Dave Hickey: 'I Will Never Retire From Art or Writing'

"Of what use is a philosopher who doesn't hurt anybody's feelings?" -- Diogenes

 Whatever you think of writer/critic Dave Hickey, you have to give him this: He speaks his mind. Retired from "The Art World" but still more than willing to talk about art, Dave has been experimenting using Facebook as his water cooler but feels that as a medium Facebook has defeated him: Perhaps that is because his musings are often too wide-ranging, esoteric and paradoxical to simply "like."

I recently interviewed Dave Hickey via e-mail. I am posting his interview unedited, except that I did add a few French accents and hyphens where he had missed them...

John Seed Interviews Dave Hickey


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Dave Hickey
In 2012, you announced your retirement from the art world. In October of 2013 Pirates and Farmers was published. Would it be fair to call you "semi-retired?"

No. I am retired from the art world. I will never retire from art or writing. Art is the way I think. Whenever I can, I fly to New York, stay in a midtown hotel, get a limo, and go look at art. The art never tells anyone that I have been looking at it. Nobody recognizes me.

In Pirates and Farmers you offer the metaphor that pirates - who you favor over farmers - tear fences down. What are a few of the cultural fences that you feel need tearing down right now? 

I would like to tear down the vestigial fences that remain from the segregation imposed by "identity politics." The class barrier between blue chip artists and no-chip artists could be removed to everyone's benefit. I think the gentle womb of academia could do with a radical Caesarian. I think tenure should be abolished, and graduate schools, as well. I think the wall between 'high' art and 'low art should be demolished too. Since neither is any better or worse than the other--since everything, high and low, is blended in the same digital fastness, why bother? Counting by my clock, Art was obligated to abandon digital means twenty years ago. Technology is not a raison d'être.

You recently stated on Facebook: "I depend on the first person singular as a badge of modesty" and then went on to characterize yourself as "just this guy writing in the desert." As an internationally known critic and MacArthur prizewinner how modest can you really be?

First, except for a couple of Polish dudes, I am not internationally known. I have never been reviewed in any major publication. I have never had a good review. My books sell 100k copies at best. I don't get invited to book fairs. My writing is grounded in Victorian belle lettres, in Ruskin, Lamb, Carlyle, DeQuincey and Dickens. Out of tune with the times? Ya' think. I have six new books about art criticism on my desk. Having writ on water, I am not mentioned in any of them. My phone doesn't ring.

About the MacArthur award? I think it's bullshit. I was grateful for the honor, since it measures the respect of one's peers, but the money was crass, and condescending. I don't fucking do money. I make a living. The whole inference that I couldn't support myself made me look vulnerable, since the idea of supporting oneself is the first prerequisite for an independent critical voice. If you can't support yourself, they can touch you, so you maintain solvency. Now, everyone sees me wallowing in the largess of a poncey foundation, and I have hitherto been free, beholden to nothing and to no one.

I am Dave the Writer--no foundation--no institution---no artist friends---no connections---and no family. I write words and I am not a public servant. I want to be a purist because I do not believe, and I do not belong. So I got this award. I got this new constituency of dudes and dames on the dole. I got this tainted money that I used to pay off my wife's student loans, to buy her some cool stuff, and to refine my game of Texas Hold'em. Five years later, I was trying to put up a giant piece of art-graffiti under the Westside highway in Chicago. It was part of a sculpture show. The alderman went ballistic. The mayor went ballistic. I called up the MacArthur to curry a little hometown juice. The Foundation said, No. We can't help. We don't do that sort off thing. No, no, no, no, no, and don't call back. Today, I like my Peabody Award way better. It looks like a plus size penny.

Neurological research is discovering the mechanisms by which a viewer's brain interacts with art works, including intense reactions that are precognitive (sophisticated interactions with art happen before we analyze them). Have the past decades of art criticism put the cart before the horse by championing the primacy of language and text over visual understanding and aesthetic empathy?

Art starts where language stops, where the word stops and the gesture continues. Language is easy. Theory is easy. Critique is very easy. Art is very difficult. I have been saying this for fifty years. I majored in theoretical linguistics in graduate school to learn my palette, as a painter might study color, but also to learn where language stopped and the mystery began. The mystery of writing, I finally decided, resides in the phonotext--in the music we hear as we read---the sounds and silences. Since most people don't hear this music, I will always be an acquired taste. Also. I am less a critic than a theorist. The simple decision to write about something is an evaluative gesture. Then I theorize about that conditions under which the art might sustain itself in vogue.

 You certainly aren't alone in disliking Jeff Koons, who makes pieces that you feel "... just stand there under the Christmas tree, dead out of the box." Have you read Jed Perl's piece on Koons in the New York review of books? 

Jeff Koons manufactures objets trouvés. Robert Gober manufactures objets trouvés. They are oceans apart. You pick 'em. I find Koons lead-footed. I read Jed Perl's review of Koons: It sounds like a jejune, Manhattan catfight. I can't see why publishing in a periodical publication should mitigate the essential seriousness of what critics try to contribute, but Koon's myopia keeps us gazing down into the cocktail zone. You can't fly a lead balloon, so, if the cards fall right, I think Koons could achieve total oblivion in his own lifetime. His opening game was beautiful but I don't see him managing the endgame that well. He gets over-invested in retro-Fitzcarraldo technological projects. But what do I know? When I was running a gallery in Soho. I hung with Jeff a little in Fanelli's. I was always disappointed in the slow-pitch thud of his wit. So, maybe I find Koons a bit of a pedant. Koons does a lot of things that I like and I hate the art. Robert Gober does a lot of things that I hate, and his art has a diaphanous heart. Go figure.

How do you define beauty in today's art? Or the sublime? Are any contemporary artists achieving either? Beauty is that which elicits precognitive affirmation. It is an indispensable asset to artists who have embarked upon difficult and transgressive career paths. I would pick DeKooning, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Warhol and Mapplethorpe as artists who needed beauty and managed it. So maybe I'm interested in "difficult" beauty---beauty that flies in the face of "the beautiful." Since the art world today is an amoral clusterfuck, not much beauty is really required. The sublime is beauty for boys---anti-sissy beauty---an irrelevant category in this moment.

You recently stated on Facebook: "I think craft, or working within a craft, is probably over." Why do you feel that way? Don't you think that there are some artists who might just come along and prove you wrong? 

That was a stupid, old-guy bullshit thing to say. Craft and technology exist in an extra aesthetic dimension. We can do art with them or without them. My reservation about craft derives from the "Deus ex machina" nature of technique. Lets say you develop a way to make everybody cry, because you want people to cry on this occasion. The question is this: Can I use these devices to make people cry again, not because I care, but just because I can? I would say no. Art making creates a constant demand to subsume technique to the urgency of the occasion, to create more refined technique: fragile meta-techniques of which Edward Ruscha is the master.

You say: "The demotion of Pop Art into Visual Culture is the most outrageous misprision and re-purposing of art in the twentieth century." Can you break that down a bit? Just exactly how and by what process did Pop Art get demoted?

This observation dates me, because, with the exception of Jasper Johns and Robert Indiana, I knew the pop artists fairly well and I found them to be very serious artists. I always found their company very refreshing, very refined and very Beaux Arts. They had taken on the job of redeeming and refreshing popular trash by using premodern genres and imposing the high-art graces of size, scale, color, form, and gesture on popular drivel. When German sociology won the field in the seventies, the image was just the image. Size, scale, color, form and gesture counted for nothing. It was all "picture" for the Germans, so Pop art disappeared into muck of cultural theory. The artists all left town and the kids started collecting Donald Duck dolls. Under the guidance of German thought, art became culture.

As collectors of pop artifacts, I should note, the pop artists sucked. They just didn't do it. Tom Wesselmann wrote hillbilly songs but he knew more about the odalisque than anyone else in New York. Wayne Thiebaud painted cakes but his conversation was all Proust and Joaquin Sorolla, the deft Spanish impressionist. David Hockney painted swimming pools but he was never without an art catalog devoted to some obscure brand of painting--Scandinavian landscape, the last I remember. Ed Ruscha has a good collection of rockabilly records but the images pinned on his studio walls are all 19th century paintings: John Everett Millais, Caspar David Friedrich, and Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire"---a subject Ruscha would address in paintings of his own, exhibited in Italy, the mise-en-scène of Cole's "Progress."

Roy Lichtenstein painted cold, high-modernist Pointillism. Rauschenberg collected junk, but he liked history paintings. He liked Harnett and Peto who inspired his early work. Rosenquist and Warhol liked fancy drawing and painting from the ancien régime. The last time I was in Andy's brownstone, there were four red-chalk drawings by Dante Rossetti of the blonde Fanny Cornforth. They were hanging in the entry hall on forest-green silk wallpaper: "Marilyns après le lettre." I would suggest that none of these obsessions or enthusiasms has shit to do with "visual culture." As a consequence, soggy-thinking and slovenly- looking stole the birthright of 21st century art.

You seem pretty active on Facebook. What do you think of Facebook as a medium of being in touch and hashing out ideas?

 Facebook turned out to be sour gruel. I wanted a Toontown Chautauqua: smart, funny, dry, and just a little chippy. I offered up bite-size bits of wisdom cropped to the attention span of Millennials. I was hoping for responses in that mode. I didn't get them. I tried and tried again and all I got was lame excuses and obsessive money envy. It just didn't work. My present project is to mount a wiki-page to which we all can contribute using our names, and from which we all can all redact anything using our names. My bet is that the page will go black everyday, totally redacted. Maybe a cat picture will survive, but Facebook, as a medium, has defeated me.

A Quiet Place: The Windhover Contemplative Center at Stanford

"The concept of wings as metaphors for the soaring of one's mind suggests a sense of contemplation, a sense of spirit..." - Nathan Oliveira

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A panoramic view of the Windhover Contemplative Center
The newly opened Windhover Contemplative Center, a 4,000 square foot rammed-earth and wood structure which occupies the former site of a parking lot, wouldn't exist without a deeply held conviction of the late Nathan Oliveira (1928-2010): that quiet contemplation feeds and fuels the imagination.

Years of working in the silence of his own studio and also the solace he found during long walks in the peaceful Stanford hills -- where he delighted in watching soaring birds -- convinced Oliveira that each of us has an inner imaginative world that blossoms through observation and meditation. "If you persist and you believe in it your world opens up to you," Oliveira once stated. "Sometimes that takes an entire lifetime."

Beginning in the 1970s Oliveira worked on images of birds and flight that culminated in the paintings now permanently on display at the center. These images, in turn, led to the idea for the Windhover, which will extend the artist's uplifting vision into the future.

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A detail of Nathan Oliveira's Diptych

Oliveira's Windhover paintings take their name from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), that uses the flight of a falcon as a metaphor for spiritual striving and realization. A portion of the poem is etched into reflective glass visible near the building's entrance. The imagery of the four Oliveira paintings on view at the Windhover includes wings, catenary curves and a kestrel, all presented on semi-abstract grounds.

Designed by Aidlin Darling Design, the glass-enclosed center shows the influence of Japanese architecture. As they approach the building, visitors will pass through a long stand of bamboo that delineates a kind of barrier between the outside world and the center's meditative space. In the building's interior are three rooms that feature four Oliveira paintings -- Big Red, Diptych, White Wing and Sun Radiating -- all of which are visible from both inside and outside the building. Skylights and motorized louver drapes provide carefully modulated natural light. The thick rammed-earth walls, made from soil excavated directly from the site, help moderate heat and sound.

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The Reflection Pool
A reflection pool near the building's entrance features two concrete monoliths that are in fact pieces of architectural debris from the university's boneyard. The sound of running water, which flows into a rectangular fountain, helps dampen outside noises. A pebble-floored Zen garden rimmed by benches appears at the building's opposite end, sheltering a single tree and another small fountain.

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An Interior Fountain
Stanford's Office of Religious Life is overseeing the Windhover, which will provide a quiet alternative to Stanford's relatively busy Memorial Church, which hosts services, weddings and concerts. The center fits in well with two of Stanford's current initiatives -- the Wellness Initiative and the Arts Initiative -- and compliments the display of three Oliveira paintings in the new Anderson Collection at Stanford. The Windhover Contemplative Center joins Houston's Rothko Chapel and James Turrell's "Twilight Epihany" at Rice University as one of a slowly growing number of American structures that meld contemplative practice with the visions of modern and contemporary artists.

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The Reflecting Pond
In a 2009 speech in Vancouver, the Dalai Lama offered his opinion that "The world will be saved by Western Women." During my visit to the Windhover Contemplative Center a group of Stanford women chatted on the benches of the Zen garden and shared their sense of excitement about the new center. I couldn't help envisioning these young women growing into adulthood, their imaginations sheltered and nourished by the Windhover, to fulfill the Dalai Lama's prediction.

Visitor Information:

Windhover will be open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. to students, faculty and staff.
A Stanford I.D. card is required to enter.
 Docents will lead tours for the public from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Tuesdays.
Visit the Cantor Arts Center website for more information.

Visitors are asked to refrain from using cell phones, tablets, laptops and other electronic devices while inside the center.

Links: 

Windhover Contemplative Center Website

Nathan Oliveira on the Windhover Project (SFMOMA Video)


Hilary Brace: Entering a Moisture-laden Palace

"We travel with her and take the same uncertain path, entering a moisture-laden palace that twists our minds."

Gretel Ehrlich on Hilary Brace

Artist Hilary Brace has been using an old material (charcoal) and a new one (plastic) to invent images of clouds, ice and waterfalls. Simultaneously suggesting the artist's sense of awe and her consciousness of nature's fragility in the face of global warming, Brace's recent body of work manages to seem both tangible and imagined.

I recently interviewed Brace and asked her about her background, her working methods, and her ideas.

John Seed Interviews Hilary Brace:


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Hilary Brace
How did your early life shape you to be an artist?

When I was young my family lived in Europe for a couple of years and we visited a lot of museums, so very early I was introduced to the importance of art and to the idea of being an artist. I also remember being very determined and particular about my art projects, wanting badly to realize them in the way I imagined them. Later, with the opportunity to take art classes in middle school, I developed confidence about making things. So I was fortunate that a natural inclination was met with opportunities. It made my choice to become an artist feel natural and worthwhile.

Spending most of my early life in the Pacific Northwest, around such abundant natural beauty, undoubtedly had an impact on my work. I was always so moved by the grandness of the landscape and the displays of light and atmosphere. We went skiing often, and I loved being in the mountains, looking down at the landscape, and sunlight falling on snow seemed incomprehensibly beautiful. My work has had a lot to do with being moved and mystified by these things.

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Untitled (June, 2013), Powdered charcoal on polyester film, 7.5 x 10 inches
Have you always been a representational artist? What was your work like during your college years?

When I began studying art in college I worked abstractly but I usually began with something observed, something to do with light. My first serious paintings were equal parts abstraction and representation, with shadows handled as two-dimensional pattern in a three dimensional context, usually architectural interiors. I love the challenge of describing space, so as time went on this dichotomy between two and three-dimensional space became more representational, more integrated. I realized from making those paintings that they said something about how I perceived things in general; that reality is elusive and shifting.

For years the work was more about this kind of play of light and form in space than depicting any specific place. Once a horizon line crept into the imagery and it moved toward landscape, that part changed.

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Untitled (March, 2014), Powdered charcoal on polyester film, 8.25 x 13 inches
Your work balances between the real and the imagined. How do you blend and balance these two approaches?

It's really another expression of the dichotomy I was exploring in those early paintings, but more complex. I'm interested in making places that seem very tangible or believable, but I also want them to also feel elusive and mysterious, or fluid and changing, so I retain my sense of wonder about them. I work from my imagination and I don't know what I'm going to make when I set out, so I keep myself in that space as I'm developing the image: At the same time I'm working with realistic aspects of rendering an image, I'm surprising myself by discovering an unexpected world.

When people first see a drawing they often assume it's "real" because it's so fully rendered, but then they become confounded by how that could be true, given the subject matter. Those different responses have to come together finally in their experience of the work. I like that, because it mirrors my own process in making the work.

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Hilary Brace's drawing setup
Tell me about your technique and how you arrive at an image.

My drawings are charcoal powder on polyester film (Mylar is a brand name). The matte polyester surface appears completely smooth, but is actually like super fine sandpaper. The charcoal moves around easily but also comes off easily. This allows for a lot of spontaneity, but also a lot of detail. On smaller pieces, I begin by covering the surface completely with charcoal, then erasing or lifting it off with Q-tips and brushes to reveal lighter areas. As an image begins to suggest itself, I slowly bring it into focus with more detail.

For larger drawings, I make a study first. I use Photoshop as a composition and drawing tool, but in many ways the process is the same because I have no preconceived idea of where I'm headed and the image develops through exploration and then slowly comes together. Even though I know what the image will be when I make a drawing from a study, I still work in a subtractive way, laying down darker values and erasing to create lighter ones, because I have more control removing darks than adding them.

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Untitled (March, 2012), Powdered charcoal on polyester film, 23.5 x 32 inches
Do you consider yourself a Romanticist in art?

I believe that intuition and emotion have a place in making and experiencing art and I'm inventing emotive images, but they aren't about escape or yearning for some other, ideal place. They have much more to do with my actual responses to the natural world, with making those and my psychological framework feel real. I use curiosity and my emotional responses to make choices about my imagery, so feelings are important in a variety of ways, but it's not romantic. I think of myself as an experiential artist.

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Untitled (February, 2014), Powdered charcoal on polyester film, 10.675 x 8.5 inches
What kinds of emotions do you want your work to evoke?

As wide a range and as complex as possible, because that's what life is like.

But that said, as a drawing begins to suggest itself, I go after a feeling that seems unique to that image. It might change as the piece develops, but it's a guide. There's a quote by Howard Hodgkin that I've always remembered: When he was asked how he knew if a painting was finished, he said, "When the original feeling comes back as a painting." I like that.

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Untitled (July, 2014), Powdered charcoal on polyester film, 11.75 x 9.125 inches
What about your feelings about nature and global warming? Some of your recent work depicts icy places that appear to be thawing.

I've been thinking about this a lot. I can't look at my work now without also thinking about what we are doing to the Earth. For a very long time, I've been inspired by nature as something vastly powerful and it's been a metaphor in my work for a range of forces larger than ourselves. I've been thinking about how to reconcile that view with the fact that we need to see the Earth as fragile and vulnerable if we are going to change our behavior. All the forces that have shaped the planet will always be present, even if we destroy it, but the loss and potential loss are excruciating. So my perspective is shifting and it's showing up in the work. There is plenty of reason to feel a sense of awe about the beauty that exists and it ought to motivate us, so I'm glad if my work can be a reminder. But I want it to do something more or different than that, for myself, so it seems that I may have to find a new way to see.

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Untitled (May, 2014), Powdered charcoal on polyester film, 6 x 7 inches
What are your interests outside of art?

Mainly gardening. I've spent most of my free time developing my garden. I'm a plant fiend--even thinking about going to the nursery makes me salivate. Designing in the garden is a lot like painting, but you also have the elements of time and change, which is fun to think about and observe. But now that my garden is established, I'd like to expand my range and get out and explore, to see more of the changing, shifting world.

All images © 2014 Hilary Brace, All Rights Reserved

Hilary Brace: Drawings
Ann Lofquist: Urban and Pastoral
October 18 - November 22, 2014

Online Catalog: http://issuu.com/craigkrullgallery/docs/hilarybrace2014 Craig Krull Gallery

Bergamot Station
2525 Michigan Avenue, Building B-3
Santa Monica, California 90404
Reception: October 18, 2014 4-6PM
Gallery Talk: November 8, 2014 10AM