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Dave Hickey has had some … trouble with women before. There was the time he wrote a book about the importance of beauty in art and angered a lot of feminists. There was also the time he compared having an exciting experience with art to “brushing up against a girl with big boobs in the subway.” Then there was the time he said that identity politics and consciousness-raising killed the underground. But you know what? Those were all misunderstandings. Because Dave Hickey, according to his newest book, is a “ladies’ man.” He’s also “never not been a feminist.” Whether or not those two labels are compatible is beside the point.
The book, published by the University of Chicago Press, is titled 25 Women: Essays on Their Art — with the purpose, one surmises, of raising at least a few eyebrows. For those familiar with his oeuvre (and gaffes and politics), the idea of Dave Hickey writing about women might be intriguing, provocative even. I find myself more piqued at the phrasing of it, the offering up of women as enumerated objects of discussion, their art coming only in the subtitle, like an afterthought. Somehow I can’t see anyone paying Roberta Smith to publish a book of critical essays called 25 Men (Who, By the Way, Make Art).
The women here, in any case, are artists. Mostly. A chapter on Lynda Benglis, two on Bridget Riley, one on Sarah Charlesworth, another on Teresita Fernández, and so on. The 24th woman offers the impetus for the tome: New Museum founder Marcia Tucker, whose death Hickey wants to honor. This is a surprise, given Tucker’s fierce embrace of political art and Hickey’s abhorrence of “art politics,” but he writes that Tucker mentored him early on, teaching him “everything I needed to know about the art world of early seventies.” She does not receive a chapter of her own, just a tribute in the introduction, where the 25th woman also makes her brief appearance: Hickey’s mom (yes, really). Helen was a businesswoman and professor who, on her death bed, wished she’d never given up painting. And so her inclusion makes a certain sense — a heartfelt but ultimately trivializing kind.
In his quest to honor Tucker, Hickey “scrolled my hard drive and came up with thirty essays on the work of women artists.” He cut seven of those, “trimmed the juvenilia” from the rest, and voila, the book you hold in your hands. Reading this, I must admit, set me on high alert. Gathering previously published essays about women artists with ostensibly no connection beyond their sex strikes me as an example of how not to write about women artists. Nor was my fear assuaged when, later on in the same paragraph, Hickey went on to characterize himself as “enthusiastic about the prospect” of writing about these women’s work “because I am an adept of difficulty.” Is it inherently difficult for a man to write about the work of women artists? Hickey has a special knack for giving gender credit when it’s not due and and dismissing it when it’s actually at play.
Fortunately his tastes — not the details of them so much as their general existence — keep the book afloat. Criticism, as Oscar Wilde once posited, is a form of autobiography, and Hickey finds across his subjects’ work common principles that evidence his view of what art should take up: pleasure, abstraction, epistemology, the human condition. So, he praises Joan Mitchell’s paintings “as classical epigrams that intertwine the light and dark, the petulance and grandeur—that arise from the daily fret of living and breathing.” Lynda Benglis offers a “brighter, looser, sexier, and more profligate idiom” than the art world’s adherence to minimalism. Sarah Charlesworth’s “great subject” is “the pleasurable, recursive, and contingent activity of knowing the world.” Bridget Riley “focuses on the realm of ‘sense,’ insisting the art occurs when the way we see something and the way we know it impinge upon one another.”
Hickey, it must be said, is a terrific writer; his ability to discuss art in a way that’s simultaneously intelligent, graceful, and not too self-serious is rare. The essays vary in length and strength, but the best ones — on Charlesworth, Barbara Bloom, Vija Celmins, and Nancy Rubins — make you a believer, even as you know that belief may not last beyond the last page. More often, however, Hickey casts spells and then breaks them, either by falling too hard for grandiosity (“the sheer appropriateness of [Sharon] Ellis’s paintings in Southern California at the dawn of the twenty-first century speaks directly to the problematic of Protestant postmodernism in temperate latitudes and cosmopolitan cultures where neither industrial modernism, Freudian psychology, nor Puritan rigor have ever expressed themselves with much cultural resonance”) or embarking on overly nostalgic tangents about the lost underground (“Absolute permission died when the ‘art world’ became the ‘art community’ around 1975 … when we all started intervening, and nursing on another, with or without permission”). Sometimes, the essays are marred by bizarre — if unsurprising — bursts of sexism, as when he writes that Roni Horn, in two photos, “looks like a lesbian” and calls Benglis “a haughty southern bitch” (which might be meant as a compliment). The weakest essays concern the work of Fiona Banner and Hung Liu, both of whom make art with often expressly political concerns; in both cases, Hickey attempts to write his way around the politics, for fear of giving them any credence, and ends up in dead ends or circles.
Because what Hickey refuses to acknowledge, of course, is that his tastes and choices amount to a politics of their own — one that privileges form over content, abstraction over representation, senses over ideas. None of this has anything in particular to do with women; even the specific women discussed in the book end up looking less like themselves and more like manifestations of Hickey’s worldview by the time he’s through. I wouldn’t really expect anything else, but I also wouldn’t say, as Hickey does, that “there is no agenda here.” A worldview that ignores all social structures (except for the rose-colored ones of the past) hinders women by ignoring the very real obstacles they face, in much the same way that claiming colorblindness fails to help people of color. (Is it a coincidence that most of Hickey’s subjects are white?) Taken at close range, the writing about the artists here is often insightful; viewed through the lens of Hickey’s larger project, I’m not sure the depoliticization does any of these women any favors.