Busting Up the Binaries

Dave Hickey’s '25 Women' is a nuanced and highly readable collection of art essays

25_women_dave_hickey_cover_WEBHere’s one of those false, but useful, binaries that serve as an entry point. There are two types of people in the world: those who embrace—or are forced to embrace—a definition of who they are; and those who strive mightily to escape any and all definitions. The former powers what’s been termed “Identity Politics,” the acknowledgement that race, gender, nationality, et al. are primary determinants in how they must navigate the world. The latter are often simply a result of privilege, but also, it is a matter of temperament—an innate, steadfast refusal to be pinned down or labeled in any way.

How readers receive a book entitled 25 Women: Essays on Their Art (University of Chicago Press, $29) points to where they might fall on the spectrum, whether it’s “Aha, good, a feminist survey of doubtless feminist artists,” or “Only ‘women’? What kind of ghetto is that? Why not just ‘artists’?”

But then, of course, there’s that space—that sometimes-cavernous gap—that makes false binaries false. Art critic and former Las Vegan Dave Hickey, who wrote the elegant, impassioned, intelligent and oft-irritable essays on these 25 women and their art, is upfront about his intentions.

“It’s really simple. I write a whole lot of essays. It’s about 40 percent women, 40 percent gays, 20 percent my friends from the beach,” Hickey said in a recent interview with The Guardian. “But most of the writing I do about male art is reproduced. It comes out in London, it comes out in Korea, it comes out in China. I looked at this list of things that hadn’t been reprinted – 90 percent of them were women.” 25 Women exists to redress that obviously sexist imbalance of attention paid to women artists.

Hickey’s criticism does not, however, foreground the experiences of being a woman in these essays, a lack of feminist perspective that Hickey has been taken to task for, and one that he honestly addresses in the book’s introduction. “What is not here is art politics, which I find abhorrent, and there is not much about feminism. I have never not been a feminist, and it really seems corny to say, ‘Dern it! Everybody should be a feminist!’” Hickey is, as they say, from another generation; he is also one of those who is disinclined to join sides along the lines drawn up by others, and clearly has no truck with labels that he finds reductive.

You can take issue with this stance, but the benefit is that the essays in this collection emphasize the powerful, challenging and often beautiful (a word Hickey continues to redeem from skeptical art crit discourse) work made by these artists, who sometimes just happen (and sometimes not) to be women. Some are familiar names (Joan Mitchell, Vija Celmins, Bridget Riley), others less so. One of the deep pleasures for those not up on contemporary art is the sheer range to be discovered. Hickey’s love of the art imbues the essays, even when it’s occasionally grounded in theory; Hickey is one of the few writers on art with intellectual chops who eschews the tendentious art crit jargon that bars anyone with a general interest from engaging with most art criticism.

Hickey’s prose pops and sizzles along with much of the art he writes about. From his essay on sculptor Lynda Benglis: “In an age when revolutionary professors were seeking art with the utility and longevity of a crowbar, it was hard to justify art that aspired to the longevity and mystery of the Everglades.” Or this, from his essay on the dazzling, witty work of Karen Carson: “ … no one knows better than Karen that we all live Jane Austen lives with Dostoyevsky aspirations, and no one reminds us of this embarrassing fact with more forgiving acuity.”

Nearly every essay here inspires the reader to Google image search each of these artists (only one illustration accompanies each essay), thus performing the most fundamental act of any criticism: taking the reader by the elbow and saying, “Look at this. Pay attention.” By focusing on the work of these artists before any other consideration, Hickey’s not not-feminism doesn’t exclude other perspectives on these artists—25 Women serves as an introduction to their art for the uninitiated and a spur to writers to go even deeper into their lives and work, false binaries be damned. ★★★