"Oh, I just thought saying I was retiring would get me more work — and it did for a while," Hickey admits. "I retire all the time. I seriously intend to quit writing about art, though, as soon as all these little [assignments] dribble out. There's nothing worth writing about anymore."
Still, Hickey seems to spend a lot of time considering — and publicly waxing about — the state of the contemporary art world.
"The art is about as good as it always is, but there's no discourse or negativity," Hickey says. "The middle-class drones don't want to go against anything, so there's no dissent out there. There's no unpopular art, so the art world is all pop art. It's boring."
With that, Hickey stubs out his cigarette with one hand and, as the butt still smolders, reaches for another Marlboro Lights 100 with his other.
Now Hickey rummages through the mini-fridge. White light spills out, illuminating his cigarette smoke. He cracks open a 7-Up.
"I miss the art underground," he says and sighs. "The underground [of the '60s and '70s] was home for those who did not believe and did not belong. These days, everything's mainstream; everyone loves everything."
One can easily imagine Hickey in the '60s and '70s scene he so fondly and frequently speaks about — a freewheeling time when he whittled away chunks of the week in New York hanging out at Max's Kansas City with Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. The creative camaraderie he found in that community was a refuge from his rocky childhood — the art underground was the only real family he knew.
Hickey was born in Fort Worth, Texas, the oldest of three, but grew up, he says, "all over the place," attending 13 different grammar schools in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and California.
His father was a musician who played in big bands and bebop groups by night and worked at a Chevy dealership by day; his mother was a painter and teacher. The family moved to Los Angeles after he finished third grade, and Hickey spent roughly half his childhood in Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades. He'd skip school, he says, to surf and hang out in the legendary custom car shop of George Barris. But those are among his only fond memories of that time.
"I had a very unhappy and violent and chaotic childhood," he says. " So I blocked a lot out."
When he was 11, Hickey's father committed suicide. "My mom blamed me — we were both named Dave. I moved out of the house and was on my own after that."
In Austin, Hickey opened the art gallery A Clean Well-Lighted Place, where he showed countercultural works by Zap Comix artists such as R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. He ran New York's Reese Paley Gallery after that, but quit when his boss insisted on showing the work of Yoko Ono.
"I said, 'Oh, no, not me!' She's pushy and noisy and not any good!'"
Even so, Hickey insists that he's a champion of work by women artists.
He wrote "25 Women," he says, "because I couldn't find one book of collected essays out there about women artists. There's a lot of books about menopause, and a lot about how you get a gallery, but nothing seriously addressing the work women make."
L.A.-based artist Alexis Smith says the book, which collects Hickey's previously published essays on such artists as Elizabeth Peyton, Karen Carson, Joan Mitchell and Smith herself, is deeply needed.