Art critic Dave Hickey, known for the book ‘Air Guitar’, passed away

Dave Hickey, a prominent American art critic whose essays spanned topics 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 outside the mainstream art world.

His classy prose, brash critique of high-profile institutions like museums and universities, and equal embrace of works regarded as both high and low have had a lasting influence on a generation of artists and critics.

“There is no one like him. He belongs in the canon of American nonfiction prose,” 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 in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and California. After going through graduate school programs, he dropped out and opened a contemporary art gallery in Austin, Texas. In 1971 he moved to New York, where he ran more galleries, edited the publication Art in America, and wrote for Village Voice magazine and Rolling Stone. His work and interests immersed him in an artistic community that also included Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper and David Bowie.

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

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

Hickey challenged the idea that the Strip’s neon lights were somehow inauthentic, argued against the idea that entertainment in Las Vegas was culturally irrelevant, and “particularly enjoyed a good smoke and gambling at the Eureka Casino.” East Sahara Avenue, where he was often seen with a cigarette poking the buttons of slot machines,” according to a Las Vegas Review-Journal obituary..

In “The Invisible Dragon” and later works, Hickey’s endorsement of “beauty” as the ultimate arbiter of artistic merit led to a clash with his contemporaries who focused on the theory and meaning of 20th century conceptual art, which favored it. to unravel the reasons why people think things are beautiful.

“He chooses to overlook the view that beauty is just what the ruling economic and social elites say it is. In the process, his detractors argue, he is replacing his own bad outsider judgments with those of narrow-minded art professionals,” The New York Times wrote in a 1999 profile. from Hickey.

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

“A lot of Dave’s work was misinterpreted. The assumption was made that the beauty he was talking about was something very old-fashioned, but he was a supporter of very conceptual artists from the start,” she said.

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

In 2001, the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a “genius” scholarship for his body of 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 left for 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 his students to think theoretically. When you put your trust in students like that, they get it and make good art,” Lumpkin said.


Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national, not-for-profit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on classified issues.


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