Retreating, But Not Retiring

Cultural critic Dave Hickey on the art world’s bureaucracy and what’s next for him

A year ago, on the eve of his retrospective at the Guggenheim, artist Maurizio Cattelan announced his retirement. Recently, another esteemed figure, the cultural critic, curator, professor and one-time art dealer Dave Hickey, called to let The Observer know that he, too, is taking a step back.

Hickey, who in 2001 became the first Nevadan to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, spent two decades in Las Vegas with his wife Libby Lumpkin before moving to Albuquerque in August 2010. Author of numerous catalog essays, Hickey became well known for his 1993 book The Invisible Dragon (in which he, controversially at the time, championed beauty), and 1997’s Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, a collection of his writings on a wide range of topics published in the form of his “Simple Hearts” column in the now-defunct magazine Art Issues.

Most recently a professor of criticism in the department of art and art history at the University of New Mexico, he left teaching last year. In the following interview, conducted by phone and via e-mail, he explains his reasons for (partly) retiring and what he’ll be up to next.

Your writing on art has been influential. Now you’re retiring from the art world, at least partly. Why?

I’m retiring because my time is up. Last summer I wrote catalog pieces on Ken Price and John Chamberlain. They were both my friends, and my essays turned out to be inadvertent obituaries. I take this as a sign. Also, most writing about art these days is so bad that my secular readership has disappeared. Nobody but professionals and grad students even look at it. So no more e-mails from civilians, no more notes from John Updike or Steve Martin, no more crazy hipsters from Berkeley knocking on my door. Also, the art world has turned nasty for some reason, and my gentility has come out of the closet. I cry when people scream at me, unless we’re just haggling about prices.

But you’ll still be writing?

I will be writing, however, revising material for three anthologies and writing another book. The first is a book of essays about the work of women artists because no such book exists. I have about 20 essays about art from Bridget Riley’s to Elizabeth Peyton’s. I wanted to do something for my late friend [New Museum founder] Marcia Tucker, who actually introduced me firsthand to the art world. We agreed on nothing at all, so I thought I’d dedicate a book to her about art she would have hated. That would be very Marcia and Dave. I’m also revising a second volume of Air Guitar called Connoisseur of Waves, which is a little more focused on architecture, jazz, movies and surfing. I am writing a book called Pagan America that has grown out of an essay of mine called “American Beauty.” I also have a completed book of shorter essays called Pirates and Farmers that is light, funny and very mean spirited.

Hmmm … a sort of partial retirement then?

In other words, I plan to disappear like Marcel Duchamp, which is to not quite disappear. I’m about to leave…oops, I haven’t left yet but keep on looking. I’m about to leave. I’m giving it all up for chess, that type of thing. I’m actually giving it all up for statistics. My mother was an economics professor. I’m proficient in math and statistics, game theory, symbolic logic and all of that. I want to write a creative writing book about the statistics of literary prose accompanied by software so you could compare the statistical shape of your writing to that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Ray Carver or David Foster Wallace. My idea is to provide professors a way of teaching creative writing without having to read quires of crap. Also, I really believe that most of the problems with literary prose tend to be statistical. They have to do with sequencing, and the calculus is helpful in gaining this sort of information. When I was in graduate school I invented a grammar based on the paragraph rather than the sentence—very radical at the time. I also had works by writers in three states of revision so I could say: The numbers are like this here, and then here and then here. So I could make empirically based observations about intention. Hemingway means to do this. Gertrude Stein means to do this. D.H. Lawrence means to do this. I was fighting against professorial Freudian and Marxist musings on the artist’s intentions. I hate all that woozy political and psychotherapeutic crap applied to books and art.

In a recent lecture, you talked about the problems inherent in art education—that it’s not something that can actually be taught. The conundrum of grading, for instance. I think you said that in your class one would earn an A for not turning anything in.

Well, I think artists should be proud and too cool for school. I told my students in my last class that I always had my TA grade their papers. They asked why I didn’t read their papers. I asked them how much they would enjoy teaching a swimming class where everybody drowned. So, I’m quitting teaching, too, and saving myself from that sort of desolation. Also, I’m too far away. I’m not competent to critique the work of young artists over whom I have so much leverage and experience. It’s like crop dusting with a 747. Bad for the crop and bad for the plane. This doesn’t mean I’m that much better, just that I’m way older. What do you say about a painting or a story by a kid who hasn’t seen a million paintings or read a million books? Also, nobody cares if it’s good anymore, and everybody hates it when something’s really great.

Do you go to many fairs?

I don’t. I’ve been to Frieze and to Miami a couple of times, some in New York and others here and there, and I actually like them. I like to look at art and to price things. I started out as a dealer and most of my writing is market-driven. I have this old-time notion that there should be some equity between price and value. If I think somebody is underpriced, I try to raise their prices. If I think somebody is overpriced, I try to lower their prices. I don’t just go around discovering wonder women in Brooklyn.

This reminds me of your McLaughlin Principle.

Exactly. John McLaughlin was a great painter. How many John McLaughlin paintings is this artwork worth? I started off as an art dealer, and it’s the last really honest thing I’ve ever done. It’s the last thing I did where you were punished for your mistakes, and the prospect of the gallows will really hold your attention. I regarded Leo Castelli, the Janis brothers and Irving Blum as my mentors. They were the people who told me everything I needed to know. [Castelli Gallery director] Ivan Karp told me things I needed to know that I didn’t want to know. But I loved Ivan. He told me how to close a sale, but I still can’t do it. When I asked Leo how he and Ivan worked together, he said, “David, you need a poser and a closer to sell art. I’m the poser, Ivan is the closer.”

Who was your closer?

When I ran Reese Palley in New York, it was Betty Cunningham. She was great. In Austin, it was my ex-wife Mary Jane, who was also great. She could say, “Well, if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it.” And throw up her hands. That’s closing.

In an article about art fairs in Vanity Fair a few years ago, you wrote, “The dealer’s only edge is the vanity of wealth.”

What I mean is that rich people are confident and often overconfident. This is good for the dealers but good for the collector, too. You always trust your gut. That’s who you are. You see something you like at an art fair, you buy it for cash. Paying things out poisons your relationship to the work. It erodes your trust in your gut. So you negotiate for it, you scream about it and you buy it. You don’t wait around to see if everybody else likes it, that’s just going to raise the prices. The best thing about collectors in Las Vegas is those dudes don’t care what you like. In Beverly Hills people call all their friends. If you hesitate, if you start to distrust your own taste, you start depending on dealers and art advisers. You’re giving away your power to choose and your power to get good prices. Also, you may be no good at choosing, and you should learn that fast.

So what else do you plan to do, besides a creative writing textbook based on statistics?

Well, I look at all these art websites. They tell you how to buy things and give you a bunch of prices. They forget to tell you that art dealing is dealing, not retail. Every price comes out of a deal, so I feel like their numbers need some explanation. So, my friend Joe Tabet and I want to start a limited subscription newsletter called “The Hard Part,” which is selling art. We want to educate collectors about buying spontaneously, and how you sell if it turns out that you hate it. This sounds ominous, but it’s all about liquidity. It’s all about collectors reclaiming their power. Writing “buy” contracts is a part of it. They explain the gallery’s obligation with regard to the art they’ve just sold you. Things that were standard in my days as an art dealer in New York are no longer standard. You can’t just take a work back and trade it for something of equal value without a contractual obligation. As a dealer, I always wanted to do that, because I figured if I sold it once I could sell it again. But the art world has changed so radically.

What’s the main change in the art world?

The main change, which people haven’t noticed, is that there’s no middle class anymore—there’s a courtier class—that would be you and me. We’re intellectual headwaiters to very rich people. As a consequence, compared to the disposable income of contemporary collectors, art is cheaper than it ever has been. A purchase that would mean a lot to a nice couple on the West Side would be nothing to these people. Also collectors don’t understand the geometry of price elevation in art, especially in historical art. That means they flip the art too soon, which screws up the market. That means they don’t take care of it. That means it doesn’t matter to them, period. I always wanted to sell artworks for enough money that the collector would walk by it and think, “$40,000!—and look at it!” I always hoped that there would be some kind of transubstantiation from money-value to art-value. Anyway, the general principle is, you buy what you love and you can sell what you love. Every time you take advice, you become somebody’s minion. Most of the rich people I know have 10 brokers. They don’t trust just one guy. So, you can ask 20 people what you should buy. Or, you buy what you love.

So a lot of collections are the product of an adviser’s or dealer’s taste?

Yes, certainly, and also, most of the good collectors I know have a penchant. Steve Wynn loves painterly paintings, and that goes from Titian to Pollock. He likes wet paint. My friend [former Fontainebleau Resorts CEO] Glenn Schaeffer collects minimalist art, so when the curve on Sol LeWitt dropped compared to his contemporaries, he bought. I think that’s how you gain power. You want notoriety so you get the offers. You want power so you get the deal.

How about auctions? If you’re interested in numbers and statistics you must also be looking at auction prices …

I do, of course. I even auction things. Good art sells although the business model is sublimely bogus. Lately there’s been a fashion for covert chandelier bidding, in which five collectors who own the work of a certain artist throw in $50,000 each and bid a work by that artist up to a higher price. They bid against one another to get it up to the price they have collectively assembled. This raises the price of what they already have. Then they sell it. So, you can’t take the auction market too seriously. I have a very good, longtime friend who didn’t become a famous artist until he was in his 40s. That means for 20 years he was selling art cheap. Now his art is very expensive. Now everybody who bought the cheap art is dumping it on the market, and he is competing against himself. Remember when Charles Saatchi bought all those Bruce Naumans? Then he dumped them all on the auction market. Bruce ended up with a warehouse full of his own work because he was out there competing against his own work that had a better provenance. If you don’t know how to read the curves, the price means nothing. Take two equal rising curves. One means the artist is moving up. The other means people are dumping the work as fast as they can. It helps to be able to distinguish one curve from the other.

What about art critics? Do they have any place in this system anymore? They used to have an influence over whether people bought things or not. Do they still have that?

We have no power at all. We just market aphorisms. This is mostly because of magazine economics. Good critics are expensive. I am expensive. Academics work for free to get tenure, and since they are worried about the approval of their colleagues, they are fearful of making value judgments. Also, most of my peers and contemporaries learned how to write magazine journalism. We know how to do a transition, we know how to do a lead, we know what a hook is and we’re literate. Most critics today come out of art academia, where they don’t even understand the future-imperfect tense. People like me, the late Bob Hughes, Chris Knight, Peter Plagens, Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl—we’re sort of like sewing machine repairmen after the sewing machine has gone out of fashion. All my friends have fancy magazine or newspaper gigs, however, and Jerry has developed a new sort of chautauqua gig on the side, but Jerry likes people. I don’t, and publishers don’t like me. I’ve interviewed for a couple of these jobs. Publishers take one look at me and think trouble, so I’m just out here by myself, which is fine because they’re right. I am trouble.

What do you miss about the art world of old?

I miss being an elitist and not having to talk to idiots. When I went into the art world there were 6,000 people who were there voluntarily, who didn’t get benefits, retirement or medical. We were all just freelance adventurers and we used to hang out. I loved the talk. The handicapping. There were no “professors” and nobody had a job, so we made up jobs. Rolf Ricke and I used to tell people we were art dealers, in Kassel [Germany] and Austin [Texas], for Christ’s sake. Then people started asking us for things, so we eventually became art dealers just because you had to tell people you did something. The end of the world for me—and I’m being serious—is that I’ve seen dealers, magazines, collectors, critics and museums abandon their own reckless taste for security and money and give their power away. As a result there is power scattered on the ground in the art world. At the same time, I have to emphasize that I think the art is great. There’s as much good art out there now as there was in—maybe not in 1968—but certainly there’s as much good art as there was in 1978 or 1988. The difference? The art world used to let in gangs—the pop gang, the minimalist gang—and now they let artists in one at a time and isolate them from their peers. This is bad medicine. So, if you’re an artist, join a gang. Make up signs. Demand respect, but don’t drive-by critics. It’s our job to hurt you. Sorry about that.