“I Think We’re Changing Into a Tribal Nation”: A Conversation with Dave Hickey on “25 Women”

Ann Hamilton, "Tropos," 1993.

When you have as many critics as Dave Hickey, you don’t hope to publish a book quietly so much as attract the right kind of noise. So it wasn’t surprising that, as we neared the end of several phone conversations, Hickey – as prone to sweetness as remonstrance – rebuked me for having not asked enough questions about the art in his recent book. “Why is it everyone only wants to talk about me?”

25 Women: Essays on Their Art is a particularly distracting example for its author taking prominence over his subjects, however. A storied critic and essayist who, over the course of a fifty-year career, has successfully bridged the gap between the esoteric space of art and the populism of gonzo stories from the desert that shimmer with jazz, wasted Americana, literature, and intimate confessionals, Hickey has attracted criticism for producing lyrical prose that argues for 19th-century evaluation in a theory-driven artworld. After publishing a book on beauty and abjection in the sensitive, academically-led, and culture-war-stricken moment of the early 1990s, Hickey became a lightning rod for an argument that pitted male-gaze and –controlled beauty against nuance-bearing feminism.

A book on women could appear defensive, then. When I ask Hickey about his motivations, however, his demurring tribute to the late curator Marcia Tucker typically gives way to a shrug, a rejection of the terms by which he’s judged, and a reminder that he’s not a card-carrying member of the artworld, whether by election or eviction. He’s just a boy at a typewriter, writing from the desert, etc.

Hickey has some moving things to say about women, though, writ large in these commissioned monograph essays, and in conversation, too, though he would argue – and rightly so – that this is a book about art. His introduction sings with the familiar canorousness of a man who cants after a good sentence, and the striking undefensiveness of a man in constant conversation with women. Here is our conversation on twenty-five of them, at least.

Tell me about the timing. Why did you decide to produce 25 Women when you did?

I was putting together a book of what I considered to be my best essays about what I considered to be the best art. I got up to about ten or twelve essays and I realized that most of these essays were about the art of women artists, so I shifted my hand on the tiller. Also, I wanted to memorialize Marcia Tucker, so I did that. I thought it would be a kick.

You say in your introduction that it’s not “a fair book.” What do you mean by that? How would it look if it was fair? 

Well, there are lots of women artists whose work I like, about whom I never had a chance to write. Agnes Martin, Cindy Sherman, and Hannah Wilke come to mind. This was mostly in the seventies when men couldn’t write about women artists if a woman writer was available, and there always was. I also wrote some essays that weren’t salvageable, in my opinion, because the writing was not good. I have essays about Joan Snyder, Patricia Tillman, Helen Frankenthaler, and others that I really screwed up. Also I have written about some women artists whose work has changed so dramatically that what I had to say was irrelevant.

So the book is not fair, nor does it embody a singular theme about the plight of women artists. I’m like Donald Trump in that: I like winners. So the book is not about the plight of women artists in general. This is a flaw I cannot fix. The tenor of contemporary criticism is sociological, and since I am neither clairvoyant nor a sociologist, I have no insight into what is called the issue of “women’s identity.” I don’t understand women, but I don’t understand a lot of things. The rule today is that you can’t write about the art of women artists without having a foundational opinion of all women artists. I don’t have that.

Were you tempted to write some new material, just to have a few other artists included, to make this more “fair”?

Well, Alexis [Smith] was the last piece I wrote, the first piece in the book. It comes from a lecture I did at the Whitney. But no, I had no inclination. I liked what I had. Right now, as far as women artists, I go for Alex Bag, Erin Shirreff, and Fiona Banner, and that’s about it. Those are my women artists right now. They seem to make strong statements that don’t manifest in the atmosphere of sociology. And I’m not saying women aren’t victims, I’m just saying it doesn’t make the best art.

You make a similar statement when you write about Joan Mitchell, arguing that her work survived, or excelled in a certain period, due to “the decline of gender victim criticism.” Can you explain what you mean by this note? 

Sure, I think it’s disgusting to cloak any artist with the mauve cape of victimhood, abjection, and lack of respect. You owe the artist and the reader a clean shot at a great artist. I like their work. Maybe I’m right. That’s enough for me. Joan Mitchell received a lot of respect in her time, but I think she’s better than that. I think she’s one of the best artists of the 20th century. I love it that her paintings are noisy and anxious and cold. Like scratching your fingers on a blackboard. I kinda like that.

There is the risk of this book reading as “thou doth protest too much,” considering the criticisms that have been lobbed against you regarding your attitude towards women. Were you feeling the risk or vulnerability of defensiveness when you put this together? 

Nah, not really, I don’t care. I write about art, I am not of the artworld. You know what I mean? I live in Las Vegas and Santa Fe. When I go to New York, I stay at the Warwick, I get a limo, I go look at art. And the art doesn’t tell anybody that I’ve been looking at it. And then I go home. I don’t go to dinners, I don’t take the Circle Line or any thing like that. I look at art and then I go home. I enjoy that very much. I’m saying I’m an art person but not an artworld person.

But I still have my faves. I went down to Austin a couple weeks ago to have a conversation with Ed Ruscha, and we had a great time. Ed and I have been talking for forty years and we’re getting better at communication.

But if some critic wants to think that two people can make better art than one person, or that all women can make better art than one woman, I think they’re wrong.

You think that’s what was being argued by the critic [Chloe Wyma] in the New York Times?

That was the impression. She also said that what the good guys need to be able to do is write better than I do – me, being the bad guy. Well, you can only write well against the grain. You can’t write well preaching to the choir. Writing good prose has in it an element of rebellion. Always, from Shakespeare on up. So trying to infect sociological art criticism with literary virtues is a fool’s errand.

You note in your introduction that you don’t want to “colonize” women’s art, but is it not a dated or defensive move to group a gender like this, to begin with?

Well I wanted to do something for Marcia. I don’t know. I write a book about women’s art and they call me a sexist. Peter Plagens writes a book about Bruce Nauman and no one’s calling Pete a sexist. I think that the accusation of sexism goes back to my book about beauty, which was a straightforward critique of abjection. I did not write a critique of women, nor did Kant, for that matter. It was about, “hey, there’s another way to do it beyond stretching your underpants on a clothes hanger.” That was really the point of that book, at the height of abject art. “Hey, it’s okay if it looks okay.”

As I say, I grew up as a feminist. I am a feminist. I am not a feminist-identity person. I think identity is a very false word. You cannot express identity in language, since the subject of any sentence is subordinated to the predicate. That’s why we call it the subject. The predicate is king. There is no equal-sign. Rather than identity, I always fall back on Lévi-Strauss, who said that all theories and arguments harmonize with one another but they are not identical.

How do you reflect on our feminism, right now?

Our feminism feels like it’s 1972. If I dare to write about a woman artist, I’m breaking some kind of tribal rule, but it’s still America, so I can write about whomever I want to. I don’t have a dean or a panel judging my work. I sit at my little desk in the desert and write it. I think if I were really careful I could make distinctions. But that is no matter. Today, I really exist to be criticized. And if you want to prove that you belong to the good side, you say “Dave Hickey is a this or a that.” But I’m just trying to write a good sentence. I’m very concerned about writing a good sentence.

But why does the feminism that we’re living feel like 1972? 

I think we’re slipping back into an era of tribal culture, in which you have little communities that differ in every aspect from the other little communities. That’s what identity art is, it’s tribal. I mean, everybody black belongs to the same tribe; all women belong to the same tribe. And most artists in this book have participated in feminism all their lives, like Alex [Smith] and Karen [Carson] and others, who have been there from the first. But their “promiscuous feminism” saw feminism as a position of power, and not a position of virtue. And that’s very different from what’s happening in New York today. The artists in my book are rowdy women. Mary Heilmann? A rowdy woman. But she’s not now. She looks like your naughty aunt. [Laughs] Just kidding, Mary! But you know what I mean. We’re talking about girls who grew up in a time where there was no feminism. Their motivations predate feminism.

How did you regard that line in the Times review, where the author writes that you’re attempting “to re-appropriate feminism from [the academe], who value art as a weapon of consciousness-raising and social critique”? Did that feel accurate, or maligning? 

She is referring to Amelia Jones, who is not a scholar whom I respect. In academia, you teach classes. And if women are regarded as a class, they all must teach feminist identity, and I tend to be pretty relaxed about that. I could show you a whole PowerPoint of images where you wouldn’t be able to tell who was the guy and who was the girl. I don’t think it comes into the work that much.

Sheila Heti mentioned to me that you had put the manuscript past her for some editing. Can you talk to me about how cautious or reflexive you were being in the formation of this book? Were you reaching out to many women writers? Was there an impulse to be careful?

Sheila? Because she’s a friend who writes for the big review magazines; I wasn’t really thinking about her as a feminist writer. She likes Knausgaard, for Christ’s sake. I ran these essays past Gemma Sieff, as well, who was my editor at Harpers and the queen of editors in my view. I reached out to many friends, but none of my major competitors. I was just trying to get it clear, you know. I know in the New York Times they quote me calling Lynda Benglis “a haughty Southern bitch,” but Lynda Benglis calls herself a haughty Southern bitch.

Yes. Jerry Saltz came to your defense on that one, among others.

Oh he did, that’s right. Exactly. And Mary Heilmann calls herself, in her youth, a “surfer slut,” that’s where the term comes from! I thought it was obvious from the break in tone. I was really hoping for literary readers this time, but I don’t seem to be dealing in literary reviews.

Gender aside, do you think there are any threads in the book, aside from your own taste? Do you see any distinguishable characteristics in terms of the work that you’re drawn to?

Most of these artists are artists whom I have known and respected for many years. Most of the essays were written for very large mid-career retrospectives. So there is that. But I don’t see any commonalities. Some of these women are friends with one another and some are not. So, I’m just not sure.

But in terms of your taste, though. Are you doing any self-reflection after putting this together?

Well, I like the distance of difficult art like Roni [Horn]’s and Barbara [Bloom]’s. I did notice, however, that even though these women have nothing in common, my taste is my taste. The images I chose tend to be seascapes of one sort of another. [Laughs] Vija Celmins, Lynda Benglis, Joan Mitchell, Pia Fries, Sarah Charlesworth, Teresita Fernandez, Mary Heilmann, Ann Hamilton, and Fiona Rae, receding planes, and crinkled surfaces – very different artists in whom my eye saw seascapes.

Do you think of your voice as particularly masculine? Or feminine?

Androgynous, I hope, ideally with little gay swish thrown in. I try to make it sing a little. My project from the first has been to raise the literary quality of art journalism. If you read art journalism straight through from 1800 to the present, you’ll find that everything falls into the toilet about 1905. In any case, my writing doesn’t connect to the artworld. The artworld is about class.

What do you mean by that?

I actually just write about what I like. And I don’t do categories of artists, stacks of artists, or rooms of artists – I tend to deal with people pretty straight-forwardly, and one-to-one. So I’m not really in a position to “discover” somebody (although I have in the past), and I’m not really in a position to put forward some identity agenda. I can give you an introduction to an artist so that maybe you can understand a part of it. But also, I don’t have a theoretical agenda. I regard theory as a toolbox, you open it up and use whatever’s best-suited to the art. So if Ruskin works here, okay; if Deleuze works here, okay; if Lévi-Strauss works here, okay. Today, I talk to all these kids. I ask them what they do and they say, “Theory.” And I say, “well, what’s your theory?” And they can never answer. There is no such thing as generalized theory; there are autonomous individual theories. You know what I mean? I aspire to civilization. [Laughs]

This isn’t a book of criticism, but art writing. If these essays weren’t commissioned – if they were rewritten as criticism, would there be a few more edges in there?

Maybe, although I’m a little old to be picking on children. I think there are a few rough edges in there. Also positivity is a condition of my practice. I haven’t freelanced anything in my whole writing career; everything is an assignment. If I get called to write about somebody and I don’t like it, I say no. So 25 Women is the best selection of women who wanted me to write about them. [Laughs]

But it might mean you’re holding a few punches.

Maybe so. But I am in favor of art in its quarrel with the artworld; this is the art I like best. I mean, how can you punch at Bridget Riley? Or Joan Mitchell? Now if I were writing a review, of course I might do differently. I wrote reviews of Francesco Clemente and Christopher Wool that were a little snarky. But this is supposed to be a civilized discourse, not a schoolyard scuffle.

It’s interesting that you don’t mention the dates or the original publication for these essays. If we knew that information, wouldn’t this take on a different topography? Can you talk about that decision?

Oh, it wasn’t a decision, I just don’t remember when I wrote ‘em, or, for a lot of them, the occasion for which they were written. They’re just in my computer. I live in my hard drive and I’m not much of a look-back person. I take the waves as they roll in, and sometimes I fall off. Obviously there are a lot of these women who are friends of mine. Many of them grew up on the beaches as you move up the south coast of Southern California. [Laughs] Sharon Ellis, Longbeach; Mary Heilmann, El Segundo; Barbara Bloom, Playa Del Rey; Alexis Smith, Venice. I could put in some more if I checked.

You say you’re not much for looking back, but this is a look-back book. Are there any pronouncements you make in these essays that, when you were putting this together, you disagreed with?

If there were, I have suppressed them to make a book. I have to presume that if it’s in good prose and at least coherent, that’s as good as I can do. All I’m looking at is the art and the prose. I’m looking at the pictures, I’m not watching the movie. Except when I’m writing the movie, as I do with Vija Celmins and Elizabeth Peyton.

There’s a nice moment in the inside cover that reads: “the resulting book is not only a deep engagement with some of the most influential and innovative contemporary artists, but also a reflection on the life and role of the critic: the decisions, judgments, politics, and ethics that critics negotiate throughout their careers in the artworld.” I know you say you don’t look back, but it must have happened anyway. Do you see your formation as a writer through this arc of essays? Are you reflecting on your contribution?

I’m not a reflective person. I can see problems, like my original essay about Lynda Benglis needed more bones; I fixed some things, a lot of grammar. But I seem to be fairly steady in my opinions, in that I haven’t really changed my opinion. If you want a place to start, try Roy Lichtenstein’s Big Brush Painting (the red one) hanging in Leo’s uptown gallery; try Ad Reinhardt’s black show; try Henry Geldzahler’s Ellsworth Kelly show at the Met. Otherwise I try to do good writing and good theory.

I don’t know what in the hell this has to do with feminism. Feminism is “does my mom get tenure.” She did. But I’m already losing gigs because of this. It’s not like I want to be king, not like I want to ride at the head of the parade. I would like to be Saint Jerome, scribbling in the wilderness. I would like my writing to survive me, so I try to make it as lucid as I can. I think we’re changing into a tribal nation. I don’t like that. I like a republic. I like freedom of speech. I like not being told that I’m insulting some woman who is neither me nor them. Who is going to sit in and tell me what to say about Mary Heilmann? Call Mary! She liked it. But it’s school days again, and everybody trying to get on the same merry-go-round. Even so I am very happy with the book and I think every piece contributes its own little leitmotif.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *