A Fine Disregard

By changing the rules, Kirk Varnedoe elevated the art world

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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."

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