Art critic Dave Hickey, best known for his book ‘Air Guitar’, dies

Dave Hickey, a prominent American art critic whose essays covered topics ranging from Siegfried & Roy to Norman Rockwell, has died.

His books, including “The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty” (1993) and “Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy” (1997), won him legions of fans beyond the cognoscenti of the art world.

His stylish prose, blunt critique of taste-creating institutions such as museums and universities, and equal embrace of works considered both high- and low-brow, left a lasting impact on a generation of artists and critics.

“There is no one like him. He belongs in the American non-fiction canon,” wrote his biographer Daniel Oppenheimer in “Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art,” published last June.

He died Nov. 12 at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, after years of heart disease, said Libby Lumpkin, an art historian who was married to him. He was 82.

David Hickey was born in 1938 in Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up moving around Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and California. After jumping through graduate school programs, he dropped out and opened a gallery of modern art in Austin, Texas. He moved to New York in 1971, where he ran several galleries, edited the publication Art in America and wrote for Village Voice and Rolling Stone magazine. His work and interests immersed him in an artistic community that included Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper and David Bowie.

Hickey later moved to Las Vegas to teach at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada. In essays published in “Air Guitar” on how art should fit into a broader culture, he advocates Las Vegas as the most American of American cities for its detachment from traditional social hierarchies.

America “is a very bad lens to see through Las Vegas, while Las Vegas is a wonderful lens to see through America. What is hidden elsewhere exists here in quota visibility,” he wrote.

Hickey challenged the idea that Strip’s neon lights were somehow fake, pushed back against notions that Las Vegas entertainment was culturally irrelevant and “especially enjoyed a good smoke and gambling at the Eureka Casino on East Sahara Avenue, where he was often seen with a cigarette while encountering the buttons of the slot machine, “according to an obituary in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

In “The Invisible Dragon” and later works, Hickey’s endorsement of “beauty” as the ultimate judge of artistic value ignited a clash with his contemporaries focused on 20th century conceptual art theory and significance, preferring to deconstruct the reasons why people find things to be beautiful.

‘He chooses to overlook the view that beauty may simply be what the ruling economic and social elites say it is. In the process, his opponents claim, he replaces his own bad-boy outsider judgments with narrow-minded art professionals, “The New York Times wrote in a 1999 profile. of Hickey.

Lumpkin said her husband never intended to fight for traditionalism, as his critics claimed.

“Much of Dave’s work was misinterpreted. It was assumed that the beauty he was talking about was something very old-fashioned, but he was a supporter of very conceptual artists from the beginning,” she said.

His taste was truly eclectic. He sang praises of artists and people in popular culture ranging from Norman Rockwell to Robert Mapplethorpe to Ellsworth Kelly. His essays covered basketball player Julius Erving, rebroadcasts of the TV series “Perry Mason” and outlaw country music.

In 2001, the MacArthur Foundation awarded him an “ingenious” grant for his work. He was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 2003 and won a Peabody Award for a 2006 documentary about Andy Warhol.

Hickey and Lumpkin traveled to Santa Fe in 2010 and accepted positions at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Lumpkin said Hickey considered teaching one of his most important work and legacy.

“He was a real intellectual without being a snob, and he trusted that his students could think theoretically. When you put your trust in students that way, they get it and they make good art, ”Lumpkin said.


Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press / Report for the America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover topics.


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