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.

This seat of power was the culmination of a spectacular rise, and Varnedoe gave every appearance of having been born for the job. With his rough-sketched Barrymore profile, his Low Country manners and the Italian suits that somewhere replaced his Bud jacket — and his stylish, talented wife, the sculptor Elyn Zimmerman — he added a glamour that was brand new to the museum trade, and catnip to the celebrity-hungry tabloids that patrol Manhattan society.

Outside New York and the cloistered art world, the name Varnedoe might not be a household word. None of his 18 books can be purchased in airports. But among artists and art professionals, his was a presence you could compare only to Tiger Woods or Russell Crowe. When he delivered the Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery in 2003, not long before he died, the museum was forced to rig extra auditoriums with audio relays. The lines wouldn't have been longer if Picasso had come back from the dead to sign autographs. The Georgia boy was the closest thing to a rock star that art history has ever produced.

Marcia Vetrocq, his friend at Stanford, remembered him in just such an aura — "a motorcycle-riding rock star, impossibly handsome in a sea of sun-deprived academics."

"Unfortunately for us in the art world," Edward Goldman eulogized on NPR, "there is no heir apparent to his unique brand of magic."

We were all proud of Varnedoe, but of course we were amazed. Neither the talent nor the glamour had been readily apparent at school. His trademark rendition of the scabrous 58-verse rugby ballad "Eskimo Nell" provoked a near-incident on a flight to London, according to his teammates on the Williams College Rugby Club. They offered a consensus: "Anyone who knew Kirk in the '60s would find it hard to believe that he is now so well respected."

What do we remember? Obviously he was thoughtful, cut from different cloth than the guy with the Viking helmet. He'd give you this loopy grin, but if you paid attention you could see that something else was happening with his eyes. Alert, he was. Curious, aware. But an alpha intellectual and A-list celebrity, a sex symbol for the girls of Mensa? Come on. As his brother Sam said about the young Kirk in his eulogy, "The kid was bright, fun and engaging, but he wasn't remarkable."

Some inevitable connection between the boy and the man has always been a leap of faith for biographers, a bridge of suggestion where insight and scholarship fail. Modern celebrity is much complicated by the media and the combustible cult of celebrity itself. "The spotlight hit the boy," Simon and Garfunkel sing — in another context — "and he flew away." Varnedoe was puzzled by his own image. You don't study art history to become rich and famous; it isn't like buying a guitar and a spangled body suit and driving to Nashville. Kirk had a comical response when the New York City gossip kittens labeled him "a hunk" and "a dreamboat." He looked in the mirror.

"If the definition of beauty is symmetry, this ain't it," he told his old Savannah friend Albert Scardino. "My face is skewed to the right because my jaw juts out one way and my forehead is out of balance and my ears don't match and I have all these moles all over the place."

The whole was more photogenic than the sum of its parts. But aside from the occasional photograph at a black-tie function, surrounded by famous faces, the man we knew at Williams seemed essentially unchanged. (Though his hair, by my rural standards, got a little too spiky for a while in the '90s.) He was loyal to a fault. When he delivered the commencement address at Williams, he might have quoted Alfred Barr, Clement Greenberg or some such oracle of modern art. Instead he quoted me, from a reactionary pro-drinking essay, "The Night People," that I'd published in the Williams Record as my parting shot. When Varnedoe organized his first major exhibition at the Modern, the controversial High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, many art critics were brutally dismissive — but none of them noted that he'd commissioned the show's video guide from an old rugby buddy who was down on his luck.

He kept up with people, and if the old crowd never seemed to resent his conspicuous success — as they sometimes resented classmates who became corporate overlords — it was partly because he cut a prominent figure in a field they scarcely understood. For most of us, The Great Varnedoe was just an excellent adventure we could share vicariously.

This tendency to exempt him from envy was not shared by the art community, never known for its easygoing magnanimity. Kirk was a flashy, well-connected outsider who never earned his stripes in the curatorial boot camps, and the intramural sniping commenced even before he was installed at the Modern. One bone of fierce contention was an ad for Barney's men's store, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, with a mugging Varnedoe looking suave and surly in a suit by Ermenegildo Zegna. A neglected footnote was that his modeling fee went to New York's Coalition for the Homeless.

By the time High and Low went up, in 1990, the wolves were circling and salivating.

"A textbook case for the maxim that an exhibition top-heavy in masterpieces can still be a disaster," sniffed Roberta Smith of The New York Times, a special enemy of the curator she chose to see, at the time, as a presumptuous South Georgia playboy. Varnedoe's retrospectives for the Southern-born painters Cy Twombly (1994) and Jasper Johns (1996) were more successful with the highbrow critics. But the ad hominem backbiting never truly abated until the announcement in 1996 that he was being treated for advanced colon cancer.

That's New York for you. According to Robert Storr, his colleague at the Modern, Varnedoe was "clearly wounded by the intemperate nature of some of the attacks." If so, they weren't wounds he licked in public. We'd been out of touch after I left New York — though he kept sending me invitations to openings — but I began to see Kirk more often in the '90s. The meanness he had provoked was a mystery to me, just as it was a mystery why all other museum curators were invisible scholars and Kirk was like Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. It was in 1998, when he had apparently recovered from his cancer, that I finally began to understand what the boy in the Bud suit had made of himself, and why I should pay attention.

He had just opened his Jackson Pollock retrospective to wide acclaim. He invited a few of his Williams friends to tour the exhibition at 8 in the morning, before the museum opened, and educated us painting by painting as we walked through it with our wives. In all honesty, I'd never been a Pollock enthusiast. English majors, with their weakness for narrative structure, are resistant to abstract expressionism, and Pollock's neurotic chaos is especially intimidating.

After an hour of looking at Pollock's paintings through Varnedoe's eyes, I saw Pollock as I'd never seen him before. More dramatically, I saw Kirk Varnedoe as I'd never seen him before. Varnedoe at 50 was a spellbinder, as they used to call them, who could have sold Pollock to a Pre-Raphaelite or Andy Warhol soup cans to Cosimo de Medici.

It's hard to admit that someone you knew as a teenager is a genius of any kind. Yet here was a pure genius of the lectern at the top of his form. It was a rare privilege to watch him work with the paintings themselves. At the Mellon Lectures last year I learned that he was just as good with a carousel of slides — a magician, like Ricky Jay with a deck of playing cards. He could dazzle and hypnotize. When I asked him for the text of his Mellon lectures, he explained — with mixed pride and sheepishness — that he never lectured from a text, or even from notes. The same memory that conquered the formidable "Eskimo Nell" had somehow absorbed the entire chronicle and spectacle of modern art.

"Preacherly" was a word someone used to describe him at the podium. "Art is my religion," he told TV's Charlie Rose. And I recalled the classroom style of Lane Faison, Kirk's mentor, the legendary Williams art professor — still lecturing at 97 — whose students now run about half of America's major museums. Faison, also a maestro of the slide projector, approached the study of art as if it were some vigorous outdoor sport, some voyage of discovery for hardy bronzed sailors, not "sun-deprived academics."

"For Lane, art was very much a personal experience," Varnedoe said once. "It was between you and the object."

Varnedoe was Faison's perfect disciple. "For Kirk, art was as physical and pleasurable as being knocked down by a wave," said his former student, New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik. Artist Chuck Close praised "his passion for objects over ideas." From his ideal perch at the Modern, Varnedoe became prophet, high priest and principle evangelist for his own cult of strenuous engagement, his church for aestho-athletes driven to probe and pierce and wrestle with works of art until they yielded their secrets. If art can spawn fauvism, DaDaism and the Ashcan School, why hesitate to coin a name for Varnedoe's faith? "Sinewism" seems to work. My coinage may not catch on with the art historians, but brief research reveals that Kirk loved the word "sinew" and used it: In Giacometti's sculptures he found "the resilient sinews of humanity."

Genius and hard work notwithstanding — friends say he worked 18-hour days — it was a miracle of good fortune for Varnedoe to win the one job on the planet where his gifts and passions could make the biggest difference. Such favors are rarely granted by the gods, and the gods never fail to exact a price. Varnedoe spent 14 years at the Modern, nearly half of them in the shadow of a life-threatening illness. The cancer recurred in 2001 and eventually metastasized. As treatments began to fail him, Kirk put the last of his strength into his Mellon Lectures — a six-part, nine-hour defense of abstract art, titled "Pictures of Nothing," which became one of those triumphs of will and spirit that eyewitnesses make into stories to tell their children. His final lecture was an eloquent, prophetic flight of free association. None of us who were there, not even those few who raised a glass with him afterwards, could point to any sign that this was not a man at the peak of his powers. Less than three months later he was dead.

"To the last, Kirk considered himself to be a lucky man," wrote Marcia Vetrocq, echoing the last public words of a New York idol of another era, the great Lou Gehrig, dying of MLS: "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Gehrig was another big, good-looking jock who in his life was dealt many good hands and one very bad one. Varnedoe chose to introduce his final lecture with the less-quoted last words of the android Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe — attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, bright as magnesium; I rode on the back decks of a blinker and watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die."

A certain percentage of the overflow audience understood that Varnedoe was dying, and at these words, of course, that percentage was in tears.

"There it is," Kirk concluded when his last slide faded from the screen. "I have shown it to you. It has been done. It is being done. And because it can be done, it will be done. And now I am done."

I never saw him again, after that astonishing Sunday at the National Gallery. The apostle of Sinewism had issued his last encyclical. But once you've heard a great preacher, you're bound to sample his version of the gospel. Varnedoe's books and essays have been as much of a revelation to me as his virtuosity in the pulpit. We assign the highest intelligence to those who agree with us, and without ever discussing anything philosophical — sports and friends, and maybe France, made up the whole of our conversations — this brilliant Varnedoe and I had arrived at many of the same conclusions.

He used his influence to oppose the dreary, reductive Marxism and Marx-inflected theory that casts us all, even artists, as helpless prisoners of our own narrow context. Everything an artist creates is predictable, according to these grim anti-humanist heretics, if we can fix him within the correct contextual coordinates. To these theorists art is an incidental by-product of the class struggle, and genius, inspiration, even talent and quality are decadent, repressive elitist notions.

Anyone who ever loved art or literature believes intuitively that this is philistine rubbish, that it's always what can't be predicted, what's individual and eccentric — the sudden insight, the rogue notion — that lights up the canvas, the page, and the world. Against reductive theory, Varnedoe declared his belief in "the individual human consciousness, for all its flaws and deforming optics, as our prime resource and treasure." The title of his most definitive book on modern art, A Fine Disregard, comes from the story that rugby was invented when an English soccer player, displaying what his commemorative plaque calls "a fine disregard for the rules," suddenly picked up the ball and ran with it.

Varnedoe scorned inevitability and worshiped the random. As a literary critic, I always declared the same faith and fought the same fight, against the same ferocious philistines. Somehow we belonged to the same church, Varnedoe and I. Was there any significance in the fact, confirmed after Kirk's death by his brother Sam, that we both carried not-so-secret torches for Emmylou Harris? (He also loved Elvis and Sam Cooke.) The novelist Kurt Vonnegut, with whom Kirk was occasionally confused, invented the concept of the karass, a group of people with something important but subtle in common. Opposed to the karass was the granfalloon, a group with something utterly superficial in common — like Williams College alumni.

Often as not, what intrigued Varnedoe intrigues me. Especially the book he never wrote but mentioned in every interview — his book on "how Rauschenberg, Johns and Twombly, three Southern boys, changed the world." In the near-century since H.L. Mencken dismissed the South as "the Sahara of the Bozart," Southern artists have struggled to be taken seriously by the New York mandarins, or even by their own regional museums. It was no coincidence that Varnedoe, a Southerner unexpectedly appointed chief mandarin, devoted two of his major retrospectives to Johns and Twombly. As loyal to his roots as to his friends, he had big plans for the South's undernourished reputation, but he ran out of time.

Since the '50s, modern art has revered Johns, from South Carolina, and Robert Rauschenberg from Port Arthur, Texas. Varnedoe's warm endorsement helped elevate Twombly, from Lexington, Virginia, to nearly the same level. The problem is that these artists have lived and worked chiefly in Italy or downtown Manhattan, and that their work — abstract, runic, cerebral — betrays little Southern influence to the layman's naked eye. Good old boys they are not.

Varnedoe's eye, of course, was no layman's, and the Southern accents in his own work are never hard to find. His simile for Alberto Giacometti's irony — "as earthy as the slouch of a loping hound" — leaves me grinning conspiratorially. Only a Southerner with Kirk's discernment, eloquence and tenacity could ever have sold this worldly trio back to the home folks, or sold them to anyone as Dixie's darlings. He's on record with a theory about Twombly — that Civil War-saturated Lexington, with its monuments and sites sacred to Lee and Stonewall Jackson, had turned the artist toward military mythology and paintings like the series "50 Days in Ilium." No one questions that armed ghosts haunt the South. Jasper Johns took his first name from a Revolutionary War hero, Sgt. William Jasper, whose statue stands in a Savannah square. Johns painted American flags and maps of America, and his stepfather was named Robert E. Lee. But that's pretty thin, and Rauschenberg's Southern echoes seem thinner.

Varnedoe's last e-mail, a week before his death, promised me a couple of sentences of insight into this pet project. They never came, of course, and I've been looking for clues ever since. Most helpful was another of his former students, Jeffrey Weiss, curator of modern art at the National Gallery. Weiss said that Kirk had spoken of "a shared language" of art that the three artists developed (they worked, lived and sometimes slept together in several combinations), a language based in part on their shared experience of Southern culture.

Even the most illustrious career leaves much undone, much unsaid. Taking advantage of the unrestrained hospitality of Varnedoe's sister, Comer Meadows, I made a respectful pilgrimage to Savannah. Touring the famous squares, I encountered Sgt. Jasper and a dozen houses connected to Kirk's family, branches of which have been prominent in the city for centuries. I stayed in the rambling beach cottage on Tybee Island, I ate oysters with Kirk's brother Gordon at the Crab Shack. I walked through the ancestral hunting cabin, now decomposing in the pinewoods. I saw the big brick house on the square where he grew up, and portraits of Johnny Unitas and Ray Charles he drew when he was a boy. We stood on the bluff where a few bricks remain of the family's last "big house," Beaulieu, which burned in 2002.

And finally, the Varnedoe gravesites, under a huge live oak smothered in Spanish moss, on a bluff overlooking the river and the salt marshes. Deep South with all the trimmings — scenes from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil were filmed just down the river. Several graves are flying Confederate battle flags, and nearby is a headstone for Kirk's cousin, Braxton Bragg Comer.

The footprints end there, light years from that museum on 53rd Street in Manhattan. All in all, a Southerner's life that showed a fine disregard for the rules, and managed to change a few. Maybe it's not too grand to recycle Jasper Johns' epitaph for Marcel Duchamp: "He has changed the condition of being here."

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