(Above is an excerpt from the full interview. Transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.)
Glasstire’s Rainey Knudson sat down with art critic Dave Hickey at Landfall Press in Santa Fe to talk about his latest and upcoming book projects, the problem with Santa Fe, and why critics don’t enjoy writing negative reviews.
Rainey Knudson: So what’s the new book you’re doing?
Dave Hickey: I’m doing a book called Connoisseur of Waves. It’s the second half of Air Guitar, and it’s a bunch of essays about travels. There’s an essay about two art fairs and there’s an essay about driving from Fort Worth through all the desert places: Chaco Canyon and all of that, down to Palm Springs and through the Mojave.
RK: What art fairs?
DH: The one in Miami and the one in London. And this was the last fair before the big meltdown.
RK: In 2008?
DH: And nobody there seemed to be expecting it.
RK: We never are. That sounds like a good book.
DH: It’s going to have good things in it. I’ve got my long Disneyland piece and a lot of things like that.
RK: So further explorations of the notion of democracy?
DH: We would hope, one would hope. Good essay on Palladio, and Robert Mitchum, Antonioni. And since most of them are for Harper’s or for Vanity Fair, they’re better edited. Because Gary didn’t care about editing and I didn’t either, so a lot of the [earlier] things are sort of casually edited, but these are really edited.
So is there anything I can tell you about Santa Fe?
RK: Yes, tell us about Landfall Press. We’re here.
DH: We’re here at Landfall Press where Terry and Vernon and a lot of people work, and this is about the only art hideout in town. I have no prejudices against social practice, but I don’t quite understand it, and that’s mostly what they do at SITE Santa Fe.
RK: I just heard that the Biennial is opening next week, and the fact that I didn’t know it was opening next week pretty much sums up what’s going on over there.
DH: I went to the last one and basically went outside and talked to this four-year-old girl for a while, and then Libby came out and said we had to go home because she didn’t bring her reading glasses. Because these are like fuzzy photographs with a whole wall full of writing all around them. It may be great, but it’s not me, you know?
RK: And we saw Jim Kelly, who’s leaving town and heading over to Gagosian.
DH: He’ll be great over at Gagosian. Jim has a way of calming the waters and the waters here in Santa Fe are so calm that you never notice what Jim is doing.
RK: Maybe LA could use a tranquil influence. What else is going on in Santa Fe?
DH: Well, there’s a house where Nic Nicosia used to live, but he left.
RK: He went back to Dallas.
DH: The house in Taos where Kenny Price used to live. But he died. There’s a house over here where Terry Allen and Joe Harvey used to live, but they’re in Austin all the time. I talk to Ron Davis every once and a while up in Taos, and… that’s it.
RK: You in a sea of green chili. You’ve been traveling recently though, giving talks for your books.
DH: Right. I went to San Antonio where I fell into a koi pond.
RK: That was the [San Antonio Book Festival] there—how was that?
DH: I don’t know because I was wet up to here. They have these sort of counter-sunk pools and I just went sliding in. And about 25 Latina women in their best outfits came and pulled me out, and it was like Diego Rivera—the women of Mexico saved the revolution from the fire. But they got me out and I went and did my presentation, and Frances Colpitt was there and she had a lot prepared and I had a lot prepared, but we only had 35 minutes… so we got through two artists.
RK: You and Fran go way back.
DH: Fran is on my team. And then I went to Austin with Ruscha and managed to stay insulted the whole time because I’m such a little princess. I don’t want to give you the impression that I had any flowers or a goody basket in my room, amongst other things. The first night I ordered dinner three times because the first one and the second one were inedible, and then the third one was inedible too, so I had these three dinners lined up outside my room and I was hoping there was a dog in the hotel because he might be able to eat it. But it was horrible the way Austin can be. It was nice to see Ed and I met that bicycle guy, the guy who was disgraced for taking performance-enhancing drugs.
RK: Lance Armstrong? Tell your Lance Armstrong story—you were with him at dinner?
DH: He was perfectly nice, and I’m from Vegas, you know. You can’t fake me.
RK: Didn’t you say to him, “I know who you are, I’ve been busted for drugs too!”
DH: (laughing) I may have said that, yes.
RK: And all of a sudden the ice melted and he was charming.
DH: He was very nice. But it’s like all of these places are turning into destinations, you know.
RK: Well, there are chambers of commerce and municipal marketing agencies and whatnot.
DH: Right. And last time I was in Houston I drove through River Oaks a little bit and all I could think about was that I would hate to have a paper route in this neighborhood, because everything is so far away from each other.
RK: Well, that’s always been true. But you were in LA recently.
DH: I was in LA. Gave a talk at the Hammer, gave a talk at Hauser, and didn’t convince anyone, you know? And the idea of writing a book about women artists and not addressing the woman’s soul has turned out to be a bad move on my part. But the problem is that I’m a guy. I know nothing about women; I know about art. And I would hope that through analysis of the art one might be able to evoke something like a feminine sensibility, but… I’m certainly not qualified.
RK: That was the objection [to the latest book] as you see it?
DH: Yes, that I didn’t deal with the feminine sensibility and feminism generally. I just treated them like regular artists and wrote about their art. And I think it’s because, if you write about, say, 25 very special artists, as odd as Vija and Joan Mitchell and Sarah Charlesworth—and all those people are—and you don’t talk about feminists in general, everybody feels left out, you know what I mean? That is, if I talked about women in general, everybody could say: “Oh, I can see that.”
RK: You talked about women but you didn’t talk about “the woman.”
DH: That’s exactly right. And how could I—I’m a guy. And I like women a lot but I like them mostly because I don’t understand them.
RK: Is it not legitimate to talk about them from the outside?
DH: Well, I tried it, and it didn’t seem to be well accepted.
RK: Oh, you’ve got lovely glowing reviews… .
DH: Oh, yeah. They sing.
RK: What do you have coming up? Any places you’re going, getting out of town?
DH: No, I’m not planning to actually even leave my house here for a while. I’m not actually going to anything but sit at my desk and write. I have an autobiography to write.
RK: How far along are you with that?
DH: Not very far. The trouble with writing an autobiography is it keeps reminding you of shit. (laughs) Which you have carefully boxed up, in a way. It stirs up all this crap you’ve carefully boxed away. Between Animal Kingdom and me remembering surfing, it brought up more crap that you could imagine. The beach was real rough.
RK: So in addition to your autobiography, anything else? You live in Santa Fe.
DH: It’s really awful. And honestly, when my wife got a job in New Mexico, I thought it would be fun. It’s not like I was really upset about moving here or anything, I just moved here and found that… for instance, ten years ago I did a genuinely beautiful Biennial here, and no one has mentioned it since I have been here.
RK: That’s the famous SITE Santa Fe [of 2001].
DH: That’s right, and they remaindered all the catalogs. I thought they wanted me because I was special. They just wanted me because I was different. But Santa Fe is hard.
RK: It’s a completely different art scene such as it is. It’s not the same as anywhere else.
DH: Well, it’s like you’ve got a pie with meringue on top. You take up your fork and you stick it in the pie but your fork only goes down through the meringue to the bottom of the dish. Nothing but meringue on the pie. That’s pretty much Santa Fe. It’s kind of a Potemkin Village.
RK: Are there any shows coming up that you’re looking forward to?
DH: I would love to see the Agnes Martin show, and I did see the women sculpture show [at Hauser Wirth and Schimmel] which had about seven pieces that were better than anything, and about 100 pieces that weren’t worth anything. They had those beautiful Lee Bontecous and here’s a lesson: How do you do abject right first time? How do you do abjection and all of its nuances completely right the first time anybody does it? That’s Lee Bontecou, right? Where the hell do you go from there?
And I think Lynda Benglis’ big poured things are just beautiful. That’s a standard I have; I can remember the first time I saw those kind of pieces at Janie C. Lee’s in Dallas—the big yellow pours that came out into the room—I just thought they were so hot. And I think Lynda, over the course of her career, on account of her intelligence and attractiveness, has not really gotten a fair shake. It’s like in a school—there’s really no benefit to being an attractive professor on the faculty. You have to pay for that, and the art world is like that. All these guys love women artists if they’re ugly.
RK: I’d like to see the Bruce Conner show at MoMA.
DH: Bruce has always been a little humane for me, but I do like the work. He’s in it a little more than I would wish an artist to be in their work, but I think he’s a wonderful artist, of course. And since what’s out there is mostly crap…
RK: Is that more true now than it was before?
DH: Sure. I don’t know, it’s mostly crap, but there’s really nothing to stand as an epitome against all that crap. I have not found anything on the ‘net—and I watch everything that comes by—that is more than one step from a major work of art. Some of them are one step from really bad works of art. They can’t take that step out into oblivion anymore, and I don’t know why.
RK: Do you think it has to do with the fear of risk?
DH: What? What are they going to do to you if you make a bad work of art? They gonna send you off to Australia, to a penal colony? You know, if that were the case, Australia would be about five times as big as it is. But I don’t know. Everything looks like everything else.
And all the criticism sounds like everything else. Now why, if you’re an individual writer, would you want your criticism to sound like everybody elses? I think about this stuff. I look at what’s there and I see a lot of clever things in biennials… boxes that are green on the inside and silver on the outside, and gigantic pencils made out of American flag… . It all seems pretty corny; I just don’t see how you could put your name on it. I mean I could put my name on it as easy as they could.
I think there’s a tendency not to want to divorce yourself from your art. I always told my students you make orphans—like Little Orpan Annie—they’re supposed to go out into the world and find their own Daddy Warbucks, and you don’t have anything to do with it. But these people seem so perversely close to their art.
They say there are two kinds of artists: if you go see their art, the good kind of artist stands next to you and looks at it again, in your presence. The other kind of artist goes and stands beside their art to protect it, and/or explain it to you. You know, I prefer Ed Ruscha who just stands there beside you. But I get the feeling that Ed is not as tired of this as I am, because he makes art. It begins to feel like it’s all so thin. It’s like if I put my pen to the paper it will go through to the floor. Nothing there.
And that’s hard because I’m in the business of liking things. I was thinking the other day about the Rodgers & Hammerstein song from Showboat called “Falling in Love with Love”—well that’s what I do. I’m not only obsessed with things, but I’m obsessed with being obsessed with things, and that’s why I don’t write much negative criticism—I have to kind of be obsessed with it first… or get paid five dollars a word, at which point everything looks good.
RK: People think critics are in the business of disliking art.
DH: Why would you do that? All I’m looking for is magic, I’m looking for something wonderful to change the world and I have no idea why people think critics dislike art—I love art. I could go down a list of my major art experiences in my life and none of them have to do with bad art.
RK: Well that’s how you do your autobiography—you talk about your major art experiences. And skip over all that boxed-up stuff.
DH: But its hard to understand my behavior without taking cocaine and things like that into account. So I’m going to be candid about my sins. I’m not going to say, “Oh God, I hurt myself in my life.” I had fun. When it stopped being fun, I quit. Well, it may have taken a little more than not being fun to quit, but at the same time: when it’s over its over.
I think if I were an artist I would be very happy to be living in this moment. Because power is laying on the floor. You can reach down right there and pick up some power—it’s only there to be taken. There’s nobody with any sort of synoptic sense of what’s going on. I’m sure that young artists today are having a great time. I don’t know anybody who says, “Oh, I hate Bushwick.” You know what I mean? The way people used to say, “Oh, I hate SoHo.”
RK: I think artists in LA are having a good time. Artists in New York are not having a good time.
DH: Artists in New York are in a city about angst and struggle.
RK: And they’re having to live in Rockaway and outer Queens now.
DH: That’s a hard trip. And then why not go ahead and live in Richmond if you’re gonna live that far away?
Special thanks to Landfall Press for hosting this conversation.