Dave Hickey (1938-2021)

Dave Hickey
Dave Hickey in his Austin gallery, 1969. Photo: USA Today Network

Dave Hickey, the outspoken Texas-born art critic whose writings garnered a lasting following, has died.

Daniel Oppenheimer, who this year published a biography of Hickey “Far from Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art” (UT Press) reported in Texas Monthly that Hickey died Nov 12 in Santa Fe. Hickey suffered from heart disease. He was 82.

Hickey wrote two books of criticism that achieved widespread fame: “Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy” (1997) and “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty” (1993).

Christopher Knight, art critic of the Los Angeles Times, tweeted “‘Air Guitar’ is arguably the most influential work of art criticism of the last quarter-century.”

“A complex leviathan,” tweeted Jerry Saltz, himself as much a disruptive critic as Hickey. “Dave used to call me up — I knew I was up for a challenge, that I would do a lot of listening, often not understanding his elaborate locution & phrasing.”

Born in Fort Worth in 1938, Hickey was pursuing graduate studies in linguistics at the University of Texas , when in 1967 he opened his gallery A Clean, Well Lighted Place. Its name is a reference to a short story by Ernest Hemingway, a writer whose streamlined writing style Hickey admired.

Though its existence was short-lived, the gallery had an outsized influence on Austin and the Texas art scene, with Hickey a pioneering purveyor and champion of risk-taking contemporary art.

But the ever-restless Hickey left Austin for New York in 1971. He ran the Reese Paley Gallery, then served as executive editor for Art in America magazine and as contributing editor to The Village Voice. His writing appeared in most major cultural publications in the America including Harper’s, Interview Artforum, Rolling Stone, ARTnews, among many others

At other points in his life Hickey was a staff songwriter for Glaser Publications in Nashville and arts editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Although known for his diatribes against academic art critics, beginning in 1990, he spent two decades teaching at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. In 2001, Hickey received a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant.”

“I think he would primarily want to be remembered as a teacher. He loved his students,” his wife, art historian Libby Lumpkin told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, author of “Fifty Texas Artists” (Chronicle Books), former head curator of the Blanton Museum of Art and now an independent curator, knew Hickey over the decades.

Carlozzi said that Hickey was a singular talent, a large personality with the capacity to harness together multiple ideas and topics.

“Dave was a brilliant thinker, a man with wide-ranging knowledge and very specific tastes,” Carlozzi said. “He determined early on that it was his job, as a critic, to continually hone both domains, and to generate lyrical language that could speak both to ‘Bubba’ and to ‘Virgil,’ as he called his fictional sometimes-conversants. I loved this about his work, even as I disagreed with him on several major issues. And he wrote (and recorded) some amazing songs!

“Dave’s criticism remains the topic of lively debate, but he staked out unprecedented territory and finesse from his groundings in Fort Worth, New York, Nashville, Southern California, Las Vegas and New Mexico. An American original and incomparable 20th century voice of letters. RIP, Dave.”

A public, outdoor ceremony for Hickey is set for Nov. 30 at Rosario Cemetery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.