Thomas McEvilley

  • Venice the Menace

    The New York Times called it “death in Venice,” Time magazine called it “a shambles.” But the rage that met the 1993 Venice Biennale reflected less on the show itself than on the concerted attack some American critics have mounted recently against a dominant mood of the contemporary. Coming as it does after the assault on the Whitney Biennial, the reception of the Venice show suggests a deeply threatened feeling. The Eurocentric fetishization of certain limited ideas of artistic and cultural quality is becoming endangered, and it was this, above all, that was significant about the ’93 Biennale.

  • Sweet Thoughts

    CRACKING OPEN A MAGAZINE can be like opening a box of chocolates: knowing more or less what is inside does not diminish the delicious anticipation. In the case of a magazine of contemporary art, the reader expects confections of creative vision, critical thought, and graphic design, those tasty details that one knows will feed one’s habits in just the way one wants.

    Transcending those details, and transcending even the question of their cohesion into unity, is the fact that any magazine that has existed long enough to develop self-knowledge and identity knows itself as the incarnation of a

  • Louise Bourgeois

    Louise Bourgeois combined her sculptural installation with a performance piece—her first in 24 years—each of which depended on the same themes and motifs. Both were entitled, She Lost It, 1992, and worked with a brief text. As is often the case in this artist’s oeuvre, the message was feminist in tone but delivered in the form of a children’s story: “A man and a woman lived together. On one evening he did not come back from work. And she waited. She kept on waiting and she grew littler and littler. Later, a neighbor stopped by out of friendship and there he found her, in the armchair,

  • Thomas McEvilley

    UP FRONT, AND IN BRIEF, I am friendly and favorable toward the current Whitney Biennial, both the curation and the work. This year’s show, as everyone knows by now, has turned away from the survey idea to provide a more intensive inspection of a single theme that the curators and director seem to feel deserves this special attention because of its comparative neglect in the past. The theme in question is, of course, politically motivated art emphasizing ethnic, cultural, and gender differences. I’m not interested in second-guessing the curators about precisely which artists or pieces they should

  • Jimmie Durham

    Jimmie Durham is a liberating presence in the somewhat constricted moment of multicultural criticism, when, as Edward Said has warned in Culture and Imperialism, 1992, nativism, or an insistence on one’s own ethnicity as a kind of absolute, is in the ascendant. The post-Modern acknowledgement of and respect for cultural and ethnic difference has mutated into a fetishization of selfhood or what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. As identity politics turns bloody in Bosnia, India, and Ireland, difference is running amok. We seem to be entering that grim stage of the world cycle

  • “I am the Enunciator”

    In an interminable catalogue essay, curator Christian Leigh states, “We have an imminent and dire need to look for new ways to exhibit and install exhibitions.” Yet the show in question struck me as all too familiar—a kind of attempt to resuscitate the ’80s long enough to squeeze one last gasp out of them. In the manner of many large, self-consciously post-Modern group shows of recent years, Leigh gathered works that did not seem unified in either form or content.

    Traditionally (and it is already a tradition), this type of exhibition has certain goals. First, it attempts to undermine the Modernist

  • Exhibiting Cultures and Museums and Communities

    THE PERIOD IS STILL RECENT when the authority of museums was widely taken for granted, at least among their target audiences. Modernist museology seemed like a fixed, almost scientific practice that could not be altered. One often did not think of exhibition decisions as made by individual curators; it almost seemed it was the massive, monolithic institution itself that was making the choices. What that institution collected and showed had a kind of ultimate weight. Though one might complain about details, there was a brute facticity to the museum that seemed prior to such complaints, and out


    PERHAPS UNDERSTANDABLY GIVEN Jean-Michel Basquiat’s shockingly early and still recent death, the critical literature on his work has been rather uncritical. Emphasizing the anecdotal, the elegiac, and the sacramental, many writers drift from analyses of his art into personal recollections of the artist, and seem at times to vie for the distinction of having known him best. Little art-historical comparison is offered; there is a widespread reluctance to venture outside the sphere of black culture heroes such as Charlie Parker, Joe Louis, and Thelonius Monk, who dominate discussions of his work


    Milarepa lived at the same time as Eckhart. He flew through the air in the form of a thistle.

    —John Cage

    John Cage, who died on August 12 of this year, exerted immense influence not only in the field of music but throughout Western culture. It is hardly necessary to rehearse his credentials. One could argue that the entire surprising and vital unfolding of late-Modernist and early post-Modernist culture in America sprang from the Black Mountain group of the immediate postwar period, a group in which Cage was the undoubted mastermind and free spirit. The publication of his book Silence, in 1961,

  • Absence Made Visible: Robert Ryman

    By 1957, when he was in his later 20s, Robert Ryman had established a distinctive signature mode for his paintings: he limited his format primarily to the square and his palette almost exclusively to white (though the natural color of the supports and, after 1976, of the supports’ fasteners provided counterpoint to the white, and though the whites themselves varied). This self-limitation was a kind of thing that was done in the heyday of Greenbergian theory, when Ad Reinhardt, for example, limited his palette to black, Franz Kline to black and white, and so on. But the decision remains remarkable,


    HAS THE IDEA OF “History” really imploded, or has it simply taken new forms, like a natural species mutating for survival? In the art realm this question is currently reflected in matters of style.

    The spate of abstract painting seen in New York this fall was largely created by young artists who do not directly remember either the single-minded intensity of Abstract Expressionism or, when it came, the emphatic consensus of agreement that the movement was over. Somehow the style still seems to them a viable option (though only one of many), with or without the heavy baggage of the sublime.1 One


    THE MAINSTREAM TRADITION in Western philosophy—what Richard Rorty has called the Plato-to-Kant axis—has argued for universal and unchanging criteria of quality that are supposedly valid for all times and places. There are differences in expression—Plato, for example, spoke about objective universals and Kant about subjective ones—but it is a shared idea that correct judgments are based on a correct perception of universals and incorrect ones on a misperception of them. Absolute values, in this view, are inborn in all humans identically in all times and places, in what Plato called the Eye of