Thomas McEvilley, Critic and Defender of Non-Western Art
In 1984, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened its exhibition “ ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” the reception was generally favorable. Then came Thomas McEvilley’s shattering review in Artforum magazine.
Appearing a month after the exhibition opened, the review meticulously, logically and thoroughly demolished its basic, unstated assumption: that the indigenous arts of Africa, Asia, Australia, Oceania and the Americas were of value primarily as source materials for Western modernism.
But Mr. McEvilley, who died on March 2 at 73, wasn’t done yet. In powerfully accessible language, he extended the charge of reductive thinking to the museum itself, and to Western art scholarship and criticism as a whole.
The show’s curators, William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, tried to rebut his attack in letters to Artforum. Mr. McEvilley came back with even more persuasively damning arguments.
They were the opening salvos in an argument about multiculturalism that would define American art for the rest of the 1980s and ‘90s. When the dust had settled, it was clear who the winner was, and it was also clear that a new era in thinking about art had begun.
Mr. McEvilley, who lived in Manhattan and the Catskills, died of complications of cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, said his wife, Joyce Burstein.
Like much of his writing on contemporary art, Mr. McEvilley’s review of the Modern show had wide repercussions. It inspired the curator Jean-Hubert Martin to present artists from five continents in the 1989 Paris exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre.” That show set the paradigm for countless others over the next three decades, including virtually every biennial and triennial anywhere, whether in Venice, São Paulo, Dakar or Shanghai.
Mr. McEvilley was well suited to be a spokesman for expansive ways of looking at world art. He studied Greek, Latin and Sanskrit at the University of Cincinnati. In his 36 years on the faculty of Rice University in Houston, from 1969 to 2005, he taught courses in both Greek and South Asian culture, as well as in the history of religion and philosophy.
In the lingering wake of 1960s formalist thinking dominated by Clement Greenberg and Minimalism, Mr. McEvilley was a crucial alternative voice. He demonstrated that abstraction was not a European invention, pointing to non-Western abstract art from Hindu Tantric painting to African masks to Islamic tile work. He was among the first widely read critics of his generation to write about contemporary non-Western art at a time when it was all but unknown to the Western market.
Mr. McEvilley was born on July 13, 1939, in Cincinnati. He received a bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D. in classical philology from the University of Cincinnati, and a master’s from the University of Washington in Seattle. He was regarded as an adventurously cosmopolitan teacher at Rice as well as at Yale and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was a visiting professor. In 2005 he founded the M.F.A. criticism and art writing program at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Among his books, the ones that have had the widest impact are two collections of essays, “Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity“ (1992) and “Art and Discontent: Theory at the Millennium” (1991), as well as “The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism“ (2005).
He published a monumental philological study, “The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies,” in 2001, and a second one, “Sappho,” in 2008. He also wrote extensively on Western contemporary artists. At his death, he was working on a book about Greek poetry.
He received the 1993 Frank Jewett Mather Award for distinction in art criticism from the College Art Association.
In addition to Ms. Burstein, Mr. McEvilley is survived by two sons, Thomas and Monte; a sister, Ellen M. Griffin; and two grandchildren. His son Alexander died before him. Two previous marriages ended in divorce.