Thomas McEvilley

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Thomas McEvilley
Born(1939-07-13)13 July 1939
Died2 March 2013(2013-03-02) (aged 73)
New York City, New York, United States
Spouse(s)Marion McEvilley, Maura Sheehan, Joyce Burstein
Academic background
Alma materUniversity of Cincinnati (B.A., Ph.D.)
University of Washington (M.A.)
Academic work
InstitutionsRice University
School of Visual Arts
Yale University
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Main interestsPhilology, art criticism, linguistics, history
Notable works

Thomas McEvilley (/məkˈɛvəli/; July 13, 1939 – March 2, 2013) was an American art critic, poet, novelist, and scholar. He was a Distinguished Lecturer in Art History at Rice University[1] and founder and former chair of the Department of Art Criticism and Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.[2]


McEvilley was born in Cincinnati. He studied Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and classical philosophy in the classics programs of the University of Cincinnati[1] where he received a B.A., and the University of Washington, where he received an M.A.[3] He then returned to Cincinnati, where he received a Ph.D. in classical philology. He also retained a strong interest in modern art, reinforced by the artists of his acquaintance.

In 1969, McEvilley joined the faculty of Rice University, where he spent the better part of his teaching career.[4] He was a visiting professor at Yale University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. He taught numerous courses in Greek and Indian culture, history of religion and philosophy. In 2008 he retired from teaching after 41 years, residing in New York City and in upstate New York in the Catskills.

He received numerous awards, including the Semple Prize at the University of Cincinnati, a National Endowment for the Arts Critics grant, a Fulbright fellowship in 1993, an NEA critic’s grant, and the Frank Jewett Mather Award (1993) for Distinction in Art Criticism from the College Art Association.[4][5]

McEvilley was a contributing editor of Artforum and editor in chief of Contemporanea.[3]

McEvilley died on March 2, 2013, of complications from cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He was 73. He is survived by his wife, the artist Joyce Burstein; two sons from a former marriage, Thomas and Monte; a sister, Ellen M. Griffin; and two grandchildren. His son Alexander predeceased him. He was married twice earlier; both marriages ended in divorce.[6]


McEvilley was an expert in the fields of Greek and Indian culture, history of religion and philosophy, and art. He published several books and hundreds of scholarly monographs, articles, catalog essays, and reviews on early Greek and Indian poetry, philosophy, and religion as well as on contemporary art and culture. [1][2][4]

Art and Otherness[edit]

In his 1992 book Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity, McEvilley collected and revised twelve essays from the 1980s in the midst of the culture wars, the roiling debate regarding the predominance of white, male, Western culture in academia and visual art, and the need for that supremacy to be challenged and opened up to other points of view. McEvilley did this in pointed fashion in "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief," his influential jeremiad against the underlying assumptions that framed the Museum of Modern Art's 1984 exhibition Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art.[7]

Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-Modern Era[edit]

In his 1993 book The Exile’s Return: Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-Modern Era, McEvilley made an important contribution to the late twentieth century "death of painting" debate. He noted that after two decades of decline in importance as a medium, painting revived around 1980. In its return from exile, painting assumed a new theoretical basis in postmodern cultural theory, together with a new kind of self-awareness and interest in its own limitations.

Heads It's Form, Tails It's Not Content[edit]

In the article "Heads it's Form, Tails it's not Content" McEvilley describes a theoretical framework for the formalist project presented by postwar critics such as Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried.[8] He argued that formalist ideas are rooted in Neoplatonism and as such deal with the problem of content by claiming that content is embedded within form. Formalism is based on a linguistic model that Claude Lévi-Strauss argued is given content through the unconscious. In adopting a formalist approach, a critic cannot ignore the content that accompanies every deployment of form.

Sculpture in the Age of Doubt[edit]

In the book Sculpture in the Age of Doubt (1999), McEvilley analyzes the intellectual issues surrounding the postmodern movement in the course of 20th-century sculpture.

The Shape of Ancient Thought[edit]

In The Shape of Ancient Thought, McEvilley explores the foundations of Western civilization. He argues that today's Western world must be considered the product of both Greek and Indian thought, both Western philosophy and Eastern philosophies. He shows how trade, imperialism and currents of migration allowed cultural philosophies to intermingle freely throughout India, Egypt, Greece and the ancient Near East. This book spans thirty years of McEvilley's research, from 1970 to 2000.[9]

See also[edit]

This section gives an overview of topics on which McEvilley has written.

Selected publications[edit]

  • 1964, Party Going (First Novel)
  • 1987, North of Yesterday (a Menippean Satire)
  • 1991, Art and Discontent
  • 1992, Art and Otherness
  • 1993, Fusion: West African Artists at the Venice Biennale
  • 1993, The Exile’s Return: Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-Modern Era
  • 1994, Der Erste Akt
  • 1996, Capacity: History, the World, and the Self in Contemporary Art and Criticism (with G. Roger Denson)
  • 1999, Sculpture in the Age of Doubt
  • 2002, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies
  • 2007, The Triumph of Anti-Art
  • 2008, Sappho
  • 2010, Art, Love, Friendship: Marina Abramović and Ulay, Together & Apart
  • 2010, Yves the Provocateur: Yves Klein and Twentieth-Century Art
  • 2013, Charles Dellschau's Aporetic Archive
  • 2014, The Arimaspia (Novel, a Menippean Satire)
  • Heads It’s Form, Tails It’s Not Content; Artforum November 1982
  • On the Manner of Addressing Clouds; Artforum Summer 1984
  • The Monochrome Icon
  • I Am” Is a Vain Thought
  • Art History or Sacred History?
  • Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief:‘Primitivism In Twentieth-Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art; Artforum November 1984.
  • The Selfhood of the Other
  • Another Alphabet: The Work of Marcel Broodthaers
  • History, Quality, Globalism
  • Penelope’s Night Work: Negative Thinking in Greek Philosophy
  • Arrivederci, Venice: The Third World Biennials; Artforum November 1993
  • The Tomb of the Zombie
  • Paul McCarthy: Performance and Video Works: the Layering (2008)
  • Here Comes Everybody

Beyond the Pale, Art and Artists at the Edge of Consensus, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 1994 Africus: Johannesburg Biennale, exhib. cat., Transnational Metropolitan Council, 1995 issue 4/5, 1995, of the magazine neue bildende kunst Ekbatana exhib. cat., Images of the World, Nikolaj Exhibition Space. Copenhagen, 2000

  • James Lee Byars and the Atmosphere of Question; Artforum Summer 1981
  • Charles Dellschau: A Higher Vision Is A Basic Demand Of Poetry.

Thomas McEvilley wrote monographs on Yves Klein (1982), Pat Steir, Leon Golub (1993), Jannis Kounellis (1986), James Croak (1999), Dennis Oppenheim, Anselm Kiefer, Dove Bradshaw (2004), Bert Long (2016).

  • 44 Four Line Poems (1982)
  • 17 Ancient Poems (2013)


  1. ^ a b c Thomas McEvilley, G. Roger Denson (1996), Capacity: : History, the World, and the Self in Contemporary Art and Criticism. Routledge. ISBN 90-5701-051-8: This information is given on the backpage of this book.
  2. ^ a b McPherson & Company Publishers Archived 2006-10-20 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ a b School of VISUAL ARTS, graduate programs 2007-2008 Archived 2008-08-28 at the Wayback Machine, Retrieved 4 April 2008.
  4. ^ a b c Thomas McEvilley (2004). "Art and Cognition.". Slought Foundation Online Content. 11 December 2004, retrieved 4 April 2008
  5. ^ "Awards". The College Art Association. Retrieved 11 October 2010.
  6. ^ Cotter, Holland (30 March 2013). "Thomas McEvilley, Critic and Defender of Non-Western Art, Dies at 73". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 April 2013.
  7. ^ "Art Criticism That Made a Difference". 3 May 2013.
  8. ^ Thomas McEvilley (1996), "Heads It's Form, Tails It's Not Content", in: Artforum 21.3 ( Nov.1982) : 50-61. Later collected in: Capacity: The History, the World, and the Self in Contemporary Art and Criticism, by Thomas McEvilley and G. Roger Denson. Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group. ISBN 90-5701-051-8. Page 22-44.
  9. ^ McEvilley, Thomas (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought. Allworth Communications. ISBN 1-58115-203-5.

External links[edit]