A Fine Disregard

By changing the rules, Kirk Varnedoe elevated the art world

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"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.

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