A Fine Disregard

By changing the rules, Kirk Varnedoe elevated the art world

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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.

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