Art historian and writer Max J. Friedlander once said: "It’s easier to change your worldview than the way you hold your spoon.” Many artists I know, myself included, grew accustomed to seeing all the works of art at the Museum of Modern Art in their respective places—everyone had his or her own favorite painting or sculpture, installed more or less in perpetuity for the duration of William Rubin’s tenure—until Kirk Varnedoe became Rubin’s successor in 1988 as the chief curator of painting and sculpture. Everything we took for granted changed after his arrival.
Early on, Varnedoe demonstrated his commitment to viewing Modernism through the lens of contemporary art by initiating the important and highly discriminating Artist’s Choice series in which artists such as Scott Burton, Elizabeth Murray, Chuck Close, John Baldessari, and Ellsworth Kelly were invited to curate their own personal survey from the museum’s vast permanent collection. But Varnedoe’s most controversial and unforgettable moment was his landmark exhibit High and Low (1991), conceived and organized with Adam Gopnik, then the art critic for the New Yorker. High and Low was an attempt to decipher the complex and often ambivalent relationship between modern and contemporary art and popular culture. I remember at first being apprehensive about the elaborate display and the obvious connections proposed between, say, Picasso’s great collage with a cutout fragment from the newspaper Le Journal and Jeff Koons’s almost cynically commodified and impersonal bronze casts of real vacuum cleaners. But on my second and third visit, and after having read the essays in the accompanying catalogue, I realized then that High and Low was a beautiful, generous, and courageous undertaking. I suspect High and Low would not have occurred as a visually canny synthesis had Varnedoe not had an interest in marginal artists such as Gustave Caillebotte, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Eugène Jansson, and Duane Hanson. In 1984, Varnedoe received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship which allowed him to complete a book elaborating his introspective view of the history of modernism, A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern.
It took some time to fully understand Varnedoe’s encompassing vision. After his training with Albert Elsen (a classmate of William Rubin, both were students of Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University— Elsen wrote his dissertation on Rodin’s “Gates of Hell”, Rubin did his on Cézanne’s late work), Varnedoe began teaching at Columbia University and the Institute of Fine Arts at N.Y.U. During this period he managed to curate several exhibitions, including a Caillebotte retrospective for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 1976 and Northern Light: Realism and Symbolism in Scandinavian Painting for the Brooklyn Museum in 1982. Along with William Rubin, he helped organize the ambitious and idiosyncratic exhibit Primitivism in 1984, tracing the influence of so-called primitive cultures and their artifacts on Western artists from Gauguin to the present. As a guest curator at the Museum of Modern Art in 1986, he mounted the popular Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture & Design.
In addition to his reputation for eloquence as a lecturer on art and as writer with clear prose and deep erudition, Varnedoe’s two great attributes were his natural diplomatic temperament and his passionate understanding of art history as a living and evolving organism. His work at the Museum of Modern Art created a desperately needed bridge between the history of several phases of modernism and the bewilderingly diverse practices that characterize contemporary art. While mounting successful retrospectives of Cy Twombly (1994), Jasper Johns (1996), and Jackson Pollock (1998), which was co-curated by his former student Pepe Karmel, Varnedoe enlisted artist and writer Robert Storr as a senior curator whose intimate connection to the contemporary art scene helped further the museum’s commitment to contemporary art. In a way, Varnedoe’s tenure culminated in the great 20th century survey exhibitions in 2000, which presented MoMA’s collection, and the art of the 20th century and beyond, as a vast yet aesthetically coherent phenomenon.
When asked for a comment on Kirk Varnedoe, Pepe Karmel wrote:
“Kirk often quoted Robert Rauschenberg’s remark that he wanted to make art in the space between art and life. What was so inspiring about Kirk was that, when he talked about art, he made it seem that there really wasn’t any difference between art and life. All art, however abstract, was rooted in lived experience, and the point of art was not to escape from life but to make life better and richer. Kirk loved sports, and drew on them for metaphors (an artist would "take it into the end zone"). People in the art world sometimes found this a little odd, as if art were something too serious and recondite to be compared to a popular diversion like professional football. But for Kirk football was something complicated and thrilling. I watched the Super Bowl with him once. To me, it was just a bunch of guys in funny padded suits, running around at random, and trying to throw the ball before someone jumped them. To Kirk, I realized, it was a game of exquisite strategy and skill, full of subtle stratagems, daring feints, missed opportunities, and narrowly averted catastrophe—much like a Jackson Pollock, in other words. In a world of specialists, Kirk saw life—and art—whole.”
After he was diagnosed colon cancer and was struggling to find more time to focus on his writing, Varnedoe finally left the Modern for a position on the faculty at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. As one would expect from his professional discipline and courageous spirit, Varnedoe delivered his final efforts last spring: the distinguished Mellon Lectures on abstraction since 1945 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and at the MoMA in Queens he co-curated (with his successor, John Elderfield) a beautiful and revelatory exhibition about the working relationship between Picasso and Matisse. "You were encouraged to believe that you should look hard at paintings and that what you had to say about them would be worth while," Varnedoe stated, "which in a sense was a false hope, because many people had said thousands of things about these pictures before. But it was very solitary." Like many great scholars of previous generations, Varnedoe understood that the task of thinking and writing about art is to combine profound erudition with personal enthusiasm in an effort to break up conventional modes of perception and to make people see the world afresh.
Born in an old, distinguished family from Savannah, Ga in 1946, Varnedoe was the youngest of four children. His first love was for sport and he played quarterback on William College’s football team. Then took an art history class with Lane Faison Jr., which changed the entire course of his life. He was to become a remarkable individual who had an enormous appetite for art and life. Because of his democratic spirit and unique organizational skills, he could balance all of his work and interests without compromising his high standards of performance and intellectual integrity. Kirk Varnedoe changed the Modern’s thinking about art, and we have changed with him.
The members of the Brooklyn Rail salute Kirk Varnadoe and we extend our deep sympathy to his wife, the sculptor Elyn Zimmerman, and the rest of his family