A Fine Disregard

By changing the rules, Kirk Varnedoe elevated the art world

"Though modern art has often dreamed of a closed society, it can function only in an open one."

—Kirk Varnedoe, A Fine Disregard

In college, most of us are too self-conscious and too anxious about our own uncertain fortunes to make accurate judgments of our peers. We're attracted to style without substance, often to individuals with neither — especially if a deadly jump shot or a famous family is part of the package.

The hardest thing of all, when you're a boy — it was a single-sex New England college I attended — is to predict which of your contemporaries will become men who make genuine, lasting contributions to something greater than the alumni fund. Of the men I knew at Williams College, only two have been asked to come back and deliver the commencement address. One was a blowhard opportunist who achieved high office in Washington by endearing himself to right-wing politicians, and financial success as the author of lowbrow bestsellers urging Americans to tone up their morals. Eventually he squandered most of his money and all of his political capital as a compulsive high-rolling gambler, the kind of mega-sucker casinos milk solicitously in private rooms.

The other commencement speaker was a much more interesting case. The 1994 speaker was Kirk Varnedoe, '67, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art and ultimately the first art historian ever appointed to Princeton's august Institute for Advanced Study, which once housed Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. When he died of cancer last summer at 57, he was hailed as one of the most original and influential thinkers of his generation.

I knew him in triumph and also earlier, in a larval form. One Friday night in the fall of my junior year I found myself — uncharacteristically — at a football pep rally with a towering bonfire and large posters foretelling the mayhem that the home eleven would soon inflict on Amherst. I noticed that the artwork on these posters was a great improvement over last year's, and asked if anyone knew who the artist might have been.

"Sophomore named Varnedoe," someone replied. "He's a football player — lineman. A Southerner."

That was the first time I heard the name. On the Sunday after the last football game, while boys with thick necks and buzz cuts, liberated from training, stalked the campus in various stages of alcohol poisoning, I was in bed at noon trying to sleep through a certain hangover. There was a rough knock on the door and two imposing figures hovered over my bed: the larger one was an ex-Marine noncom named Westy Saltonstall and the other — I rubbed my eyes and reached for my bifocals — appeared to be wearing an entire suit, jacket and pants, of cotton printed with Budweiser labels.

"Crowther," croaked Saltonstall, "get dressed, you maggot, we're going to Cozy's. You know Kirk Varnedoe?"

Saltonstall, four beers into his Parris Island persona, was not a force I ever chose to resist. If not the biggest, he was surely the oldest man on campus, and his family had held half the first-class tickets on the Mayflower, or so we provincials believed. I pulled on my jeans while the kid in the Bud suit grinned at me. Did Kirk Varnedoe make a vivid first impression? Well, his suit did. Drinking was ritualized at Williams, to a degree that makes me cringe today. Drinking uniforms and accessories were not uncommon. One clown in KA wore a horned Viking helmet, like Hagar the Horrible in the comics; I myself owned a hard hat with my name stenciled on it, from a summer job in the steel mills. Even so, the Bud suit was a statement. I guess Kirk was saying, "I'm from Savannah, where people party seriously, whether you Yankees know it or not."

Those who dressed to drink often overplayed their roles, in my opinion, but this sophomore had a nice, recognizably Southern reserve about him. After all these years I thought I might have imagined the suit — a drinker's hallucination. But among Kirk's many obituaries last summer I found the same suit mentioned by Marcia Vetrocq, who knew him in graduate school at Stanford. I wonder who's wearing it now. It was a limited secret that Varnedoe, by Williams standards, was a drinker of no epic capacity who sometimes suffered grievously for weekend excesses. Another secret I can guess at, because it was my secret, too. The part of Williams we inhabited held hard work and serious study in serious contempt, so our academic enthusiasms and best grades remained carefully concealed from many of our friends.

Varnedoe must have been taking in something besides liquid calories at Williams, because six years later he had a Ph.D in art history and was already an acknowledged expert on Rodin. He taught at Columbia and NYU and at 38 won a MacArthur "genius" grant, an honor that at least symbolically left the rest of us far behind. At 42 — a professor with no museum experience — he was named curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. It was, and is, the most influential job in the fluid, insular, fiercely contentious world of modern art. Just two decades past his last Amherst game, the lineman from Savannah was sitting in the chair where the most critical decisions in his profession are made — "the conscientious, continuous, resolute distinction of quality from mediocrity," according to his Olympian predecessor Alfred Barr. The Modern and its chief curator serve the American art establishment as a kind of aesthetic Supreme Court, and most of their rulings are beyond appeal.

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