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PRINT January 2002

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Kirk Varnedoe

AT FIRST THE NEWS OF KlRK VARNEDOE’s departure from the Museum of Modern Art was a source of bafflement to much of the art world. The chief curator of painting and sculpture announced in October that he would be leaving his post in January to join the faculty of Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study, the super-prestigious think tank that has hosted the likes of Albert Einstein and Erwin Panofsky. Sure, Princeton might offer an ample supply of money and free time, as well as a high-minded atmosphere, but it seemed too soon for someone as famously dynamic as Varnedoe to trade in a position some have called the most important in the modern art world for affiliation with an organization that, no matter how illustrious, is relatively staid. Sadly, the background to the story soon became clear: Varnedoe had been diagnosed with cancer and would have to begin treatment immediately. He needed, as he put it, “the chance to minimize my stress and maximize my productivity, and the Institute is perfect for that.”

Varnedoe departs MoMA with an impressive fifteen-year record. “Varnedoe’s been superb,” says art historian Robert Rosenblum, “not only in terms of chronological range, covering the twentieth and nineteenth centuries, but also in revitalizing the tradition of scholarship in catalogues. From Pollock to ‘Vienna 1900’ to ‘“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art,’ he’s been great for everything—thematic exhibitions, exhibitions focusing on a particular time and place, and monographic shows.” Varnedoe has also promoted the acquisition of such modernist gems as van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet and Matisse’s Yellow Curtain as well as important works by Warhol and Rauschenberg and made canny moves to improve the museum’s post-1960s profile, hiring artist and critic Robert Storr as a curator of painting and sculpture in 1990.

Of course not everything Varnedoe’s put his hand to has turned to gold. Despite some good-faith contemporary purchases (including work by Janine Antoni and Guo-Qiang Cai), he’s been criticized for a limp embrace of recent art. His inaugural show as chief curator, 1990’s “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” was roundly condemned at the time as superficial. But today even some of his harsher critics have softened their tones. “He’s done a wonderful job,” says art historian Rosalind Krauss, who has not always been known to glow with admiration for Varnedoe. “His exhibitions have all been absolutely fantastic. Even ‘High and Low’ was extremely good, in the sense of its being very well researched and presented. I just objected to the way everything led up to Koons,” she explains. “I objected to that teleology.”

Given such universal esteem, the prospect of filling Varnedoe’s shoes is a daunting one. Lowry says that while he’s happy to see Varnedoe taking such an important post, he’ll find him very difficult to replace. “Kirk is able to frame complex issues in a way that allows a broad audience to engage with them,” he notes. “He has been an essential member of my staff—and when someone like that leaves, you want to understand completely the territory in terms of possible successors.” Lowry dismisses the notion that just because Varnedoe, like William Rubin and Alfred Barr before him, was hired out of the academy (he held a position at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts), the trend will continue: “There is no tradition of hiring from the academy,” the director declares. “We’ll be looking within the museum world and beyond, with fresh eyes and an open mind.”

Institutional circumspection hasn’t stopped the art world from musing on likely candidates. Speculation has run the gamut, beginning with MoMA insiders like Storr and recent hire Gary Garrels (MoMA’s chief curator of drawings), both of whose embrace of the contemporary could fairly be described as a bear hug. Though neither Storr nor Garrels boasts Varnedoe’s modernist credentials and academic pedigree, the former is an engaged critic and an eloquent writer and speaker, while the latter is an extra-able diplomat known for effective patron lobbying on behalf of an ambitious acquisition program during his previous tenure at SF MoMA. Given the precedent of Varnedoe’s own arrival at MoMA (he collaborated with Rubin in organizing “Primitivism” before coming on full-time), NYU art historian Pepe Karmel, who cocurated “Jackson Pollock” with the outgoing director, gets mentioned as well. John Elderfield, MoMA’s chief curator at large and the museum’s ranking modernist, was thought by many to be a frontrunner the last time around, but with inclinations less contemporary even than Varnedoe’s, he might not be the man for the moment. From beyond MoMA’s walls, Jeffrey Weiss, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery (he earned his PhD under Varnedoe), Michael Shapiro from Atlanta’s High Museum, and Steve Nash and Dorothy Kosinski, both at Dallas institutions; all have the modernist scholarship in place. And what of a fast-track European such as, say, the Pompidou’s Bernard Blisten, who comes with both administrative and curatorial credentials? Then there are dark horses from the academy like Yve-Alain Bois, Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University. An inspired curator (he had a hand in MoMA’s much-praised Mondrian show), Bois may nonetheless represent wishful thinking on behalf of like-minded colleagues, for high-toned francophone and critical-left types have always been seen by insiders as vanguardians at the MoMA gates. Academia’s best bet may be Thomas Crow: Though not first a modernist, Crow has an intellectual authority that garners respect across party lines, and his current stint as director of the Getty Research Institute adds an attractive administrative dimension to his résumé. In any case, most predict that MoMA’s upcoming expansion project will delay serious consideration of a successor until after the dust settles.

As for Varnedoe, he is sanguine about the prospects of the museum he leaves behind. “MoMA will need to reinvent the uniqueness it had when it was the only museum doing modern art. It will need to have the most rigorous scholarship, the best writing, the most discriminating approach—and I think it probably will.” On a personal level, Varnedoe is looking forward to preparing the Mellon Lectures he is scheduled to deliver at the National Gallery in spring 2003. He admits he’ll miss daily contact with the objects in MoMA’s collection and adds, “I wish I could have had the opportunity to rehang the work in the future space, as it’s something I’ve thought about quite a lot. And I wish I could have done more to organize my succession. Bill Rubin had a chance to see his retirement coming,” Varnedoe says with impressive matter-of-factness, “but I got hit by a freight train.”

Adam Lehner is a New York-based writer.