PRINT Summer 2013


Thomas McEvilley

Kwakiutl mask from British Columbia, n.d., painted wood, 13 1/4 x 7 1/4 x 4 1/4". From “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1984.


THOMAS MCEVILLEY’S most widely remembered appearances in Artforum, to which he contributed often between 1981 and 1997, must be his essay “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” of November 1984 and his ensuing exchange of letters with William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, curators of the “Primitivism” show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, that had been the essay’s subject. Anyone not around at the time, almost thirty years ago now, may find it hard to imagine how intense was the argument around those texts, and how wide the fallout, and how both outrageous and courageous they seemed in the New York culture of that moment. Today’s reader of those pieces will still be powerfully rewarded—but you’d have to read a lot of Tom’s writing to get a sense, and then probably no more than a sense, of the full range of his mind.

Tom’s thinking combined great scholarship with wonderful esoterica. His Ph.D. was not in art history but in classical philology, and though he published abundantly on contemporary art, the book he may have been proudest of was the nearly eight-hundred-page lifework The Shape of Ancient Thought (2001). Among the first pieces I worked on of his, I remember (I edited his writing for Artforum through much of the 1980s and early ’90s), was an essay on the Kentucky-born artist Eric Orr, whom at one point Tom described as going out onto Venice Beach in Los Angeles on the night of a full moon with John McCracken, the two carrying with them a large pane of glass that Orr had covered with his own blood. They laid the glass on the sand by the ocean, and McCracken let the moon cast his shadow on it; Orr scraped the glass around the shadow clean, creating a kind of print—his own blood, his friend’s body. Then he crated the glass, shipped it to Egypt, and buried it in the shadow of one of the pyramids of Giza. Back then, before each issue of Artforum went to press, the publishers had it read by a libel lawyer, who had a response to this essay: “Please confirm that this bizarre ritual took place,” I’m pretty sure it went. And that was my introduction to Tom.

Much later, working on another of Tom’s essays, I hadn’t finished editing before he was about to leave on a trip, and I needed to be able to get in touch with him on the road. These were the years before cell phones, and Tom gave me a long string of numbers: He’d be at this number until such-and-such a date, this number for the following week, and so on, and after that I wouldn’t be able to reach him, because he’d have taken a vow of silence. It was clearly a nuisance to Tom to have to be available to Artforum while traveling, and I thought he was both giving me a deadline to call him and teasing me a little—which, of course, he was; but he also actually was taking a vow of silence, a meditation that he practiced a number of times while I knew him. No phone call would be accepted for that week or two—and now again for longer, for which we are the poorer.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.