December 2015

Caitlin Rimshnick

nonfiction

25 Women: Essays on Their Art by Dave Hickey

It is with great trepidation that one picks up an art criticism collection written by a man with the word "women" in the title. One braces for sexist generalizations, creepy voyeurism, and, of course, the dreaded male gaze. One wonders, what made this man feel he had the authority to take on the category of women? One concludes: whoever he is, he must have balls.

Indeed, Dave Hickey, author of 25 Women: Essays on Their Art, is not lacking in chutzpah; he has, after all, on occasion been referred to as the "bad boy" of art criticism. Luckily in this compilation of essays -- all of which are edited versions of previously published pieces -- none of the readers' initial fears come to fruition, or at least not completely.

At the outset, 25 Women seems straightforward enough. The book consists of 25 essays and features about 25 female, primarily contemporary, visual artists including such luminaries as Bridget Riley, Lynda Benglis, and Joan Mitchell. Each essay focuses on a single artist and kicks off with an image of her work. But that's where the predictability ends.

For the most part, the book resembles an unfettered, if highly enriching, dump of Hickey's free-associative musings. In the introduction, the writer himself admits: "There is some interesting grammar and more digression than I usually tolerate because a lot of art is best talked about by talking about something else." And talk about something else he does. The text zooms from anecdotes about Hickey's youth in the cattle yards of Texas, to his time spent hobnobbing with the likes of Andy Warhol in New York, to a meta description of the home office in which he is writing. We get a similarly panoptic, if uneven, run at the various female subjects, including personal biography, cultural context, and, most surprisingly, fictitious narratives meant to elucidate deeper truths about their art.

Frequent changes of register also add to the organic, collage-like feel of the collection. At one moment, Hickey will employ the most direct, accessible everyday speech, "So here is what I know about Alexis Smith." The next, he dives into the highest-brow criticism -- academese that has gads of unexplained art history allusions and is as abstract as any of the paintings, sculptures, or installations Hickey describes.

This is all not to say the collection lacks cohesion. Stylistically, Hickey is consistent in his utter inconsistency. Just when the reader feels adrift in a sea of opaque meditations on seeing the unseeable or the hermeneutic relationship of the part to the whole, Hickey reels us back in with a wisecrack about the "oxymoron, Swiss promiscuity," or a concrete, if somewhat off-topic parable detailing the proper way to wrangle a horse. More significantly, if we read in the same way Hickey instructs us to view art, as if we are a diviner, we begin to feel rumblings of a greater theme: every aspect of the art world -- the making, the viewing, the appreciating, the exalting, and the pooh-poohing.

25 Women wrestles with such knotty questions as: What defines good art? Should the meaning of artwork be accessible to the viewer? Does good art actually need to mean anything? Is it important to consider an artist representative of a particular schools of thought? What role should the artist as a person play in a work? What is the role of a good critic?

Despite his bluster, Hickey offers few clear answers to these questions. He says terms like "'modernism' and 'post modernism' have devolved into academic knife-rests, designed to keep the sticky off the linen." Yet he deploys such classifications in a seemingly sincere manner. Similarly, he seems to welcome the freedom that will come in a democratized era "when the idea of 'good art' disappears," but then quickly laments that artists "without a cultural or aesthetic platform" will be forced to rely on personal brands and fall short of their potential.

Again we begin to wonder if we aren't in the presence of an author divided: someone who appreciates the intrepid boldness of boundary-pushing artists, who questions the old order, but who can't help but cringe at its passing. Perhaps, as demonstrated through his schizophrenic, high-brow, low-brow vocabulary, Hickey is also a man caught between worlds. He strives to liberate art from the halls of academia, but he is clearly fluent in academic language. He belongs both on the plainspoken street and in the lecture hall, or perhaps more accurately, he doesn't fully belong in either.

A nostalgic melancholy pervades the collection, which is peppered with anecdotes of Hickey's days in the dizzying avant-garde art world of the Factory or Max's Kansas City. It seems a fair hypothesis that Hickey was most comfortable in this world -- a bridge world inhabited with smart, hardworking folk who were willing to employ an almost academic rigor when confronting "difficult" artwork, yet who maintained a rebellious air of the antiestablishment.

Hickey's lack of conclusiveness feels intentional and effective -- the complexities he highlights provide satisfaction enough. Yet, as I read, one unanswered question kept popping up in my mind: What happened to the women? When were we going to get to the women? True, digressions notwithstanding, each essay centers on a female artist. So in a sense the women were present the whole time. But Hickey rarely broaches the subject of gender. I noted just a half-dozen references to women and gender in the collection's nearly 200 pages. This development is actually possibly for the best as the women-related commentary that did make the cut can feel somewhat tone-deaf.

In the introduction, the only section in which he speaks at all explicitly about the framework of his collection, Hickey explains the book was created as a tribute to his mentor, curator Marcia Tucker, who died in 2006. He also notes, "All of my favorite editors are women; all of my favorite art dealers are women; and most of my favorite people are women." Both of these sentiments strike me as a bit thin. It's unclear why a collection of essays on women would be an apt tribute to his late friend. Is it because she too was a woman? And the latter statement smacks of one of those unconvincing attempts to deny prejudice -- all my best friends are gay, black, etc.

To its credit, the collection contains little of the misogynistic tropes I feared when I saw the title. I get the sense that what's missing isn't so much a lack of empathy for women, or even a lack of ability to write about women -- Hickey has some good lines on society's tendency to label women as either "maiden" or "tramp." What's missing, I think, is simply interest. Writing about the female experience or gender politics just doesn't seem to light Hickey up. Lucky for us, writing about women's art does. Lucky for these artists too: after all, an earnest engagement in the deeper themes of their lives' work is probably the most meaningful tribute Hickey could have paid them.

Good art is hard to define, according to Hickey. But he has some ideas. Good art is difficult to wrestle with; it surprises us like a slap to the face; it makes us consider the time we live in within a broader temporal context; it goes against fashion; it considers the audience but does not pander. For Hickey, art is not a dead object to be seen and dryly interpreted; rather the act of viewing art creates its own meaning. Again and again, he describes the process of confronting a piece of art that resists him and then feeling a blurring of boundaries between himself and the work, something akin to a momentary out-of-body experience. For Hickey this feeling is paramount.

If we read 25 Women through the lens Hickey prescribes, one that prioritizes "sensual logic" over making sense, we get an inkling of the liminal state the seasoned critic is describing. We feel a bit shaky, a little unsure what has hit us, as if we've communed with a world just out of reach. We feel struggle followed by exhilaration. But above all we feel refreshed. As Hickey puts it in his essay on Riley: "We always see what's new, of course, and recognize it as such, but we see it with old eyes -- until the new work makes our eyes new again." With 25 Women, Hickey just might make our eyes new again, too.

25 Women: Essays on Their Art by Dave Hickey
University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 978-0226333151
192 pages