Thomas McEvilley

When I was a young painter, I didn’t only read Artforum, I studied it. I raced through the articles, I trudged through them. I was inspired, I was baffled. Combing through the reviews, I tried to grasp the parameters of a world I wanted to join. Earth art, conceptual art, installation and performance art, Arte Povera, neo expressionism, and the transavantgarde – and I – were circling the beast in the center of the room, the intractable problem of formalism.

Then something changed.

Looking back thirty years, I see myself virtually clutching at the Artforum’s each month to see if a certain name was on the cover or in the index. The writing was lucid, the argument clear and direct; someone was blowing the lid off and exposing the whole shebang. What about feeling? what about soul, what about love, what about content, symbols, what about the fact that cultures interact – these were some of the questions that Thomas McEvilley was laying out. I felt like he was writing for me.

I loved this mystery man, whom I pictured as a tall, lanky Irishman with grizzled hair and a stoop. It’s hard to write about him without a catch in my throat and my heartbeat picking up: he is gone. I’m flooded with images and impressions of the man I so admired, who became my dear friend. His voice is in my ear.

I came across McEvilley’s writing about halfway through my 23-year sojourn in Rome. My workroom was in a sort of tower, called an altana, above my apartment near Campo dei Fiori. Through the window in front of me I could see across the rooftops and terraces directly to the equestrian statue of Garibaldi on the Janiculum hill; through the window to my left were the angels on chariots and umbrella pines of piazza Venezia; to the right the view reached all the way to the antennas on Monte Mario.

At noon each day the big dull BOOM from the cannon on the Gianicolo circumscribed the bowl of the ancient city. Everyone paused for a second: Middi’. Monte Mario and the Aurelia held possibilities of travel to the north, but to the south the world dropped off at the horizon beyond the pines. I always imagined the mail came from that direction, from beyond that bright line. Utility bills might drop into my box in the earthy courtyard seven stories below but real news from the outside came right in through the window. That’s where I got rare, light blue tissue paper letters, an occasional postcard and ARTFORUM.

Hard as it may be to believe, in those years, let’s say mid 70’s to mid 80’s, the American Academy in Rome was a pain-in-the-neck place to go. The atmosphere was both rarefied and cliquish. One time, for example, I walked there with my little boy. Someone appeared to tell us that children were not allowed in the courtyard. We are very quiet; I just want to show it to him, I said. No. The Fellows mostly kept to themselves, didn’t go into the centro storico except on their special tours to see something marvelous that we inhabitants knew about ALREADY. However, the yearly parties were lavish and of course a wonderful poet or a great artist would be there.

Someone told me that Thomas McEvilley was coming to the Academy to give a talk.

There was the introduction at the lectern. My imagined McEvilley was transformed into a slight man with blond hair to his shoulders and a short beard. The man was relaxed, friendly and funny, leading us through centuries of art history, making a case. I glanced around. Everyone looked spellbound. Thomas McEvilley had a beautiful, mellow voice that he used almost like singing to lift or deepen his words.

Overcoming my shyness, for the first time in my life I stood by the aisle to congratulate a speaker. He stopped and turned to me. “You were wearing a green cardigan in the morning”, he said, “then this afternoon you had a blue coat that you pulled up to your chin. You must have been cold.” Thomas McEvilley was holding both my hands, smiling into my face. He was only slightly taller than me, “like a cross between General Custer and Wild Bill Hickok”, I thought. My hero-worship retreated. This was someone new.

“I want you to come to a party tonight, we’ll be near the piazza del Popolo”, he was saying. People were mobbing him. He was holding up a line.

For the fourth time that day I walked the distance between my place on Vicolo dei Bovari and the American Academy. Through the Campo, across Ponte Sisto, up the hill to the Gianicolo – using the shortcut stairway – to the American Academy on Viale Massini – and back – up the 87 stairs to the door of my apartment. I cooked dinner for my son, explained I had to go out, went down to the courtyard, got on my bike and went to meet Thomas.

How can I describe our friendship? I felt full of light and happy with him; he laughed and gossiped and took an interest in everything about me.

He met my son, gave me advice – I complained I didn’t know how to talk to Luca. He was brilliant; he was failing school. I coaxed, I nagged, I hired tutors: Luca was pleasant and did what he wanted.

“He is an adolescent: ask about what interests him!” Thomas said, and showed me, sitting across from him and his pals on the couch. “What do the rips on your trousers mean? what music are you listening to these days? So you like going to the park,” and so on, leaning close, pointing and listening.

I worried about going out of an evening, leaving my son alone again. “Let’s go ask him,” was Thomas’s response. Luca was delighted. “Children love for their adults to have a mythical life out of their reach.” Wherever Luca goes to this day he carries with him a very small box of poetry that Tom gave him. We had begun to call him Tom.

In the first days in Rome Tom came to the studio, advised me on parenting, ate at the house, slept in my altana room. We argued about art; we agreed on art.

“You never told me what you thought about my work”, I complained. He seemed taken aback. “I saw everything, I should have told you! He gathered himself and pronounced, “I looked at your very large double painting and – it – creamed – all – over – my – FACE,” he said, pronouncing each word with emphasis, wagging his head back and forth. He had a look of mixed dismay and wonder. I’d been in Italy since I was a teenager. I didn’t know what he meant, neither his words nor his expression; even to guess flustered me.

I put together a dinner for Tom and a few friends. Alberto Moravia was there; Tom gave him his new book, North of Yesterday. Moravia opened the book, examined the colophon and the spine, the paper and the type. He turned it over in his large, long-fingered hands, “Nice book, I wish you luck,” he said, with his wolfish grin. I was afraid Tom would be disappointed not to get more

of a critical comment from the famous Italian author, but he had watched the old man keenly. “No, that’s the craft,” he said, “I loved that Alberto examined the craft of the object itself.
When we made the book for Eric Orr fine Swedish workmen made the mud balls to insert. Fine Swedish workmen.”

Perhaps it was through Moravia that I introduced Tom to people who were starting an art magazine. They needed someone, someone special, to be the director. Well, I think I may know just the man, if he’ll agree. We all met in a gorgeous room near the Piazza Venezia. Frescoes, high ceilings, tall windows with views over the Victor Emmanuel, languid aristocrats, the lot. In short order the deal was made: Thomas McEvilley became the Editor in Chief. For five minutes I was a power broker. Of course, a couple of years went by before the whole thing was up and running – this was Italy – nonetheless I think Thomas enjoyed it. Sometimes he called me to ask, “Who ARE these people?”

We met in Madrid. We agreed Goya was misunderstood: he’d loved his royalty, covered his homely people in jewels, what else to do with a human dropped into a destiny that required worship?

Once, just resting, as we did for long stretches on a visit, I asked him, “Have you ever noticed the four letters in the middle of your name?” “Every day throughout childhood I worried about it,” he answered. Now? Now, I accept it.

We met in London in the vast, busy, depressing hotel lobby, a combination Las Vegas and smelly country pub. “How was your trip!?” I asked. “My trip?” Tom looked puzzled. We never talked about everyday occurrences like weather. He had no idea.

To land in London had been like coming in on the back of a goose. It was a hurricane. The plane veered one way, then the other, bumped down, up, down, then took a long skid on the slippery runway. Riding the bus out of the airport there were overturned trucks all over the roads, trees blowing wildly. The sky was dark gray. Outside the hotel it was still pelting, the wind dashed sheets of rain sideways onto the glass.

“There’s a football game!” Tom said solemnly. I stayed rooted to the spot. “I’ll teach you the game.” As usual with people who claim to teach the game all you get is the beginning of a sentence then a groan or a shout. “So we are in favor of touchdowns and passes,” I said, after a while. “Exactly, touchdowns and passes.” Tom seemed to find the analysis profound. The wine, the pot. It was time to turn the topic to Anthony and Cleopatra. We had a big fight, ending with my stamping out with, “So I suppose you think that Hellenistic art was IMPROVED with the influence of Rome!” to which tired Tom said, “Yes.” With that the proverbial scales fell. What I’d been hoping but not believing was not only possible, it was a fact. It was not a tragic degradation, it was civilizations learning and blending; it was the way of the world and the history of art.

In many cities the debate went raging on in magazines, in universities, in museums. Between us it was perhaps more like a duet. Challenge, argue, agree, relief. Do you believe in progress? Tom hated the word. What about first encounters with “lost tribes”? A tough one, no answer.

Years were ticking by. My son was more disorganized, his room a mess, the piano unopened, sports abandoned. His life narrowed to spending time with his friends or alone in his room, unwilling to study. Maybe it was being a teenager? But his friends were moving up through the grades in school and he was left behind. Elaborate diagrams and writing appeared on the walls

of his room. He lost weight. The pediatrician thought it would do him good to go away, study in the States. It’s a phase, he said, nothing is the matter with him. I had terrible misgivings, more: I suspected something was deeply wrong – but hope springs eternal and so on. I decided to enroll him in a summer school in New England, near Grandpa. Maybe we could move there for a time. As I attempted to pack up the apartment we’d live in for over eighteen years, Luca set out for New York. Tom insisted: he’d meet him at JFK.

There were no cellphones, no emails. The hours dragged – but they would! New York is six hours behind. Late, Rome time, I got a collect call from Luca: “Thomas is not here! I waited and waited,” he sobbed. “Where are you?” “I’m sitting by a counter at Alitalia, a nice lady paged him! He’s nowhere.”

A few minutes later Tom called. “I can’t find him. I’m looking all over the place.” They never did meet at the airport that day.

It was characteristic of Tom to call out of the blue, finding me in odd places. For example, I was borrowing an apartment on the upper West Side on one of my yearly trips to New York. My friend came into the city one day to pick up mail. “You have a few messages on the phone,” he told me, “Watch out for that Garrison Keillor character.” Who is that? Who IS that? “Oh, never mind, a radio personality.” (another twenty years passed before I ever knew who Garrison Keillor was. Unfairly – for later I loved Keillor’s genius – I really resented the comment. A radio announcer, indeed!) The voice on the answering machine was Tom’s. He always signed off, “I love you, Donna…” in a… da da-da DA da… singsong.

My father answered the phone when Tom found me visiting my parents in Boston. I couldn’t believe it. He’d charmed my father in two minutes flat, made him a kind of kindred spirit. When I got on he said, “I am about to go into my six-month darkness.” Like Eurydice?” I asked. “like Persephone”, he corrected. He sounded mournful. “Is it really so bad?” “Almost. I will be in Houston for six months. I will be cut off.” I promised to visit him there.

A couple of times Tom called me from California. “I’m standing in a redwood forest.” I heard that as “I’m standing in a redwood tree”, picturing a phone booth nestled inside a massive trunk. “Sure”, I said, to go along with the joke. “No, really. I’m in retreat. I’ll be in meditation. This is a place I come periodically. No liquor, no contact with the outside world. I thought I’d let you know, not to worry when you don’t hear from me.” Later, I asked if it had been difficult to go without drinking. “No no, it is always easy.” he said.

We had the same birthday, July 13th, a day to call. It’s your birthday. Happy birthday. I love you, Donna. Da dada da da…
He called the house in Tuscany. “Thomas here…”

In Venice we had tea with James Lee Byars, courtly, polite, who gave me a triangle of black silk meant to drape over the pubis of a golden goddess – that I still have in my drawer. Tom truly loved James Lee: he drew “V”’s in the water with his motorboats on the grand canal, he made gold foil-covered rooms, witty, wise installations and was his pal. When James Lee was ill and dying Tom devotedly accompanied him to Egypt, aided him in the rituals he devised and carried out his wishes as best he could. For long hours I listened to Tom’s descriptions of his friend’s dying and death. He was very agitated about it, stricken. Please dictate this, I urged. I’d never remember, will you? He promised to record his narration of the story of James Lee’s death.

I remember this part:
“On his last night James Lee was calmer,” Tom said. “He was in sight of the great pyramid, we chatted in his room. I went to get something and as I walked back along the corridor was met by the nurse, a man I’d come to know. Your friend has died, he said. In those countries, as in our culture – but there more – great value is placed on the dying man’s last words. ‘What did he say?’ I asked. ‘Where is my toothbrush?’ Where is my toothbrush, can you beat it?” Tom said, putting his hands up as if trying to shake loose some wisdom from the words despite his incredulity at the commonplace phrase.

Once or twice a year I was summoned to visit Tom at his apartment. Apartment 12E, like Edward, he said. (was it 12? It sure was ‘E’, like Edward).

Usually he was in some kind of bathrobe, barefoot, or in an old old shirt. He sometimes had white wine in the fridge for me. I was always hungry; he rarely ate. We sat on the couch, talked things over. He sang a Schumann lieder in German.

A famous, spectacular painting by Julian Schnabel hung in Tom’s bedroom. Dark, a drooping shape suggests a figure in mourning, letters spell out: ALEXANDER. I’d always imagined it was an homage to Alexander the Great. No, it was for Thomas’s lost son, Alexander, who had died. “My beautiful, perfect son.” he said. When he spoke of his other two, he always said, “my surviving two sons”.

My son had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years, then in halfway houses or shelters. I grieved that schizophrenia had taken him from me. I’d never know who he might have been or have again who he was, the happy, bright boy. I mentioned one day that I felt I’d lost my son, too.

In profound courtesy and with the saddest delicacy Tom answered, “But you can TOUCH your son.” I’ve been forever shamed and sorry both. Tom’s depthless grief, my unspeakable loss.

When I moved to California with my husband I assumed that Tom would always be there, with the sort of infantile belief we can unconsciously subscribe to – that all will stay as it was in our absence. For years we’d had a friendship that picked up where we were no matter the time away, that could remain a steady background assumption. However, I sensed that he was becoming more reclusive. I was quieter too, in the studio all the time. We each had developed different domestic lives than we used to have.

Back east, alone in the house in Kinderhook, he kept coming to mind. I looked for him in Manhattan, at the schools where he’d taught. Finally I found him. “But you knew I had this place in Stoneridge, my schoolhouse.” Wow, that was a long time ago, back when for me such a name was as obscure as a village in Ecuador. He was hoarse, tired, vague. “Yes, Donna, call again.” He was leaving. I put down the phone and as if he went through the room, I knew he was going away.