Idiosyncratic assessments of contemporary women painters, sculptors, and installation and performance artists by an enfant terrible of art criticism.
Hickey (Pirates and Farmers: Essays on Taste, 2013, etc.), now 74, has been a thorn in the side of art criticism for years. In “A Ladies’ Man,” the introduction to this admirable collection, he admits loving women, his most favorite people. The essays have no agenda or art politics and little feminism: “There is a lot of euphony, death, vogue, fanciful narrative, and fugitive nuance.” The author often talks about the art by talking about something else, “lest writing shatter the art like a fragile leaf in clumsy hands.” All of the artists are alive and working except Sarah Charlesworth and Joan Mitchell, one of Hickey’s favorites. Her abstracts, like “classical epigrams…intertwine the light and dark, the petulance and grandeur.” Rowdy and fearless, she “got into the same car everyone else did,” but she “drove it in the opposite direction, back toward the hard, Godless specifics of living.” Hickey’s writing is clever, straightforward, and honest. Literary quotes abound. He draws on Gilles Deleuze’s concept of “plasticity” to describe the “bounded experimentation” of Bridget Riley’s paintings, which destabilize the “entire zone between the beholder and the work.” Readers will no doubt discover artists they aren’t familiar with, such as Fiona Banner and her 2010 installation piece Harrier, in which the British plane hangs from the ceiling like a captured bird. Lynda Benglis’ vertical wax landscapes seemingly ooze out of a wall, and Michelle Fierro’s set pieces, “mandarin grunge,” create “Zen gardens out of painting’s refuse.” Vanessa Beecroft’s performance pieces, like vb45, deploy the “rhetoric of painting in the space of sculpture,” positioning women, often nude, in various poses for hours at a time. Hickey has piquant, insightful things to say about all of these artists.
Some readers will find cause for disagreement, but these fun-to-read essays delight, intrigue, and, most of all, educate.