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Dave Hickey: "Beautiful works survive sans virtue."


The formidable American art critic Dave Hickey turns 75 this month. To mark the occasion, the University of Chicago Press is publishing 25 Women: Essays on Their Art, a collection of critical articles spanning his career, revised for this edition. The women of the title include Hickey’s late friend, the curator Marcia Tucker; his late mother, who never expressed any enthusiasm for his work; and 23 female artists. Calling himself a “ladies’ man” in the introduction, Hickey argues against the misguided “‘shock and awe’ feminism without men”, when male critics leave women to write about women’s art: “I remember confessing to one adamant Valkyrie that, damn it, I liked women. She replied that if I liked women, my feminism didn’t count.”

Hickey grew up on the West Coast and read literature at university before quitting academia in 1967 and becoming an art dealer in Texas, an experience described in one of the chapters of Air Guitar (1997). In 25 Women he confesses that he “thought art was for holding back the professors”, which didn’t prevent him from teaching art criticism and theory at the University of Nevada, or imagining, in The Invisible Dragon (1993), a space where “the absent ghosts of Sartre and Althusser haunt the writing of Foucault and Deleuze”. Once the editor of Art in America and a prolific journalist, Hickey has also written songs and published short fiction. In his view, “The desire to read visible images as we do bits of language . . . is undeniable.”

While the majority of Hickey’s ladies in the new collection are American, he dedicates two pieces to Bridget Riley, who has famously dismissed feminism in art as irrelevant. His other British inspirations are Fiona Banner and Fiona Rae, both of YBA fame: the former “has taken unto herself that task of reminding us of the roots of art in war and the roots of loveliness in pornography”, while the latter’s paintings “take pastiche to the level of benign hysteria”.

Hickey talks about his female subjects with the same passion and eloquence that he uses elsewhere about his male heroes, such as Andy Warhol (he once declared himself “a stepchild of the Factory”), Robert Mapplethorpe and Edward Ruscha. Perhaps the focus on women is just a random narrative device. After all, it is the mantra coined in his essay “American Beauty” 25 years ago — “Beautiful works survive sans virtue. Virtuous works sans beauty do not” — that best captures Hickey’s stance on art.

 
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