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Dave Hickey

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  • Interview by Gemma Sieff
  • Issue 4
  • Free Radical

Dave Hickey was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1940. He earned degrees at Texas Christian University and the University of Texas, directed the Austin art gallery A Clean Well-Lighted Place and New York’s Reese Palley Gallery, gossiped in Hollywood hangouts and honky-tonk bars, curated SITE Santa Fe’s “Beau Monde” biennial, and taught art and literature at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, all the while writing superlative prose: fiction, rock criticism, love songs, and pungent essays on art and culture, collected in The Invisible Dragon (1993) and Air Guitar (1997). He received a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2001. Hickey’s essays are distinguished, free-form, and forthright, and, luckily for his interlocutors, he speaks like he writes. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife, the art historian Libby Lumpkin.

Gemma Sieff

How’s life since you quit the art world? Two years ago you said it was stupid and nasty and you didn’t care if you weren’t invited to the party.

Dave Hickey

I didn’t quit art, I quit the art world. Until I got sick, I was looking at art. I don’t see art now, because I’ve been in bed for six months. An atrial fibrillation came on me on the airplane from LA. I’d had to give like three lectures, fifteen interviews, two book signings, and it messed me up really good. It took them a long time to get my heart back in rhythm. But the art world doesn’t change. Stupider or smarter, it’s pretty much the same.

When was it last smart?

I don’t know, ’71 or something. There have been some smart ones since Clement [Greenberg]. Leo Steinberg. Robert Rauschenberg. Andy [Warhol]. The art world is going through a bad place. There are no more critics. Now we have tastemakers. Fuck, I know some tastemakers.

Are you going to name names?

I don’t think so. I’ve lived a lot of my life in a sort of celebrity world and it’s beginning to tire me. All those girls look the same. I’m afraid if I go to these places I’ll have to meet that Marco person [actor James Franco], who did the fake Cindy Shermans. I don’t want to meet him. I’m a stand-there-in-your-jodhpurs-and-look-at-the-Jasper-Johns kind of guy. Movie people walk up to you and say, “I did a Doritos commercial.” Everyone has a résumé stamped on their forehead. The art world I grew up in had plenty of celebrities. David Bowie, Mick, Keith, Dennis Hopper—those guys were always around, but you didn’t, like, stop and trail the person. I don’t care who buys what for Kanye West. Movie people and art people kind of poison one another. But I’m having fun on Facebook. Writing is a social activity. Also, I’m a teacher. I put stuff on my wall about how I taught white basketball players how to speak black English by teaching them my grandfather’s Irish brogue, which is a lot like ebonics, with the Celtic b.

Did you join Facebook because you were missing the art world?

No, I was just lonesome. I like Facebook. It has bounce. I went from zero to 5,000 friends in about seven days. I was looking on my Facebook, and saw that Rauschenberg had the idea that history doesn’t start til forty years ago, and everything back forty years is still the present. Pieces stay in play. They don’t get slotted down into historical time. Artists do things that take place in the present day. Everybody has forty years to live. That was very smart of Robert.

With all the new gadgetry, you might be alive for hundreds more years.

I cannot imagine doing my taxes for that long. Every year I think, This will be my last tax return. I like sports like surfing and skiing and diving and riding. Anything where you just lean forward and let it go.

In Air Guitar you write about your appreciation for shopkeepers of this sort, the Billabong guy who’s going to follow you outside, once you’ve bought the surfboard, to continue to the conversation.

Yeah. It’s sorta the opposite in Santa Fe. There’s no one-stop shopping. You go in and have the car worked on, then you go in and have it worked on again.

You predicted as much in “Pirates and Farmers.” Does your wife deal with this stuff? Do pirates marry pirates?

Libby is a farmer. She grows plants and deals with rabbits and raccoons and things like that. She’s teaching art history at the University of New Mexico. I’m not teaching at all. I got a couple little lessons I gotta write. I’m beginning to realize I’m not going to be in any of the big anthologies of art criticism.

But you’re in the canon of good writers, isn’t that better?

They have a show at SITE Santa Fe. It’s always some relational aesthetics kind of thing, where they put up a blurry photograph or video and then accompany it with about ten miles of wall text. We had to come home from the show because Libby didn't bring her reading glasses. So that was that. Boring life. I just work on my essays, and Libby and I go out to eat three, four times a week, and we have an argument about where we’ll go—“If we go to this place here, they’re not gonna have any cereal.” I’m not really complaining. I’m not like that Norwegian guy who writes about breakfast. Knausgaard. I don’t get it. It’s banal, I get that and that’s great, but the books are too long for banal. You want a short banal book. A nice tight Robbe-Grillet with some S&M is enough for me.

You like your banality stripped down.

I tend to be stripped down. I just watch Netflix. Thank God for Netflix.

What are you watching?

I just watched The Killing. It’s a little bit slam-bang but it’s real in touch. I’m reading a nice great big fat old-time novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, by a Cuban writer, Leonardo Padura. It’s big and clunky so you have to reorder your expectations. There are long pages of Trotsky having conversations with his son—you learn commie shit, so that’s fun. And the University of Chicago Press sent me Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling, lectures about confession by Michel Foucault.

Sounds like heavy lifting.

Not for me. I live in the big present, not the pinpoint present. I’m happy in the atmosphere of abstraction. Theory is easy, practice is hard. Theory’s like playing poker with no spots on the cards.

Gemma Sieff is a writer and editor based in New York.

"Hollywood" © Dennis Hopper, from Dennis Hopper: Out of the Sixties (Twin Palms Publishers)