Fearless and Philosophical, Subtle and Inquisitive: Thomas McEvilley, 1939-2013
For some years, one of my reliably stimulating pleasures was my evenings with Thomas McEvilley. I would come to the East Village, walk up to his third floor apartment, and then we would talk in his book-filled study before going out to dinner. His large library was double shelved, the volumes of a classics scholar mixed together with publications devoted to art history. On the wall was the Frank Jewett Mather Award given by the College Art Association in 1993—Thomas, not a vain man, was proud of that honor—and his place were filled with many works of art, including a painting by Julian Schnabel . Sometimes I would bring a younger friend along, someone I wanted to introduce to this famous critic. On other occasions we met in the country, at the house of our mutual friend Bill Beckley. Tom was great fun to be with because he could listen; because he had many great stories; and because he always was amazingly attentive, even (or especially) at the end of a long evening. Once over two happy successive dinners he told me the marvelous story of his career. He couldn’t legally drive and so I had the chance to hear more taking him home.
Tom was trained as a classicist. And so when Ingrid Sischy, who wanted to introduce new writers into the art world, brought him into Artforum around 1981, his essays about his great friend James Lee Byars and a whole host of other figures introduced a challenging new sensibility. Soon his critique of MoMA’s “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” (1984) made him famous. Most art world disputations are of merely parochial interest. This was one of those rare moments when a critic hit a nerve, touching in an exhibition review upon issues with larger resonance. The debate that followed was seminal to ‘postmodernism.’ “When I first met Tom,” Bill Beckley recalls,
it was to negotiate a truce between Tom, [William] Rubin and [Kirk] Varnedoe. I wanted to include the essay and exchange of letters in Artforum in Uncontrollable Beauty. The problem was that upon the publication of the anthology fourteen years later, all three parties wanted to continue the argument. It had to stop somewhere, but truly, it never did.
After that–although, or so he told me, he was boycotted by the major Manhattan museums– Tom published a great deal of art criticism, all of it good. His anthology, The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism, (2005) gives a great sampling of his discussions of such varied figures as Marina Abramovic, Les Levine and Yves Klein. In the 1980s, there was a seriously felt need for criticism to find some novel grounding, an alternative to formalism, which was exhausted. Most art writers looked to the French deconstructive literature in translation. Tom’s particular perspective, which must have seemed very exotic, was that of classical scholarship. In his critical discussion of the Hegelian conception (made famous by Arthur Danto) of “the end of art,” Tom observed that this “was not a new idea but in fact was known to the ancients—it occurs, for example, in Pliny’s Natural History. . . “
Tom was a classicist with an unusual bias- he was also a major scholar of Indian philosophy. “When I was young,” he once explained, “I tried to learn a new language each summer.” In the early 1970s, sitting naked with a guru in a cave, he seriously considered moving to India, in the way I suppose that a century earlier American aesthetes moved to Tuscan villas. I was stunned by his boldness. Tom’s magnum opus was his comparative study of Indian and Greek philosophy, The Shape of Ancient Thought, published by the School of Visual Arts and Allworth Press. The philosophers of ancient India, he argued, worked out their ideas in parallel with, though without necessarily borrowing from, their Western peers. He was very pleased when an affordable Indian edition was published. Aware of the pernicious history of imperialism, the many recent art writers who take an interest in art from outside Europe tend to be defensive. Thanks to his travels in China and India, and his linguistic skills, Tom was able, without undue moralizing, to offer a judicious cross-cultural perspective. He loved to tell an anecdote of Diogenes, which nicely comments on this situation: “When asked why he wished to be buried upside down, Diogenes replied, ‘Down will soon be up.’” The authors of every future global art history will owe an essential debt to him.
When in 2006 I invited Tom to a panel on critical disagreement at the New York Studio School, he gave a show-stopping presentation of an example from John Baldessari’s art. I haven’t yet, I fear, fully absorbed its implications. Afterwards I was pleasantly astonished when Leo Steinberg, who was a very critical critic, praised Tom. Tom was a great art writer because he was madly inquisitive; because he loved a great variety of art; and because he was a gifted stylist. His most recent book is the definitive biography of Sappho. Developing his doctoral thesis (1967-68), each layer of this book “represents the poet and her work in a certain way, and each represents my mind and its interaction with a finite body of text at a different stage of my life.” The place where we imagine her, he concludes, “is still somewhat empty—to be filled by other Sapphos yet to come.” Ancients, Moderns, and Postmodernists alike, inhabiting eastern spheres and west, will miss his brilliant and beautiful mind. He is dearly loved.