“MY REPUTATION COMPLETELY DESTROYED, annihilated on the instant,” he told himself, watching the box burn, “and my reputation is all I have, it’s the only thing that can earn me a living … and yet, what a way of living, oh dear God!”

— Stendhal, The Red and the Black

“And in the meantime, he’s actually not very good about art,” Robert Storr said about Dave Hickey in an interview with Yale radio last year, explaining, “he wrote a whole long essay about Lari Pittman without mentioning Lari is half-Hispanic and gay, which is an awfully big thing to miss when you look at the work.” I was reminded of this comment while reading reviews of Hickey’s new collection 25 Women: Essays on Their Art, which has been similarly decried for not foregrounding the artists’ gender in its analysis. Storr’s remark shimmers with a worldview about what art criticism ought to be, and how an artist’s “identity” should be considered not only relevant to, but legible within, their art. Curious, I got the bright pink catalog from Pittman’s 1996 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and was surprised to find Hickey’s essay a radiant defense of vernacular flamboyance, in a multicultural idiom that posits Los Angeles as “an American place within a larger, older, and more complex world […] a semitropical metropolis sprawling at the edge of the great Pacific, in the northern latitudes of Hispanic American, as the western extremity of Mediterranean civilization.” It’s worth quoting an extended passage, to see what Hickey is arguing for in the absence of identity politics:

At this point a young woman standing near me, also looking at the painting, muttered, “Decorative shit,” and stalked away. There was nothing to be done about it, I decided. As long as our experience of art remained imperfectly socialized, decoration would always signify corruption — since the whole idea of decoration as a defective practice presumed that something natural or spiritual or virtuous (or all three) was being defaced or occluded by the phenomenal appeal of its ornamental surface. Some spiritual flight was being grounded by the seduction of material complexity. Or some pristine natural thing was being defaced by the obsessive noodling of a corrupt culture. Or some serenely elegant, although unfortunately absent, intellectual signification was being occluded by the distracting complexity of the embodied sign. […]

Pittman’s painting, on the other hand, simply refuses to posit art’s authority in its message or its materials, presuming it to exist in the quality of our acquaintance with its complex appearance, reconstituting the experience of art as a social occasion dedicated to the resolution of private desire and public virtue, in which the work’s surface embodies the artist’s devotion and commitment, the subject’s public and private complexity, and the beholder’s curiosity and desire.

Obviously, Hickey doesn’t “miss” Pittman’s sexual and ethnic identities. He treats their layered manifestations on a level deeper than mere biography. In Hickey’s analysis, Pittman’s paintings are neither severed from their maker nor reductively bound to him, but figured as palpably contingent — activated by the larger currents of world, the way a kite borne on a spring breeze stays aloft by the tension of its almost invisible tether, held far below.

Hickey’s argument for Pittman could be applied to his own work as a critic. Attending to the “quality of our acquaintance” with an artwork proposes its own methodology: seeking to tell the story of a consciousness rubbing against the contours of the world. In his essay on Ann Hamilton, for example, Hickey suddenly digresses into a memory of feeding cows in Texas, explaining, “I have learned to trust those random bits of image and anecdote that the brain tosses up in the face of difficult art. More often than not, these fragments define a territory of confluence between one’s own sensibility and that of the work.” In this, Hickey comes closer to fulfilling our expectations of literature than the usual requisites of “art criticism,” with its clear decrees and hierarchal categorizations. Hickey is a resolutely nonsystematic thinker, positioned in no stable intellectual camp. Our culture reserves a special resentment for those in positions of authority who refuse to wield their power in the ways prescribed. Thus the incredible anger provoked by a critic who issues no judgments and constructs no rules, but instead rhapsodizes about what he loves, aiming not to convince you of its worthiness but to demonstrate that such love is possible.

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Hours of listening to Dave Hickey–bashing from various art-world friends have shown me that there are several more or less distinct Dave Hickeys, which can be sorted into three main categories. The one that gets all the attention is Dave Hickey the cartoon villain — guilty of every kind of evil a white straight dude from Texas can be made to symbolize, which rarely, if ever, corresponds to anything Hickey has actually written. Judging by reviews, that Dave Hickey exists primarily as a windmill for tilting practice by ambitious young critics, guaranteed to generate applause. Of late he has helped them along by playing the role of art-world spoiler in public statements and on social media, responding to Irving Sandler’s 2012 request in The Brooklyn Rail for statements on the plight of contemporary art criticism like this:

THANKS FOR THE INVITATION. I AM A WRITER. I HAVE WRITTEN A LOT ABOUT ART. I NO LONGER DO BECAUSE THE ART WORLD IS TOO STUPID. I DON’T KNOW ANY WORDS THAT ARE SHORT ENOUGH OR LONG ENOUGH. IT’S A DEAD PRACTICE BUT FUN WHILE IT LASTED. WITH AFFECTION,

Next, there is Dave Hickey the writer, a 75-year-old man who lives in the desert and has invented a way of engaging art that is so singular and spectacular it can’t be compared with anyone else’s. In contrast to his public image, his essays are all love letters, or as he’d prefer, love songs.

The positive and negative poles of his public self create a magnetic field, setting the stage for Dave Hickey the literary character. This is a creature invented out of language, that you get to know through reading — a character of almost unrivaled sensitivity, complexity, and fun.

As far as I can tell, these three Dave Hickeys don’t have much to do with one another — I certainly don’t recognize either the man I know or the books of his that I’ve read in the public discourse around Dave Hickey. Nor do I understand with any clarity the dynamic between the man and his literary persona — the unstable relationship between the maker and the made, which constitutes one of the chief mysteries of art itself.

25 Women: Essays on Their Art is a sampling of writing from the past 20 years, mostly catalog essays, covering artists as different as Joan Mitchell, Vija Celmins, Sarah Charlesworth, Ann Hamilton, and Bridget Riley. The subjects are alike only in that they are all so singular, each of them often constituting “a fragile system unto itself,” as he says of Roni Horn. Hickey describes their art as “difficult” and it is. Take his essay on Celmins, who presents us not with a drawing of the surface of the sea, but a drawing of a photograph of the surface of the sea, a kind of congealed indirectness “bringing us closer to the world by moving us farther away.” This is a frequent Hickey maneuver, as though immediate experience, or another person’s inner life, is so remote and incommunicable that the best we can do is to theatricalize the distance. He never writes as though he knows more or better than the artist, and he doesn’t ascribe intentions. He is, as a viewer, resolutely outside, and his essays are jewel-like meditations on that position.

To enact this externalized mode of inner experience, Hickey has fashioned himself into a character within the writing, such that “Dave Hickey” walking through Ann Hamilton’s installation tropos (1993–1994) — where the floor is covered with multicolored pony hair and a woman sits at a desk reading words to herself as she burns them out of a book — can describe his experience this way:

And thanks to the millions of paintings that live inside my eye, I looked down and found myself walking on a Titian, striding across its surface, keeping pace with the swift, sure scumble of the master’s horsehair brush; and having seen the giant Titian beneath my feet, I lifted my eyes and found the haze of Leonardo’s trademark sfumato, and I could have continued. Had I stayed, I could have woven a filigree of allegory to rival the Alhambra while knowing that I hadn’t added a thing to it, that I had discovered nothing but my own associative proclivities on that cognitive vacant lot, which was not even mine to interpret, which belonged to its guardian, to the absorbed young woman seated at the table, reading and burning language. We are placed inside a situation that we must remain outside of — since the atmosphere we inhabit is clearly an externalization of the consciousness presiding over it.

That last line could double to describe the reader of the essay, as we wander through the exquisite landscape of belles-lettres prose, positioned on the outside of an interiority. When Hickey does imagine why an artist might do a particular thing, it is presented as fantasy, as in the fairy tale, “At The Prince’s Chateau,” where Elizabeth Peyton and David Hockney take a trip to visit Oscar Wilde and Prince Harry. (“‘We get in and go, I suppose,’ said David, who, after many years of smiling at people who presumed he spoke their language, was perfectly at ease not knowing what to do.”)

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There are both moral and political implications to Hickey’s sustained use of first-person narrative to apprehend art works. He never claims the abstract position of objectivity, that dusty default of scholarly prose, instead staying true to the idiosyncrasies of his own specific perceptions. Revealingly, he often shifts to the third person when discussing himself as a writer, as he does in the revised introduction to his incendiary book on beauty in the 1990s, The Invisible Dragon, which begins, “First, understand this. The four essays that open this book are not characteristic of his writing. They are perfectly sincere, and he still believes everything he wrote in these essays. He just can’t believe he wrote them.”

An important key for thinking through the implications of Hickey’s writing is to examine his transition from fiction to criticism, which he described in the essay “Proof through the Night,” written in 1989 when his collected short fiction from the 1960s was published as Prior Convictions. In the third person he details his increasing discomfort with placing readers inside characters’ perspectives, and what it presumes about the relation between the writer and the world:

It was not the idea of fiction that bothered him: everything from the Congressional Record to the menu at Lutèce was fiction. It was that glass wall of moral isolation you slid into place by calling it fiction, and it was the idea of defending his little theatrical fictions from the greater invisible fiction of culture itself that left him unrequited and sitting so far back from the screen. Finally it was the absence of friction. Sex and language may have been “all in the head,” but, for him, they worked best in close proximity with the objects of their affection.

Attempting to resolve this problem over the past four decades has produced a chronicle worthy of Laurence Sterne — “The Life and Opinions of Dave Hickey, Gentleman,” complete with spiraling digressions and funhouse metacommentary — and it should be judged as an achievement of that magnitude.

Writing about art, for Hickey, is alive with the thrill of active antagonisms — the successive push and pull of language and sensation, self and other — that he refers to as “the pleasurable, recursive, and contingent activity of knowing the world.” This pleasure often takes the form of seduction, both visceral and philosophical, as in this description of Sarah Charlesworth’s photograph Text (1992–1993):

Charlesworth’s Text is a black-and-white photograph (as a text is black and white). At first glance, it seems to portray a cropped and horizonless landscape of glossy white satin, viewed from a high angle, with the cloth gathered here and there into mountains, valleys, and ridgelines. On second glance, we see that the landscape features of the satin arise from the presence of a book that lies open beneath the surface of the cloth, and we notice that the cloth is not only reflective but apparently translucent, as well. Lines of text are just visible on the surface of the fabric covering the exposed pages; it is unclear, however, whether these lines are printed on the pages of the book, on the reflective cloth, or, even, on the photograph itself. There is no way of knowing this, so we are left with this question: If reading a book, as the image implies, is to snatch the word-soaked satin off the page and carry it away, just what does one carry? The “text” or the reflective, semitransparent satin? The question applies, as well, to our looking at the photograph. Having looked at the photograph (as I just did) and turned my attention back to the screen, what have I borne away in memory? This is the ultimate, cautionary question for any writer who addresses the visible world, and one that Sarah Charlesworth never lets us forget.

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The most astonishing feature of Hickey’s criticism is the way emotional nuance is woven into intellectual rigor. One illustration is his masterful essay on Joan Mitchell’s paintings, which he describes as “classical epigrams that intertwine the light and dark, the petulance and grandeur”:

So, if we only seek sublimity, as many have, the idiosyncratic, angry virtue of Mitchell’s paintings is transformed into a vice. For years we pretended not to notice that, along with the joy, the grace, and the ebullience, there is pettiness, panic, recrimination, jealousy and contempt, and naked self-hatred. The effect of feeling these small, sharp, human emotions while you’re looking at an abstract painting takes some getting used to, but they do seem to be there in Mitchell’s paintings and this friction distinguishes them from the paintings of her peers and inheritors.

In his way Hickey has taken Henry James’s advice to novelists, understanding that to be one “on whom nothing is lost” is to allow yourself to see and to feel the uglier aspects of human experience, and to recognize them as coextensive with our more attractive selves. This plunges you headlong into human complexity as the very substance of art.

It is a rarely unremarked upon fact that the most widely read volume of American art criticism of the past 20 years, Hickey’s Air Guitar (1997), contains very little on art proper. Instead, you get celebrations of Liberace and Chet Baker, female wrestlers and Weimar theater directors in Texas — misfits, outsiders, and weirdos all. It asserts that art’s meaning arises from its duality, that it is both almost incommunicably personal and quintessentially social. This returns us to the catalog essay on Lari Pittman, with its conclusion that the paintings reconstitute:

the experience of art as a social occasion dedicated to the resolution of private desire and public virtue, in which the work’s surface embodies the artist’s devotion and commitment, the subject’s public and private complexity, and the beholder’s curiosity and desire.

Art exists for a world in which people are essentially different from each other, especially from those they are supposed to resemble because of social category or identity group. Hickey’s writing is populated by artists who have finessed personal trauma and crushing loneliness into forms of public communion — and it is their songs, not their suffering, that he writes about, offering the possibility of intimacy within our shared aloneness.

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Jarrett Earnest is a teacher at the free experimental art school, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University.