Varnedoe’s Vision

Remembering an inspiring teacher, charismatic curator, fervent lecturer, and beloved colleague.

It is a curious fact that the Museum of Modern Art, devoted as it is to the history of modern art and preoccupied with its own role in that history, should have no standard account from its founding to the present. The only contenders are Russell Lynes’s Good Old Modern, a journalistic version of the story that stops in 1973, and recent books by a variety of authors on MoMA’s founder, Alfred H. Barr Jr., that understandably concentrate on the formative years. But with all due respect for Barr’s defining contributions and abiding influence, MoMA was not his creation alone, and its development since his retirement in 1967 has been the work of many men and women. When these missing chapters are eventually written—one hopes, by someone with a subtle, undogmatic feel for institutional, social, and cultural politics—the part played by Kirk Varnedoe will occupy a crucial place in the narrative.

Varnedoe came to the museum at a transforming moment in its evolution. Circumstances forced him to leave before that transition was complete, and after a long battle with cancer he died, on August 14, at the age of 57. But when MoMA celebrates its 75th anniversary next year with the opening of its new building on 53rd Street, his indelible mark will be upon it.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1946, Varnedoe attended the best schools—St. Andrews, Williams College, and Stanford University—and was lucky in his mentors. At Williams he discovered art history under the tutelage of Lane Faison Jr., the godfather of countless scholars, curators, and museum directors. As a graduate student at Stanford, he was taken under the wing of Albert Elsen, with whom he organized a major exhibition of Rodin’s drawings for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1972. Positions at Columbia University and the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University established his reputation as an inspiring teacher and fervent lecturer. Two of his protégés from the Institute, New Yorkeressayist Adam Gopnik and New York University art-history professor Pepe Karmel, would go on to collaborate with him on exhibitions, as he had done with Elsen. During this period Varnedoe also wrote occasional criticism for art magazines. It was in his capacity as a reviewer that he became acquainted first with the work of the post-Minimalist sculptor Elyn Zimmerman, and then with the artist. Their marriage, on October 8, 1983, and her creative activity reinforced his sense of the equilibrium between a historical approach to art and an alertness to the perspective of practitioners.

Meanwhile, the speaking skills Varnedoe honed in the classroom contributed to making him one of the most sought-after and best-known advocates for modern art. Addressing himself to the general public alternately besotted and put off by theoretical jargon and commercial hype, Varnedoe demonstrated that informed enthusiasm for art could be contagious, and he used his bully pulpit to persuade a broad and often skeptical audience that the art of their times was worthy of their trust and of the effort it takes to understand it. The reasons for Varnedoe’s faith in modern art’s enduring vitality were summarized in his 1989 book of essays, A Fine Disregard. In it he argued that art thrived in the imaginative breach rather than in the strict logical observance of any rules that might be written for it, effectively pitting him against conservatives who advocated eternal values and post-modernists who privileged formal or social structure over individual improvisation.

While still primarily an academic, Varnedoe organized a number of significant exhibitions. Among them were the characteristically various “Modern Portraits: The Self & Others” at Wildenstein Gallery in 1976, put together with students from the Institute of Fine Arts; a retrospective of the then-underrated Gustave Caillebotte at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 1976; and “Northern Light: Realism and Symbolism in Scandinavian Painting” at the Brooklyn Museum in 1982.

These projects, as well as his growing renown as a professor, brought Varnedoe to the attention of many senior people in the field, and his rapid ascent was crowned in 1982 by his being awarded one of the early MacArthur Fellowships. The same year his name appeared alongside that of MoMA’s long-reigning chief curator of painting and sculpture William Rubin, as co-organizer of “Primitivism in 20th Century Art,” a mammoth, complex, and hotly contested look at the relation between tribal arts and Modernism. Studded with remarkable works from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, the omnibus show traced their “influence” on Post-Impressionists such as Paul Gauguin, Fauves and Cubists such as André Derain and Pablo Picasso, and on to post-Minimalists such as Michelle Stuart and Nancy Graves. In 1986 Varnedoe returned to MoMA and revisited the turn-of-the-19th-century—notably non-Parisian—tendencies that had fascinated him in “Northern Light,” mounting “Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture and Design.” Among dazzling works by Klimt, Schiele, and the Wiener Werkstätte masters, the exhibition also featured a walk-in, sit-down Viennese café that, in its theatricality and populist appeal, broke precedent with the more austere exhibition practices to which the museum and many of its patrons were accustomed. A dozen years later, for his magisterial Jackson Pollock retrospective of 1998–99, Varnedoe followed the same impulse in re-creating the artist’s studio, on the one hand providing a didactic you-are-there scenario for the general public, but on the other hand creating a lightning rod for criticism from those for whom “spectacle” in the house of art was anathema.

When Rubin retired in 1990 and gave Varnedoe the nod to be his successor, it was widely presumed that the younger man’s energy and charisma would rejuvenate MoMA but that the basic story of Modernism that Rubin had inscribed into his hanging of the collection and in the priorities of his exhibition-and-acquisition program would hold constant. In short, it was assumed by both admirers and doubters, who regarded the heir apparent as if he were someone sent by central casting, that the transfer of power would perpetuate a reverence for the canonical figures of the Paris and New York schools and a cautiousness toward contemporary art. For Rubin that had boiled down to Frank Stella, Anthony Caro (the only postwar artists to whom he had consecrated major exhibitions under his own auspices—Stella got two retrospectives), and a handful of other mainstream figures. Against that background, Varnedoe’s thematic opener, “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” was a signal to traditionalists as well as long-standing critics of the Modern that he intended to set a different, more all-embracing and open-ended, course. In “High and Low” Picasso, Duchamp, and other older masters got their due, but they shared the limelight with Philip Guston and Jenny Holzer as well as with comics and other expressions of popular culture.

The public welcomed “High and Low,” but much of the critical community spurned it, some in articles that were unusually harsh and ad hominem. The fact that Varnedoe had risen rapidly through the ranks of the establishment, received frequent accolades and glittering prizes, was handsome, and wore good suits well, made him an easy target. That the show took on more than it could handle made him vulnerable on substantive grounds
; that it touched on postmodernist issues related to the media, social class, and the old-school high-Modernist distinction between art and mass culture incited polemics on the left and the right. What Varnedoe’s severest critics took altogether too much for granted, though, was the fact that for the first time in years someone at the top of the institutional pyramid had made a bold move to acknowledge the actual diversity of modern and contemporary art.

Varnedoe was clearly wounded by the intemperate nature of some of the attacks, but, within the museum, he accepted full responsibility for the show and invited colleagues to offer their own assessments of its flaws and strengths. Such candor set a new tone, and throughout his tenure he would continue to be forthright in his opinions and to expect comparable directness in return. There is little doubt, though, that the response to “High and Low” blunted Varnedoe’s efforts to break fresh ground by organizing sweeping thematic exhibitions. Until he took charge of the third cycle of the museum-wide MoMA 2000 series, he concentrated on one-person shows: Cy Twombly (1994), Jasper Johns (1996), and Pollock (1998). Whatever Varnedoe took on he pursued with passionate conviction. The Twombly exhibition was aimed at repositioning an expatriate American celebrated in Europe but still given short shrift here (he had a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney in 1979). In addition to believing in the artist, Varnedoe also identified with him as a fellow Southerner. In differing degrees he felt such a bond with Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, whose Bed(1955) was added to the collection as a gift from Leo Castelli early in Varnedoe’s tenure. One of Varnedoe’s unfulfilled ambitions was to write a book about the triad of Twombly, Johns, and Rauschenberg, who were linked not only by formative esthetic experience, as well as love and friendship, but also by their experience of the South. One can only hope that notes for this book and, perhaps, more-developed texts will eventually come to light, but it is a major loss that Varnedoe’s inherent feel for that cultural milieu will not be brought completely to bear on the interpretation of their lives and work.

The curatorial achievement of Varnedoe’s Johns and Pollock shows were predicated on an even more extraordinary feat of human will: both were realized after he had been diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. The physical stamina and mental concentration required to pull these projects off, especially while the museum was undergoing profound structural changes in the run-up to constructing a new building, were nothing less than heroic. All the while, experiments that Varnedoe had previously undertaken to rethink and rearrange the existing installations of the permanent collection were continued with increased zeal and ingenuity.

Signs that the hold of the old Modernist orthodoxies were loosening at MoMA were readily visible in these periodic rehangings. For example, it was Varnedoe who took Latin American art out of sidebar spaces such as the lobby and hallways and incorporated it into the main galleries where the historical narrative of modern art unfolded.

Varnedoe’s “Artist’s Choice” series, in which Scott Burton, Ellsworth Kelly, John Baldessari, Chuck Close, and Elizabeth Murray participated, was another such initiative. And when asked to allow the conceptual artist Sophie Calle to replace classic paintings on loan to other museums with text and image surrogates as a part of the show “DISLOCATIONS,” Varnedoe didn’t hesitate to agree to this unprecedented intervention. Despite his sense of showmanship—or perhaps precisely because he understood the upstaging power of intrusive exhibition enhancements—Varnedoe was reluctant to allow anything that was not art into the galleries. However, if it was a question of well-thought-out art challenging received ideas about art, it had his staunch and indispensable backing.

Varnedoe’s additions to the collection were in many cases dramatic and heavily publicized, starting with van Gogh’s Portrait of Joseph Roulin (1889) on through Picasso’s study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Dalí’s Retrospective Bust of a Woman (1933), Joseph Beuys’s Eurasia: Siberian Symphony 1963 (1966), James Rosenquist’s F-111 (1964–65), and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans(1962). Of course, there were many other important purchases and gifts to his credit. As chief curator of painting and sculpture, he oversaw the exhibition of major donations by patrons and trustees of the museum that had been set in motion by his predecessors, among them, those of David Rockefeller and Louise Smith. Overall, Varnedoe’s aim was to consolidate MoMA’s strengths in classic early Modernism and strategically add works where the museum’s holdings were relatively weak—as in the case of Beuys. He concentrated his primary efforts, however, on building its collection of work from the 1960s, principally Pop art—also including major works by Roy Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg—and abstraction, particulary works by Kelly, Twombly, and Richard Serra. It was much as Rubin, before him, had focused on Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s and its aftermath. What is less well known is that rather than dictating priorities to the department as a whole, Varnedoe encouraged other curators to go after works to which they were as strongly committed as he was to those he presented, whether or not his taste accorded with theirs. This resulted in acquisitions large and small that, with his support, significantly deepened and diversified MoMA’s collection of both modern and contemporary art.

In-house, Varnedoe opened other doors in the interest of broadening the scope of exhibitions and taking full advantage of available curatorial talent. When Lynn Zelevansky, now a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art but then a curatorial assistant, proposed an exhibition for the Projects series at MoMA that exceeded its space constraints, Varnedoe gave his support to enlarging the show—which became “Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties” (1995)—and locating it in the main ground-floor galleries. No one without curatorial ranking had, in memory, been given such an opportunity. Likewise, Varnedoe favored then-photography-department curator Sheryl Conkelton’s Annette Messager show, contributing from his side to breaking down the high wall between the departments of painting and sculpture and of photography. He also approved the collaboration between Zelevansky, who was by then working at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and MoMA assistant drawings curator Laura Hoptman (currently curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum of Art) in mounting a Yayoi Kusama retrospective in 1998. In short, a man often miscast as a pure exemplar of the “old boy” network put his weight behind the work of women artists and that of women curators. With Carolyn Lanchner, curator of painting and sculpture and organizer of many MoMA exhibitions, he also fostered the progress of Ann Umland, who began as a curatorial assistant for Varnedoe and Lanchner, and is now a curator in the department in her own right and one of museum’s most able historians.

Given his public stature and charismatic style, Varnedoe could easily have made the transition to museum director that many in his generation have done. Certainly he gave long, hard thought to the future of museums at a time and in a context where flash and expedience are often emphasized over esthetic substance. During the last year of his life he spoke with increased urgency about his faith in the intrinsic value of museums and his misgivings about the direction some were taking in terms that are remini
scent of Dwig
t Eisenhower’s valedictory remarks about the growth of the military-industrial complex. It was a general’s warning to other generals. But however much he involved himself in large social and cultural questions, what excited Varnedoe from the beginning and sustained him in the end was the contact with actual works of art. His unjaded belief that they were an infinite source of new experience and fresh thoughts was the ultimate criterion for all the decisions he made.

In all these ways a pivotal, hence controversial, figure, Varnedoe was a frequently misunderstood person whose enormous drive and commanding presence were matched by an instinctive diffidence that was sometimes mistaken for aloofness. In private, however, he was plainspoken, fair-minded, willing to accept disagreement, loyal when it cost him something to be so, and, in his own way, genuinely warm. In the final reckoning, he was a man of great ability and great privilege who learned through professional crisis and terrible physical suffering the dignity required of people to whom much is given and from whom much is expected and all is abruptly taken away. His legacy consists of decisive participation in a process of change guided by the principle that a great museum keep faith with its past without being captive to it, a list of books and exhibitions that will be vigorously debated and vividly recalled for years to come, and, for those lucky to have worked with him, the memory of that grace in adversity.

Robert Storr is the Rosalee Solow Professor of Modern Art at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. A painter and writer, he was hired by Kirk Varnedoe in 1990 as a curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, and he stepped down as senior curator in that department in 2002. His Max Beckmann retrospective was recently on view at MoMA QNS, and he is organizing an Elizabeth Murray retrospective that will be seen in the new MoMA in late 2005.

© 2019 ARTnews Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved. ARTnews® is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

[add_to_cart item="102-09" showprice="no"]