appears freewheeling, is so meticulously constructed that quoting any part of it excises it from a complex web of inference and resonance. It reaches back to the linguistic pyrotechnics of the Belle Époque, to Pater and John Ruskin, who are Hickey’s closest antecedents—writers for whom the consideration of art was inseparable from an encompassing vision of society. The essay heralds Hickey’s effort to invent a mode of writing that replicated the experience of great art without reducing any of its power, and to craft a living literature disguised as art criticism.
In the late 1980s Karen Marta was the young New York editor of Parkett, an art magazine that was the brainchild of the curator Bice Curiger and published in Zurich in English and German. Parkett was well funded and beautifully produced, resembled a posh artist’s book more than a magazine, and was unique in devoting the bulk of each issue to essays on a single artist, who made a special artwork for the publication. When she was organizing an issue on Ruscha, Marta fell in love with “Available Light”—it struck her as a unique, if mystifying, work of genius. She started trying to track down this Dave Hickey, whom nobody in New York seemed to know—one person told her he was dead. Finally she found him. Fed up after a decade in Fort Worth spent making songs in his makeshift attic studio and writing criticism for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he had moved to San Diego to be near the water.
Marta commissioned him to write a new text on Ruscha for Parkett. The result was “Wacky Molière Lines: A Listener’s Guide to ED-WERD REW-SHAY.” It starts with Hickey hearing himself say the name of a Ruscha painting aloud to a friend: “SHE SURE KNEW HER DEVOTIONALS! What’s that about?” The question sparks an analysis of the different iterations of the “sh” phoneme in the phrase, allowing him to flex his deep knowledge of phonetic structure by way of his “unauthorized and non-canonical thoughts about the sources of Ruscha’s work in the audible world,” and finally to arrive at a portrait of LA through the prose of Thomas Pynchon. It seems like such an obvious thing to do: taking seriously the words themselves by attending to them as sounds, but no one had ever done it before, and the essay goes to places previously unimaginable.
When Marta was editing a book on an installation by her friend Robert Gober at the Dia Center for the Arts, she proposed commissioning Hickey. The young sculptor had made a name for himself by imbuing fastidiously recreated domestic objects—drains, sinks, cribs—with the restrained rigor of Minimalism, thereby bestowing on them maniacal psychological and emotional valences. After spending time with the work and Gober in New York, Hickey sent a text in two parts, the first of which, called “The Ghost of Gay Nature,” begins by describing what he sees as the ethical problem of literary realism, which purports to offer a transparent view of the inner workings of its characters—the kind of perfect understanding impossible between two living humans, including, if not especially, those closest to each other:
It is exactly in this sense, I think, that Robert Gober’s work is opaque; for, even though it certainly qualifies as artifact, its artifice is so seductively cloaked in surface clarity that, at its best, it approaches the elusiveness and mystery of everyday experience, and very few works of art venture far into this haunted realm. The defining qualities of Gober’s work, for instance, are as easily enumerated as those of our closest friends, who are equally opaque. You can isolate the work’s penchant for metonymy and metamorphic transformation, allude to its meticulous facture and its pristine presentation, cite the cold banality of its iconography, and enumerate its exploitation of outré domestic genres. But the more you learn, the less you understand.
Hickey goes on to read Gober’s stacks of newspapers and boxes of rat poison placed within a paint-by-numbers wraparound wallpaper of a New England forest as situated between the history of American transcendentalism and the raging AIDS crisis. He then plunges into a discussion of Elaine Scarry’s meditations on the effects of torture, emotional dislocation, and childhood alienation in her book The Body in Pain (1985). The next section, titled “Pip’s Recognition,” elegantly retells Dickens’s Great Expectations, as young Pip suddenly comes to understand, after a perfectly calibrated disclosure, that his life’s fortunes are not owed to comfortably moneyed Miss Havisham but to the downtrodden criminal he’d encountered as a child:
It is, as they say, the odd thing about Dickens: that all of his dazzling technical acuity should count so little against this gorgeous investment of memory; and it is the odd thing about Gober as well: that all of his dazzling formal accomplishment should ultimately matter so little. In our every experience of Gober’s work, I would suggest, we undergo some version of Pip’s recognition and must, as a consequence, translate our “great expectations” of thundering historical resonance into something more personal and political; there is always, in our perception of it, this destabilizing momentwhen it “goes all strange” and our refined connoisseurship dissolves into a subtler and more intimate awareness of what art can do.
This passage epitomizes Hickey’s unusual relationship to literature and his uncanny ability to draw forward an aspect of a poem or novel to explicate an artwork without reducing either to mere illustration. Instead he sets off a chain reaction of implications at the level of feeling. While he does not shy away from Gober’s homosexuality, in evoking Great Expectations Hickey conjures a painful outsiderness, the plane where the artist and writer meet, all the while resisting any speculation on individual biography. It’s an extraordinarily sophisticated maneuver, one that doesn’t ascribe intention based on personal information but rather allows the art to express its deeper content.
When Gober read the draft, he felt that Hickey had understood something profound about his work, without simplifying either it or him. However, in reckoning with Gober’s politicized identity, the artist felt that Hickey needed to put himself on the line, to say who he was and why he was writing about this art in this way, and Gober suggested appending a clarifying note to the beginning. Hickey returned with several thousand more words, adding a new opening section a third of the total length. It begins, “High thoughts in low places—my specialty,” and finds him at a slot machine at midnight in the Vegas airport, waiting for a flight to New York, then recounts getting to Dia bleary-eyed and experiencing a mesmeric procession through Gober’s installation as though in real time.
This storytelling conceit allows Hickey to write his thoughts and perceptions sequentially as a way of describing the installation, which was designed to unspool as the visitor walked around, while setting up the more subtle theoretical points in the subsequent sections. Retitled “In the Dancehall of the Dead,” it was the only text in the catalog. The slim hardcover was modeled on a children’s picture book and designed under Gober’s precise supervision, and it remains one of the most perfect books on contemporary art ever produced.
Parkett ushered Hickey’s writing into the center of the contemporary art world in the way he’d always wanted: he published a string of increasingly inventive essays, including, for example, an imagined scholarly text written two hundred years in the future that ruthlessly satirizes a real conversation between the painter Gerhard Richter and the art historian Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. (“Never, since Cardinal Kajetan’s interview with Martin Luther have two styles of moral seriousness collided so spectacularly with so little intellectual effect on either party.”) In 1991 he published “The Invisible Dragon” in Parkett, which became a defining statement for both Hickey and the next decade of American art. The essay begins with a bit of theater: Hickey bored, doodling, during an interminable panel discussion. When asked what would be the “Issue of the Nineties” he pronounced, “Beauty.” “This sounded provocative to me,” he writes, but
the audience continued to sit there, unprovoked, and “beauty” just hovered there…a word without a language, quiet, amazing and alien in that sleek, institutional space—like a Pre-Raphaelite dragon aloft on its leather wings.
From there he launched into a discussion of the cinematic opening of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which contrasts the grisly public executions sanctioned by the king with the internalized control of Benthamite surveillance. Contemporary art, Hickey argued, consigned beauty to the old corrupt market, the regime of the king, which cares only for appearances of fealty while allowing internal freedom for radical content to emerge; the professionalized art world, in its quest for moral goodness, replicates the most insidious aspects of Bentham’s project by demanding a transparency of political and social intention and thus a more punishing kind of internal control. From there Hickey cites Caravaggio, situating the painter’s “visual appeal and corporeal authority” within the ideological struggles of the Counter-Reformation and seeing him as a powerful participant in the culture wars of his day.
This all lays the groundwork for the argument’s true occasion: the controversy surrounding the cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition “The Perfect Moment” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1989. Hickey’s salvo was aimed not at right-wing politicians—whom he completely opposed—but at his colleagues:
The American art community, at the apogee of its power and privilege, chose to play the ravaged virgin, flinging itself prostrate across the front pages of America and fairly daring the fascist heel to crush its outraged innocence.
He accused critics and curators alike of attempting to save their own jobs and of wrapping their defense in the tattered garb of free expression and the sanctity of art, while sidestepping the content of the work itself.
According to Hickey, Senator Jesse Helms looked at Mapplethorpe’s images and understood them very well as an assault on the core principles of his repressive, theocratic worldview. The photographs were all the more threatening because they harnessed the rhetorical force of the Baroque, making the affront inexcusable precisely because it was also beautiful. And here is where that tricky word—“beauty”—becomes a double-edged blade: today it is possible for us to celebrate Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro as foremost an achievement in form only because its ideological work has been accomplished so completely; the “beauty” we admire in those paintings was in fact a visual weapon for changing minds. Similarly, in Mapplethorpe’s pictures, it was the incongruity with which the artist fused his subject matter with an intoxicating mode of direct address:
So it is not the fact that men are depicted having sex in Robert’s images. At the time, they were regularly portrayed doing so on the walls of private galleries and publicly funded “alternative” spaces all over the country. Thanks to the cult of plain honesty, abjection, and sincere appearance, however, they were not portrayed as doing so persuasively, powerfully, beautifully. Robert makes it beautiful.
Any attempt to decouple these two dimensions, to insist on form as the redeemer of content, as Hickey felt the “art community” was doing, was an affront to the power of art to mean anything at all. His criticism, circulated in an international art magazine, was leveled directly at the people who were reading it.
In the stark divisions of the 1990s culture wars, this kind of assault from within the art world’s own ranks could only be received with bad feelings. The central stretch of Oppenheimer’s monograph attends to the philosophical underpinnings of Hickey’s arguments and reconstructs the reactions (at times bewildering) of an embattled art world. Adding to the outrage, it was argued stylishly, imaginatively, and clearly by an outsider, some guy living out in the West.
In 1989 Gary Kornblau was in his late twenties and trying to escape his Ph.D. on seventeenth-century philosophy at Columbia by returning to the West Coast. He noticed that the art scene in his hometown of Los Angeles was starting to be taken seriously by the galleries and press in New York. LA didn’t have a critical apparatus of its own and he had the idea of starting a magazine. He figured that if he paid writers as much as Artforum did, he could get whomever he wanted, with the added attraction of fostering a new kind of writing, more experimental in form and wider-ranging in thought. He called the publication Art issues. (with a period in the title, like a statement) and invited Hickey to write about anything he’d like.
“Lost Boys,” published in 1990, chronicles the lives of the Vegas performers Siegfried and Roy. The German couple, known for perfect hairdos, billowing open collars, and the astonishing feats of their white tigers, had transformed Romantic schlock and camp styling into the most visited mainstream attraction in Vegas. Hickey’s piece is framed as a fairy tale without a drop of condescension while also keeping the humor of the duo’s flamboyant artifice intact. A description of their new show at the Mirage cartwheels into a consideration of Victorian pantomime’s structures and their subversion of social and sexual orders. By the end, Hickey’s meditation on sincerity and the self makes one feel ashamed to have ever thought so little about these two “outsider artists” whose multimedia spectacle was “the brightest facet of the American Saturnalia.”
By the time he was fifty, Hickey’s life had taken a decisive turn all but unfathomable a decade earlier. He was hired as an associate professor of art criticism and theory at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas; he met the art historian who would become his wife, Libby Lumpkin, another runaway from West Texas; and he was publishing long essays that fused serious literature and critical thought with the emotional appeal of popular music. He began to write regularly for Art issues., following “Lost Boys” with a heartrending meditation on Chet Baker:
Today, having written some songs myself, I see that Baker knew what all songwriters know, what singers like Judy Garland and Patsy Cline and Karen Carpenter knew most profoundly, that all songs are sad songs, borne as they are on the insubstantial substance of our fleeting breath.
Next, Kornblau suggested a subject: Liberace. Growing up as a gay kid, he had always felt ashamed by Liberace’s fabulously smarmy persona. But as he came into his sexual identity, he became increasingly enamored. Hickey wrote “A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz,” centered on the Liberace Museum, which was located in a strip mall in Vegas and displayed the entertainer’s bejeweled possessions. It is a microcosm of all his writing on popular culture, inverting and then demolishing the opposition set up by the art critic Clement Greenberg in his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939). Greenberg positions the cutting edge of “avant-garde” art against its dialectical opposite, the ersatz culture of “kitsch” intended for mass appeal to a nominally educated working class without the leisure time for true cultivation. For Greenberg in the 1930s, kitsch was inseparable from the rise not only of industrialization but of totalitarianism, bringing new and heady weight to distinctions of “taste.”
But for Hickey, “bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege,” an axiom that the professionally closeted yet outlandish Liberace embodied in its fullest form as he played renditions of the Moonlight Sonata on TVspecials that made grandmothers across the country cry. Hickey argues that Liberace was a uniquely American aesthetic and sexual revolutionary who epitomized a tradition of theatrical transgression that pulsed with its own content of race, sex, and class. Liberace’s sexual identity was something that “mainstream” people understood and at least tacitly accepted, even if, much like the man himself, they were never able to speak the words. After detailing the painful contradictions of Liberace’s life, Hickey argues that popular culture is inseparably and legitimately connected to what Greenberg deemed “higher” expressions, and that kitsch may have a capacity for truly subversive content in ways the avant-garde never dreamed of:
The battle for sexual tolerance has moved on to other, more political, battlefields, and, in view of this transformation, I think we can regard the Liberace Museum as having some general historical significance beyond the enshrining of a particularly exotic entertainer. Its artifacts, genuine rhinestones, and imitation pearls alike mark an American moment—the beginning of the end of the “open secret.” So the cars and the costumes and the silly pianos might be seen as more than just the memorabilia of an exotic saloon singer: because they are, in fact, the tools with which Liberace took the “rhetoric of the closet” public, demonstrated the power of its generous duplicity, and changed the world.
Hickey continued writing on Mapplethorpe in an essay that deals specifically with the question of beauty in his most pornographic images. It was originally for Parkett, but he pulled it because the magazine wouldn’t reproduce the fisting photograph, Helmut and Brooks (1978). Kornblau had the idea of publishing it in a little paperback as the summer installment of Art issues. They added Hickey’s essay on gender and space in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century painting called “Prom Night in Flatland,” which had appeared in the small German journal Eau de Cologne, and a new essay called “After the Great Tsunami.” In it Hickey put a finer point on his argument for “beauty,” “not what it is but what it does—its rhetorical function in our discourse with images,” leveling a critique against what we would now call the rise of the “professional managerial class” of art-world gatekeepers—the curators, critics, and academics who have disenfranchised audiences from the validity of their own experiences, judgments, and tastes. Hickey was not interested in “beauty” as an aesthetic or philosophical category, but rather in a “proliferation of beauties,” around which communities of desire congregate.
The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty appeared with a sketch by Ed Ruscha of the Los Angeles County Museum engulfed in flame on its cover. The polemic was just sixty-four pages long, but it set the art world ablaze. Hickey was invited to speaking engagements and panel discussions in schools and museums around the country—to be yelled at, he felt. While art historians studiously ignored him, the book rode a perfect wave of transition in the art world. Postmodernism’s dismantling of the foundations of art history left the discipline vulnerable to the advent of “cultural studies,” plunging Hickey and his book into the midst of a war within the academy. While receiving accolades, he felt increasingly, bitterly misunderstood. He described the bewildering experience in a third-person narrative for the revised and expanded edition of the book in 2009:
In the Dragon’s wake, he gave lectures in university auditoriums during which the faculty rose en masse from their seats in the back row and marched out. Honorariums were withheld. Dinners were canceled. Litigation was threatened. The endowed lecturer was deposited unceremoniously at a Ramada Inn beside an empty highway and left to dine out of the candy machine. The endowed lecturer found this hurtful, but less and less so as time went on. He sat on the bed in his motel room. He contemplated the blond furniture. He stared out into the black midwestern night. Tiny lights twinkled in the distance. If he were still in a band, he could have been sitting at a Denny’s drinking coffee with the rhythm section.
Hickey didn’t just bite the hand that fed him, in front of live audiences and in print, but expected to be loved for doing it so well. And he was passionately embraced by aspiring and working artists and musicians while being vehemently attacked by the professionals whom he mocked as the “therapeutic institution.” This will to self-sabotage by a truth-teller who knew and loved both Foucault and the Carpenters ironically strengthened the glamour of his anti-institutional position, increasingly at the cost of his being engaged as a serious writer and thinker.
Kornblau suggested a way of answering the critics: narrating his own “proliferation of beauties.” Hickey’s new column in Art issues.was devoted to the memories, ideas, art, books, and music that mattered most to him. Titled Simple Hearts, after the Flaubert story—an aesthetic talisman for him since his teenage years—he indulged in full creative freedom, including “Shining Hours/Forgiving Rhyme,” a touching parable about going to a jazz rehearsal with his dad; “A Glass-Bottomed Cadillac,” a first-person short story about the painful inner life of Hank Williams; “Godiva Speaks,” a soliloquy by one of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling; and “The Little Church of Perry Mason,” a homily on the dignity of a freelance magazine writer. These were gathered along with the earlier pieces on Liberace, Chet Baker, and Siegfried and Roy—twenty-three in all—and published as Air Guitar.
Hickey’s friend the art critic Christopher Knight wrote in the Los Angeles Times last year that Air Guitar became “easily the most widely read book of art criticism to appear in our time.” This is striking, considering how little “art” appears in it. Instead, Air Guitar embodies an attitude toward being alive in the world, one that abolishes distinctions between “high” and “low” cultures and aligns objects based on the quality of the response they elicit. These loving little pieces on pop culture complement the dozens of major essays Hickey wrote throughout the decade, on artists ranging from Andy Warhol and Bridget Riley to Vija Celmins and Lari Pittman. Published in museum and gallery catalogs, the bulk of this work (including the essays on Ruscha and Gober) has yet to be collected.
Hickey delighted in “difficulty”—philosophical rigor attended by visual abundance—and employed anecdote as a pendant to analysis. The narrator “Dave” recurs throughout Air Guitar, like the protagonist of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which provides its epigraph. In the introduction, Hickey called the effect an “odd sort of memoir: a memoir without tears, without despair or exaltation—a memoir purged of those time-stopping exclamation points that punctuate all our lives.”
It is not just the power, mastery, and invention of Hickey’s writing that makes it so singular, but its view of the world. In Hickeyland, painters, singers, wrestlers, and magicians develop from a primordial woundedness—from a profound alienation from the world, which their art doesn’t necessarily heal but seeks to address. It echoes Edmund Wilson’s magisterial collection of literary essays The Wound and the Bow (1941), which figures Philoctetes, the ancient archer with “a snakebite that lasts forever and a weapon that cannot fail,” as diagramming the relation between artists, artworks, and their audience. The mythic hero’s putrid wound drives people from him, but their need for his gift, in order to win a war and save their civilization, forces an uneasy reconciliation. This is achieved
only by the intervention of one who is guileless enough and human enough to treat him, not as a monster, nor yet as a mere magical property which is wanted for accomplishing some end, but simply as another man, whose sufferings elicit his sympathy and whose courage and pride he admires.
Similarly, and almost uniquely in contemporary criticism, Hickey’s writing returns to artists both their painful humanity and their extraordinary talents, inextricably pushing them apart from, and toward, their fellows. It honors the simultaneity of Mapplethorpe’s “aberrant” sexuality and his photographs’ angelic light. Hickey’s advocacy for “beauty” locates the arrow that flies with unerring precision, hitting a stranger’s heart every time. Moving beyond the personal psychology or biography of an artist, the artwork extends an unlikely communion with other alienated people who have found that by making and thinking about something beautiful, they invoke a gentler, more exciting, and more livable society.
No one can grant permission for this kind of reconciliation grounded in personal experience or legislate its effect, thus explaining the vehemence of Hickey’s anti-institutionalism. For him, art is not defined by auction prices or tenured jobs, but by the feeling that it produces, bringing one into more meaningful connection with other people and the richness of being itself. In an art world that has expanded in transnational finance and professional glut, Hickey’s writing remains more relevant and radical than ever. Today the immensity of his achievement casts a shadow over the institutionalized spaces of art history and criticism, fluttering above them on iridescent wings made of words.
. . .
Jarrett Earnest is an American writer and curator living in New York City. He is the author of What it Means to Write About Art: Interviews with Art Critics (David Zwirner Books, 2018) and editor of Painting is a Supreme Fiction: Writings by Jesse Murry, 1980–1993 (Soberscove Press, 2021). Earnest recently curated the exhibitions The Young and Evil (2019), Ray Johnson: WHAT A DUMP (2021), and Jesse Murry: Rising (with Lisa Yuskavage) (2021) all at David Zwirner, New York, and the final installment of Ways of Seeing: Three Takes on the Jack Shear Drawing Collection (2022) at the Drawing Center, New York. His new book, Devotion: Today’s Future Becomes Tomorrow’s Archive, is out now.