A Fine Disregard

By changing the rules, Kirk Varnedoe elevated the art world

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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.

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