Art critic Dave Hickey, best known for his book ‘Air Guitar’, dies

Art critic Dave Hickey, best known for his book ‘Air Guitar’, dies

Dave Hickey, a prominent American art critic whose articles covered topics ranging from Siegfried & Roy to Norman Rockwell, has passed away.

His books, including “The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty” (1993) and “Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy” (1997), have garnered legions of fans outside the cognoscenti art world.

His elegant prose, his stark criticism of taste-making institutions like museums and universities, and his equal embrace of works considered high and low, have left a lasting impact on a generation of artists and critics.

There is no one like him. His biographer Daniel Oppenheimer wrote in his book Far From Respect: Dave Hickey and His Art, published last June.

Libby Lampkin, the art historian he was married to, said he died on November 12 at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, after years of heart disease. He was 82 years old.

Born in 1938 in Fort Worth, Texas, David Hickey grew up traveling across Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and California. After navigating his graduate programs, he dropped out and opened a contemporary art gallery in Austin, Texas. He moved to New York in 1971, where he directed more art exhibitions, edited Art in America and wrote for Village Voice and Rolling Stone magazine. His work and interests immersed him in an artistic community that included Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper, and David Bowie.


Hickey later moved to Las Vegas to teach at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada. In articles published in “Air Guitar” about how art should fit into the broader culture, he defended Las Vegas as the most ubiquitous of America’s cities because of its break from traditional social hierarchies.

America “is a very poor lens through which to view Las Vegas, while Las Vegas is a wonderful lens through which to view America. What is hidden elsewhere is here on a daily basis.”

Hickey challenged the idea that the neon lights on the Strip were somewhat unoriginal, pushed back against notions that Las Vegas entertainment was culturally irrelevant and “especially enjoyed a good smoke and adventure at the Eureka Casino on East Sahara Avenue, where often He was seen with a cigarette while pressing the slot machines’ buttons,” according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal obituary.


In The Invisible Dragon and later works, Hickey’s endorsement of “beauty” as the ultimate arbiter of artistic value sparked a clash with his contemporaries who focused on 20th-century conceptual art theory and meaning, and who preferred to deconstruct the reasons why people find things to be beautiful.

He chose to ignore the view that beauty might just be what the ruling economic and social elites say. In the process, his opponents argue, he is replacing his bad external judgments with those of narrow-minded art professionals,” wrote The New York Times in 1999 A Hickey Profile.

Lumpkin said her husband never intended to defend traditionalism, as his critics have claimed.

“A lot of Dave’s work has been misinterpreted. It was assumed that the beauty he was talking about was something very old-fashioned, but he was a supporter of conceptual artists from the start,” she said.


His tastes were really selective. He sang praises of artists and figures in popular culture from Norman Rockwell to Robert Mapplethorpe to Ellsworth Kelly. His articles have covered basketball player Julius Irving, reruns of the TV series “Perry Mason,” and country music outlaws.

In 2001, the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a “genius” grant for his body of work. He was inducted into the Nevada Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2003 and won a Peabody Award for a 2006 documentary about Andy Warhol.

Hickey and Lumpkin moved to Santa Fe in 2010 and accepted positions at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Lumpkin said that Hickey considered teaching among his most important works and legacy.

“He was a true intellectual without being arrogant and he trusted his students to be able to think theoretically. When you put your trust in the students like that, they get it and make good art,” Lumpkin said.



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