Dave Hickey, prolific and provocative art critic, dies at 82

Famed art critic Dave Hickey, known for biting opinions and stirring commentary on the creative scene, has died.

The prolific writer, who was also a self-described “sissy,” “feminist,” “serial monogamist,” “big quitter” and “pirate,” published a number of essays throughout his illustrious career examining art and culture. Hickey died of heart disease Nov. 12 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Los Angeles Times confirmed with his widow, Libby Lumpkin. He was 82.

“Dave’s a cross between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Joe Cocker — profoundly American, profoundly democratic and profoundly independent-thinking,” said art writer David Pagel in 2014. “He’s almost a heretic in the church of art. He makes people mad because he wants them to think for themselves.”

Born Dec. 5, 1938, in Fort Worth, Texas, Hickey collected several prestigious honors for his musings, including a Peabody Award, a MacArthur Fellowship and the Frank Jewett Mather award for art criticism. He was also a professor at institutions such as Harvard, Yale and the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where he most recently taught art criticism.

“I like to teach,” Hickey told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. “I think I’m a good teacher because I’m not parental. … I don’t do daddy, I do Uncle Buck. I do, ‘Hey, smoke this,’ you know. I treat ’em like adults.”

In 1997, Hickey released his seminal book “Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy.” Other standout Hickey titles include “The Invisible Dragon,” “Pirates and Farmers,” “Wasted Words” and “Dust Bunnies.” Hickey’s criticism has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Rolling Stone, Art News, Art in America, Artforum and Vanity Fair.

Hickey sometimes came under fire for divisive opinions, such as his late-career rebuke of “identity politics,” which he blamed in 2014 for ruining the art underground. After that particular viewpoint sparked a backlash, Hickey invited his naysayers to “come downtown and … talk about it.”

“There’s no difference between the highest art and the lowest art, except for the audience it appeals to,” Hickey told The Times in 2002.

“I have never seen more art and craft and thought and gift and talent and learning go into anything as watching Allen Toussaint produce a Meters record in New Orleans. That was real art.”

In recent years, Hickey expressed his distaste for the mainstream L.A. art scene in his inimitable fashion, taking scathing shots at the Hammer Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in one fell swoop.

“They lack refinement and seriousness,” he said in 2014. “They’re all about tabloid headlines.”

In addition to his wife, Hickey is survived by younger brother Michael Hickey. According to Lumpkin, memorial services for the renowned author will be held Nov. 30 in Santa Fe. In Hickey’s honor, his family has encouraged donations to the University of New Mexico in support of art history programs.

“People despise critics because people despise weakness,” Hickey said in 2002, “and criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing.”

This story was originally published November 21, 2021 3:19 PM.