NEW YORK — 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.
And Mr. McEvilley, who died March 2 at 73, was not done. 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 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, and in the history of religion and philosophy.
In the lingering aftermath 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.