Elementary, My Dear Hickey

Art critic Dave Hickey on being Watson to Ed Ruscha's Holmes

Wednesday night, the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton Museum of Art will present a chat between two old friends. Ed Ruscha is an internationally renowned artist whose archives have been acquired by the center, and Dave Hickey is a Texas-born art critic who loves to talk, and especially loves to talk about art.

Hickey’s latest project is 25 Women: Essays on Their Art, a collection of his writings about female artists from the last two decades. The Chronicle caught up with him at his home in Las Vegas to talk about tomorrow night’s event.

Austin Chronicle: Tell me about your relationship and history with Ed Ruscha.

Dave Hickey: I’ve known Ed since back in the Sixties when he and Billy Al [Bengston] had a print outlet where you could go and buy prints. It was all very carefully set up to look like a business. They had business cards and invoices and everything like that. I used to buy stuff from them for my gallery in Austin.

I’ve written about seven or eight pieces about Edward over the years, including an audio guide for a show he did in L.A. So I’ve written about a small book’s worth of stuff about Ed, and we’ve been pretty good friends. You can’t really be friends with famous artists now because there’s too much accoutrement. They’re making up the guest list for dinner while you’re trying to talk.

I love Ed. I was going to introduce us as Holmes and Watson. I’m Watson, Ed is Holmes. I write it down as best I can and get it wrong.

So we’ve been pretty good friends for a long time. I’ve done a lot of work for for Ed. He’s done commensurate favors for me. We stay on an even keel, so he doesn’t lose and I don’t lose. We’ve been pals for a long time. Like I said, we’re Holmes and Watson, but we’re well past the days of the 7% solution. You can’t really do cocaine in your 70s. It makes you way overconfident.

Page from Ruscha's artist book Sayings from Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson. Each image consists of a wood grain printed in color, a field of bright color, and the dialogue hand-written in what the artist calls his "Boy Scout utility sans serif." (Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center)

Actually, I’m a linguist, and so I’m really interested in what Ed does with words and pictures. He’s probably the only artist I know who deals with the language incarnate, the language in the world, the noise of the language, rather than just dealing with it as literary fractals. That interests me, too, because I’m a songwriter. I like the language of the world.

I grew up in Ft. Worth, and Ed grew up in Oklahoma “Shitty.” If you don’t have a book in those places, you don’t have nothing. And so, we’re both book people. Ed publishes books and makes objects out of them, remnants of books. That basically is the foundation for our bond: I know enough about the language to be able to recognize what Ed’s doing in a lot of cases. So I do my best when I get the opportunity.

Ruscha takes a tour of the Ransom Center during a visit in April 2009. (Photo by Pete Smith)

Ed Ruscha and Dave Hickey will discuss Ruscha's life and work Wed., Jan. 20, 6pm, at the Blanton Museum of Art Auditorium, 200 E. MLK. For more information, visit www.hrc.utexas.edu.

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Dave Hickey, Ed Ruscha, Harry Ransom Center

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