Menu

Gagosian Quarterly

Spring 2021 Issue

Game Changer

Thomas McEvilley

David Frankel celebrates the art-historical contributions made by the scholar, poet, and critic Thomas McEvilley.

Left to right: Thomas McEvilley, Ulay (hiding behind a slab of wood), Eric Orr, and James Lee Byars, c. 1995 © Ulay, courtesy ULAY Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Left to right: Thomas McEvilley, Ulay (hiding behind a slab of wood), Eric Orr, and James Lee Byars, c. 1995 © Ulay, courtesy ULAY Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

David Frankel

David Frankel is the former editorial director in the publications department of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He was an editor at Artforum in the 1980s and ’90s and remains a contributing editor there.

What Thomas McEvilley will surely go down in art history for is a series of writings in Artforum in 1984–85 that deeply altered the public perception of museum practices and of museums themselves. What should be equally admired, though, and what I myself still find startling almost forty years after I first met him, was the quality of his knowledge, wide, deep, and esoteric. Here he is in 1982 on a work by Eric Orr, a member of California’s Light and Space movement like Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and others, but in Tom’s eyes different:

Blood Shadow was a ritual involving sympathetic magic, mingling the stream of Orr’s art with the ancient past. With this piece Orr began layering his work into a complex cultural archeology which, designed to free him from European art history, would ultimately restore him to it. Hereafter the Egyptian stratum of this archeology would surface frequently. Egyptian art, after all, was both eerily “Modern” and deeply concerned with the sense of negative presence, of the transition to the bodiless Prior which is, in the language of an Egyptian coffin text, “the universal primordial form of life.”

That Orr’s eye was focused on ancient Egypt was basic information: Blood Shadow, after all, a work in glass and human blood (Orr’s), was ultimately buried in the sand at Giza, near the pyramid of the pharaoh Menkaure, culminating a series of moonlit ceremonies on two continents. (Back then, every issue of Artforum, where Tom’s essay was published and I had recently begun work as an editor, was vetted by libel lawyers before publication; their comment here was something on the lines of “Please confirm that this bizarre ritual actually took place.”) But Tom wouldn’t have needed Orr to fill him in on the ancient world—his PhD was in classical philology (he had mastered Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit), and as a professor at Rice, in Houston, he taught on the history of religion among much else. Those introductions of “negative presence,” the “bodiless Prior,” and the Egyptian coffin are pure Tom. In January 1982, a few months before the Orr piece, Artforum had published an essay of his on Yves Klein in which Rosicrucianism, self-described as a distant descendant of Egyptian mysteries among others, had played a big role; Klein’s famous IKB (International Klein Blue), a paint color the artist custom-mixed and filed papers to patent, Tom read as incarnating the Rosicrucian principle of “Spirit-that-holds-all-things-dissolved-in-itself.” Klein had previously been seen in the United States as something of a clown—a “vaudevillian,” according to John Canaday in the New York Times in 1967, whose art was a form of “stuntsmanship.” His reframing in this country owes a good deal to Tom.

A classicist, a historian, a philosopher, an art critic, a mystic—when I was trying to schedule a phone call with Tom once, he told me he wouldn’t be able to talk to me in a given week because he’d have taken a vow of silence. I thought he was joking; he wasn’t.

A classicist, a historian, a philosopher, an art critic, a mystic—when I was trying to schedule a phone call with Tom once, he told me he wouldn’t be able to talk to me in a given week because he’d have taken a vow of silence. I thought he was joking; he wasn’t. So that was his demonstrated scope, but I wonder whether William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe had much sense of the writer they were dealing with when, in November of 1984, they read his evisceration of their lavish exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. They were proud of their show, understandably so: with a checklist of around 350 works, it compared modern and contemporary painting and sculpture with tribal objects from Africa, Oceania, and North America, an idea that others had pursued previously but never on so grand a scale. Attempting to demonstrate what they called “affinities” between modern and tribal object-makers, Rubin, the head of MoMA’s painting and sculpture department, and Varnedoe, a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts (and later Rubin’s successor at MoMA), had assembled a fabulous group of loans and a two-volume catalogue crammed with detailed scholarship. So when Tom wrote a feature-length pan that Ingrid Sischy, then Artforum’s editor, smartly put on the issue’s cover, they decided to take him on.

The result was a protracted series of exchanges on the letters page of Artforum in February and May of 1985, in which first Rubin and Varnedoe, then Rubin alone, took issue with Tom’s essay on both intellectual and factual grounds and Tom replied. A couple of years later, when Janet Malcolm profiled Ingrid in the New Yorker, she called part of this exchange—a dispute about the number of objects shown in a pair of vitrines at the Pompidou, Paris, between 1977 and around 1982—“one of the most excruciatingly particularized squabbles about a matter of doubtful significance ever published.” Malcolm’s knowledge of such squabbles being no doubt wider than mine, I can only defer; but that description underplays the drama of the letters, the repeated Gotcha’s! and No-you-don’t’s! that riveted Artforum’s readers and were, I suspect, a good part of what attracted the attention of the New Yorker. More important, though, was the simple spectacle of a critic standing up so publicly to Rubin and to MoMA, formidable embodiments of both personal and institutional authority; and more important still was the substance of Tom’s argument, which the need to restate three times—once in the review and twice later in the letters—only gave him the opportunity to clarify and refine.

“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art seems to have seemed within MoMA like a corrective to art history, an acknowledgment of the quality of the objects produced by tribal cultures. Tom saw it the other way around: modernism remained central in the exhibition while tribal objects orbited around it. He faulted MoMA deeply for its lack of interest in the context from which the tribal objects had emerged and the functions to which they had been put, with the result that they seemed to matter only for their relation to modern and contemporary art. By the time of his third essay, Tom was able to write, prophetically I think, “Our tribal view of art history as primarily or exclusively European or Eurocentric will become increasingly harmful as it cuts us off from the emerging Third World and isolates us from the global culture which already is in its early stages. We must have values that can include the rest of the world when the moment comes—and the moment is upon us.” If MoMA and museums generally are today attempting to become more ecumenical, the “Primitivism” debate was a crucial step on the way.

Damien Hirst's Reclining Woman on the cover of Gagosian Quarterly, Fall 2021

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Fall 2021

The Fall 2021 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Damien Hirst’s Reclining Woman (2011) on its cover.

Thomas Houseago, 2021. Photo: Amanda Demme

Thomas Houseago: Encountering Rodin

Thomas Houseago and Amélie Simier, director of the Musée Rodin, Paris, talk with Gagosian director Richard Calvocoressi about contemporary sculpture and its foundation in the radical forms of Auguste Rodin.

Andreas Gursky, Jonathan Ive, 2019, fine art print mounted on dibond, 64 1/2 × 50 ⅝ inches (163.7 × 128.5 cm). National Portrait Gallery, London, commissioned; made possible by the Outset Commission, supported by Scott Collins in partnership with Outset Contemporary Art Fund, 2019 © Andreas Gursky/VG BILD-KUNST, Bonn

Ive by Gursky: A Meeting of Minds

By exploring the conventions of past portraits of industrial designers and architects, Maria Morris Hambourg unpacks Andreas Gursky’s ingenious recent portrait of Apple designer Jony Ive to reveal its layered meanings.

Rick Lowe, Black Wall Street Journey #5, 2021, Acrylic and paper collage on canvas, 108 × 192 inches (274.3 × 487.7 cm)© Rick Lowe Studio. Photo: Thomas Dubrock

Notes on Social Works

Antwaun Sargent presents a collection of thoughts and images, gathered from conversations with artists, curators, architects, and educators, as well as essays, social media, and the news, that inform the exhibition Social Works. The essay serves as an introduction to the corresponding supplement guest edited by Sargent for the Summer 2021 issue of the Quarterly.

Doris Ammann, black-and-white photo

Doris Ammann

Larry Gagosian reflects on the incredible life and career of his friend Doris Ammann.

Hank Willis Thomas and Chitose Abe

Fashion and Art: Hank Willis Thomas and Chitose Abe

Artist Hank Willis Thomas and Chitose Abe, the creative director and founder of Sacai, speak with the Quarterly’s Wyatt Allgeier about their recent collaboration.

From left to right: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Elvira Dyangani Ose, and Sarah Cosulich

Leaders in the Arts: Italy Edition

We invited Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to select two outstanding arts professionals to join her in a conversation about their career trajectories, current projects, and goals for the future.

Alexander Calder poster for McGovern, 1972, lithograph

The Art History of Presidential Campaign Posters

Against the backdrop of the 2020 US presidential election, historian Hal Wert takes us through the artistic and political evolution of American campaign posters, from their origin in 1844 to the present. In an interview with Quarterly editor Gillian Jakab, Wert highlights an array of landmark posters and the artists who made them.

Joe Bradley’s studio, New York, 2018

Work in Progress
Joe Bradley

With preparations underway for his 2018 exhibition at Gagosian in London, Phyllis Tuchman visited the artist’s studio in Long Island City, New York, to learn more about this new body of work.

Andy Warhol cover design for the magazine Aspen 1, no. 3.

Artists’ Magazines

Gwen Allen recounts her discovery of cutting-edge artists’ magazines from the 1960s and 1970s and explores the roots and implications of these singular publications.

Willem de Kooning seated at Sidney Janis Gallery, 1959. Color photograph

There is Woman in the Landscapes: Willem de Kooning from 1959 to 1963

Lauren Mahony considers a critical four-year period in the painter’s career, examining the technical changes that occurred between his “abstract parkway landscapes” of the late 1950s and the “pastoral landscapes” that succeeded them, as well as the impact on his work of his impending move to Springs, New York.

Roe Ethridge, Oslo Grace at Willets Point, 2019, dye sublimation print on aluminum.

In Conversation
Roe Ethridge and Antwaun Sargent

From his early work for magazines in the 1990s to recent projects with the designer Telfar Clemens, Roe Ethridge has consistently challenged the distinctions between commercial and conceptual photography that long defined the medium. Antwaun Sargent recently caught up with him to discuss the moment that confirmed the artist’s understanding of the photographic image’s potential for boundary-hopping ubiquity in the contemporary era.