25 Women: Essays on Their Art

25 Women: Essays on Their Art

by Dave Hickey


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Newsweek calls him “exhilarating and deeply engaging.” Time Out New York calls him “smart, provocative, and a great writer.” Critic Peter Schjeldahl, meanwhile, simply calls him “My hero.” There’s no one in the art world quite like Dave Hickey—and a new book of his writing is an event.
25 Women will not disappoint. The book collects Hickey’s best and most important writing about female artists from the past twenty years. But this is far more than a compilation: Hickey has revised each essay, bringing them up to date and drawing out common themes. Written in Hickey’s trademark style—accessible, witty, and powerfully illuminating—25 Women analyzes the work of Joan Mitchell, Bridget Riley, Fiona Rae, Lynda Benglis, Karen Carson, and many others. Hickey discusses their work as work, bringing politics and gender into the discussion only where it seems warranted by the art itself. The resulting book is not only a deep engagement with some of the most influential and innovative contemporary artists, but also a reflection on the life and role of the critic: the decisions, judgments, politics, and ethics that critics negotiate throughout their careers in the art world.
Always engaging, often controversial, and never dull, Dave Hickey is a writer who gets people excited—and talking—about art. 25 Women will thrill his many fans, and make him plenty of new ones.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226333151
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/28/2016
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 808,101
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Dave Hickey is former executive editor of Art in America and the author of The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty and Air Guitar. He has served as a contributing editor for the Village Voice and as the arts editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Read an Excerpt

25 Women

Essays on Their Art

By Dave Hickey

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 Dave Hickey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-33315-1


Alexis Smith

My Pal Alex

    I will make the true poem of riches,
    To earn for the body and the mind whatever adheres and
      goes forward and is not dropt by death;
    And I will show that there is no imperfection in the present,
      And can be none in the future,
    And I will show that whatever happens to anybody it may
      be turn'd to beautiful results,
    And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful
      than death,
    And I will thread a thread through my poems that time and
    events are compact,
    And that all the things of the universe are perfect miracles,
    each as profound as any.

Short Form of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Alexis Smith (1977)

If my mom were still alive, she would write me a fancy note in her executive écriture on her seventy-pound satin-finish stationary. "Dear Reader," it would say, "Please excuse Dave for writing an essay about an artist who is one of his best friends, and with whom he shares a great many idiosyncrasies. I realize this is not much done, nor altogether proper by my standards, but Dave was a friend of Alexis Smith and her husband Scott Grieger for years before he became an official art critic. When they met, Dave was a chemically enhanced art dealer. They would hang out at the Orange Julius stand in Pasadena and sometimes Peter Plagens or Bruce Nauman would drop by. Dave's affection for Alexis's work and her manner dates from that time, and has never flagged. So I hope he may be forgiven on this occasion for yet another of his enthusiastic indiscretions. Yours, Helen Virginia Hickey"

This would do for juried publications, I think, but the real problem with writing about the art of one's friends is that you know too much, and you know too little. When you're together, the attributes you share dissolve into a general ambience of comfort. More to the point, most artists are quite unlike the art they make, so there is always the chance that the better you know an artist, the more imperfectly you know their art. Since Alexis's works, in their arctic modesty, are unlike any artist's I know, and since I only understand about a third of Alex's pieces, this is no problem. So here is what I know about Alexis Smith. She is a California girl who is married to my friend Scott. She and Scott live in a little house in Venice and tend their garden of succulents. She likes to make collages and scavenges yard sales, which I consider to be the dark side of her profession.

Temperamentally, Alex is a woman of the West — a blonde in the dust — chic when necessary. On the East Coast of the United States, men are presumed to be thoughtful, measured, and sane. Women in these climes are expected to be neurasthenics. In the West, however, men are habitually delusional dreamers or veterans with that thousand-yard stare. The men roll cigarettes, pan for gold, shoot buffalo, start ostrich ranches, militias, or carob plantations, or head out into the wake of some pissant dream. Women do the accounting, keep the septic working, and shoot critters around the property. They try to live like human beings. They are never too excited about the fantasies dazzling in the eyes of their menfolk. If you're sick, they will nurse you. If you die, they will bury you and then do their other chores.

If you had had the pleasure that I had of watching Alexis negotiate the budget for a large public artwork with a county commission, you would know what I mean. Pioneer women are meticulous and sane, and, given the low entrance requirements in today's art world, Ms. Smith is overqualified for her job, or — as we say in Las Vegas — too hip for the room. If you don't understand her art, you can be fairly certain that she does, but you will hear no scorn from Alexis. She will assure you in her Whitmanesque dialect that "ninety percent of the behavior we attribute to malice, may be attributed to plain stupidity." Having grown up on the grounds of a mental institution with no mother and a psychiatrist father, who, as we used to say, "had a hard war," Smith knows what crazy is. She's seen too many people whose worlds are flying apart, so she is always putting the shreds of our civilization back together, realigning the jewels and the junk.

In practice, she is more like the set designer of her art than an artistic personality, more beguiled by the tumbled flow of history than emotion, or, more precisely, beguiled by the emotional residue that can be squeezed out of its yard-sale tatters. Even so, no set designer is smarter, more meticulous, more impersonal, better educated, or more flagrantly opaque. No one cares less about the cosmetic appeal of her art, unless the cosmetics are part of the joke. No one is more unfazed by criticism. Ms. Smith has contemporary theory for breakfast, and she is happiest amusing herself in the studio, occupying her niches. When she started doing collages, she decided it was better to work naked, and she did. Only a sorry California winter put paid to this practice.

She is a collagist (a tiny subcategory among modern artists), and she is the only woman of standing in that genre. She has shown in all the places you should show, and this is sufficient for her, although her work is much more than collage. Like Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein she has roots in Harnett and Peto, in their modest multilayered cultural synthesis. From high to low and top to bottom, everything in Smith's work comes from somewhere else. Ms. Smith's own persona is a faint aroma that lingers around its hard-edged androgyny. She puts it together and gets out of the way, so, if the Great Library at Alexandria had been blown up rather than burned away, Alexis would be the one to put it back together better than it was before.

Ms. Smith does the philosophy and the darkness along with the goofiness. She doesn't do whimsy or make mistakes, and this can be off-putting. The absence of visible insecurity, faux-naïf gestures, when added to the quotidian opacity of her art, marks her as the elitist she is. She doesn't care what you think, but she does have her skeins of vanity. She was born Patty Ann Smith, and she always hated being Patty Ann Smith. She felt it lacked panache, so, when she entered the art world, her nom du plume, Alexis Smith, was a collage itself, stolen from a fifties movie actress, and, far from being mysteriously opaque, her works are intelligently opaque. Her tightly wound collages gradually unfold like slow-motion roses. This, perhaps, is because her work, in its adolescence, began with her editorial penchant to cut and compress.

Ms. Smith grew up as a voracious reader, like her fellow cutter and compressor John Chamberlain. At Black Mountain College, Chamberlain would read anything he could get between covers then stack the books he'd read in the window to keep out the cold. As he read, Chamberlain would keep a notebook, writing down words or phrases that appealed to him and putting them together into poems. Eventually, he began collecting archipelagos of old car parts and putting them together into poetic sculptures that, as you walk around them, have their own poetic euphony and cadence. Alexis Smith's literary method is analogous. As a beginning artist, Smith kept a notebook in which she pared things down, copying out words and phrases critical to the atmosphere and pace of the "big data" manuscript. She did a ten-page version of Oliver Twist that was all Dickens. She compressed the two thousand pages of Leaves of Grass into a three-page version, all Whitman.

My own suspicion is that the pioneer woman in Alexis regarded this penchant as housecleaning and proper frugality, and also as a Calamity Jane way of getting right to the bull's-eye. Just on my own, flipping through her images, I have come across fragments of John Milton, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, George Gershwin, Dorothy Parker, Isadora Duncan, Diana Vreeland, Tennessee Williams, Scheherazade, John Dos Passos, Jack Kerouac, Jorge Luis Borges, John Barrymore, and Raymond Chandler. I am sure there are many more. Her foundation in the history of Western Letters explains why Smith walks into a yard sale as Indiana Jones might walk into a Hindu cave. She knows what she is looking for and builds her melodies around the obbligato of Western culture in her head.

In this sense, Smith is less interested in "art" than in the fragile armature of American civilization in all its folly and glory. She builds series of works around fugitive images, hyper-edited texts, and popular patois. They touch the sky and scrape the ground. She prefers Westerners. There is a series of collages she calls Chandlerisms, arranged around quotes from Raymond Chandler. There is also a series of collages and assemblages in homage to Jack Kerouac. My favorite for its drollery is her starter kit for American culture based on variations of the "Dick and Jane" books, whose hero and heroine were the Scott and Zelda of grammar school readers when I was a kid. There are a lot of Janes out there (Calamity Jane, Lady Jane, Jane Fonda, Jane Greer, Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, etc.) and lots of Dicks (Deadwood, etc.). My favorite image in this series is Wild Life (1985) — the mock up of a Life magazine cover with a picture of Jane Greer looking gorgeous. It bears this small caption: "Jane lives in Bel-Air California with her poodle, two goats and an actor."

It's all so simple: There is "Life." There is "Jane." There is the wild ocean, the breeze in Jane's hair, Jane's sweater scattered with spades, clubs, diamonds, and hearts, which, if you love the movies, reminds you of Greer's career as a femme fatale and her role as Robert Mitchum's lethal crush in Jacque Tourneur's great film noir Out of the Past, with its suave Frenchy sound track. It's all accumulated and surgically compressed without cutting corners, so to look at Wild Life is to unfold America in the fifties when there was something called Life and there were Film Stars.

If you were there, it brings it all back. If you weren't, you get the idea. If you don't, don't worry, Alexis Smith is not a public utility. Alexis makes palimpsests for art lovers, like the wax tablets used by antique scribes to take notes then wipe them out and write more notes on top, so multiple levels of text are visible under good light. Her Twentieth Century collages are literally palimpsests. The series is named for a 1934 Howard Hawks movie with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. Its poster bears a quote from the script that is very Barrymore. "I don't live I act. I've died so often, made love so much — I've lost track of what's real."

For this project, Alexis acquired about fifty film posters from old films. She made the same number of silk-screen images of the Twentieth Century poster with the dialogue quote and a falling or rising girl, depending on her configuration in the final version after she cut, inverted, rearranged, and deconstructed the poster screens. She silk-screened these tweaked Twentieth Century posters over the old posters she had acquired and voila: The Twentieth Century, itself, as if through a glass-bottomed boat. Each text changes the ambience of the image below, and since Ms. Smith is only pleasing herself, decoding these images can be a project for the beholder, like gardening, since Smith's collages mimic the waves in the cool majesty of their not caring.

The smaller works that Smith makes to please herself can require patient living with. Her public works, the ones she makes for us, invite applause, and not many artists can swing both ways. George Gershwin (who is one of Smith's heroes) could do this. He could move between pop, opera, and classical music without a pause or a hint of snobbery — from Fascinating Rhythm, to Porgy and Bess, and to An American in Paris without a blink. Alexis can do the same thing, transforming herself from a private artist to a public artist, from a poet to a songwriter in a blink. She addresses her own eccentric, poetic sensibility in the studio. She writes songs in public that arise from the knowledge and desires she shares with everyone.

As Alexis will tell you, and Gershwin probably would too, "It's harder to do public art than to do regular art. For public art to be good, it has to solve problems but be natural enough that no one notices. It has to be meaningful enough to be beyond question, to work on a subliminal level. That's the trick." When I asked her, "Why bother then?" Ms. Smith's answer was evasive. I finally figured out that Alexis thinks like one of those gifted athletes whose talent allows them to play a game that they love — whose public works function as a way of "giving something back" for their exotic gifts. In their presence, Smith's public art is no more dumbed down than a Gershwin song. It's just witty, clear, and public.

She laid a fifty-thousand-foot terrazzo map of the world in the south lobby of the Los Angeles Convention Center, and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that you are striding across the world like Gulliver across Lilliput. In the north lobby, there is a view that looks over the curve of the earth as an astronaut might gaze at the constellations and the Milky Way. Smith designed another terrazzo floor surrounding the sports arena at Ohio State University, for which she won some kind of national terrazzo award from the Italians who usually do this work. At Ohio State, the floor is scattered with images of famous Ohio athletes at more than twice life-size — so the effect of the convention center maps is reversed. At the convention center, you are a giant. At the arena, you are part of a tiny congregation in a hall of giant heroes. No science required, just a fifty-degree grayscale of terrazzo in matrixes with zinc dividers.

My favorite of all her public art is her snake path that leads through a Smith-curated forest to the steps of the library at the University of California, San Diego. Smith was given a large meadow in front of the library to work with. She created berms and seeded it, so it would grow into the arboreal landscape that it is today. A nine-foot-wide snake path twines through this forest. It is made of snake-colored, octagonal tiles in shades of ocher and gray. The path twines and curls for about five hundred feet. At this point the snake's body loops itself around an apple tree. The head of the snake lays at the foot of the steps into the library. About two-fifths of the way down the path stands a twelve-foot statue of a copy of Paradise Lost from the library itself with the title and Dewey decimal number on the spine.

The front of the book bears Milton's version of the snake's argument to Adam and Eve about the virtues of biting the apple and acquiring forbidden knowledge of good and evil:

Then wilt thou not be loth
To leave this Paradise, but shall possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.

The book is an advertisement for the library. It stands as an invitation to follow the snake through an arboreal earthly Paradise to the library. The argument is at once subversive and academically undeniable. This is pure, knowledgeable Alexis Smith in her public mode. Every time I see the path I find myself trying to enumerate the accumulated sequence of world-class formal and iconic decisions that went into creating this elegant argument for undeniably heretical knowledge. I find myself thinking of Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So" from Porgy and Bess.

To infer just what kind of creature Alexis Smith might be, however, I must turn back to the artist. In 1989, Ms. Smith and the poet Amy Gerstler collaborated on a book called Past Lives (Santa Monica Museum, 1989). It was accompanied by an installation that contained rooms full of children's chairs, little historical objects that Ms. Smith had accumulated from yard sales over the years. On the walls, there were photographs, blackboards, and schoolroom life-narratives. The accompanying book contained paralleled information. Birth announcements juxtaposed with obituaries and short narratives of the artists' lives. Here is the biography Amy and Alexis made up for Ms. Smith.


Excerpted from 25 Women by Dave Hickey. Copyright © 2016 Dave Hickey. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

A Ladies’ Man Introduction
Alexis Smith My Pal Alex
Joan Mitchell Epigramata
Lynda Benglis Fire on the Water
Vija Celmins The Path Itself
Pia Fries The Remains of Today
Fiona Banner The Beauty of Our Weapons
Sarah Charlesworth Embracing the Beast
Mary Heilman Surfing on Acid
Jennifer Steinkamp Breathing in the World
Michelle Fierro Beauty Marks
Bridget Riley Not Knowing
Bridget Riley II For Americans
Elizabeth Murray Dancing in the Dark
Karen Carson Sophisticate
Ann Hamilton Thinking Things Through
Vanessa Beecroft Painted Ladies
Roni Horn She Resembles Herself
Fiona Rae Good after the Good Is Gone
Barbara Bloom Barbara Blooms
Sharon Ellis Modest Ecstasy
Hung Liu The Polity of Immigrants
Teresita Fernández Tropical Scholarship
Nancy Rubins The Rapture and the Tsunami
Elizabeth Peyton At the Prince’s Chateau

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