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PRINT November 2003

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Kirk Varnedoe

ARRIVING WITH KIRK VARNEDOE at a museum was like showing up with a rock star about to play Madison Square Garden. Bypassing the public entrance, we would enter by an inconspicuous door next to the loading dock. Kirk would announce his name, I would say mine, and the bored security guard would phone upstairs. A few minutes later the museum director would appear, slightly out of breath, greet Kirk effusively, and lead us up to the galleries or down to the storage area, where we would study the paintings arrayed on racks under fluorescent lights like sides of beef in a butcher’s freezer.

When the pictures we wanted to see were in private homes, however, our reception was more various. Some collectors were glad to have Kirk visit and gave us a formal tour of the house. Others seemed merely to tolerate our presence. On one occasion, we were presented with tuna sandwiches in the kitchen while the collector served a formal lunch to her bridge club in the dining room. This was a good lesson in the ambiguous social status of curators, who may seem like power brokers but are really courtiers.

My travels with Kirk started seven years ago, after he asked me to sign on as his second-in-command for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1998 Jackson Pollock retrospective. Collaborating with Kirk was a wonderful experience, though haunted by anxiety about his health. What had seemed like a persistent stomach bug left over from a trip to India turned out to be colon cancer. After surgery to remove the tumor, Kirk underwent a heavy course of chemotherapy, with debilitating side effects. Determined to keep his work on track, he reached out to former students like me to help him see key projects through to completion.

I’d met Kirk twelve years earlier, in 1984, when I started graduate school at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University. In fact, it was because of Kirk that I’d gone to the Institute. In 1980, he had published an essay, “The Artifice of Candor: Impressionism and Photography Reconsidered,” that was far and away the best thing I had ever read on the subject of painting and photography. (I was a photo critic at the time.) When I decided to go to grad school, the choice seemed obvious: study with Kirk Varnedoe. By then, he was a legendary figure at the Institute. Arriving at school on a motorcycle, he gave passionate lectures that drew overflow crowds of elegant art collectors and unkempt graduate students alike. Kirk’s lectures offered a seamless synthesis of social history, biography, formal analysis, and critical reflection. Exceptional among teachers at the Institute at that time, he was interested in critical theory and made a point of mentioning new, radical perspectives on modern art even when he was skeptical toward them.

Meanwhile, MoMA chief curator William Rubin, who also taught at the Institute, recruited Kirk to cocurate the 1984 exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” The show was a popular success, but critics famously condemned it as an act of museological imperialism that presented non-Western artists and cultures merely as servants of the European and American avant-garde. Nonetheless, Kirk’s section of the exhibition, on ideas of the primitive in contemporary art, was widely admired, and he was appointed adjunct curator at the Modern. In 1988, he succeeded Rubin as chief curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture.

This position is often called the most powerful in the world of modern art. But the power doesn’t really come from the position: It comes from the vision and persuasiveness of the person who holds it. These were qualities that Kirk had in spades. Whether addressing an auditorium filled with hundreds of people or speaking one-on-one in some formica-countered luncheonette, he talked about art with the inspirational intensity of a Baptist preacher. His words poured out like notes from Chuck Berry’s guitar, a rhythmic stream of observations and ideas, punctuated by dramatic pauses. While his years up North had filed his southern accent down to a slight burr, it would emerge from time to time, twanging like a bent chord. However much information Kirk was tossing your way, however amazing the insights, the heart of the message was an invitation to share his own intense pleasure. Kirk made it seem that art really mattered—not as a rarefied experience reserved for aesthetes and intellectuals, but as an integral part of the good life, available to anyone who cared to look.

Kirk’s fourteen-year tenure as chief curator was a remarkable success on the whole. However, his first show in this post, “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” (1990), which he organized with another former student, the writer Adam Gopnik, received a surprisingly rough reception. While the exhibition meticulously traced modern art’s profound indebtedness to popular culture, the critics who had denounced “Primitivism” now attacked the curators for maintaining the invidious distinction between “high” art and “low” popular culture. My guess is that Kirk and Adam actually enjoyed popular culture—from Krazy Kat to 1957 Cadillacs—more than most of their critics did. Nonetheless, the esoteric dialecticians at October (and yes, at this magazine) succeeded in casting themselves as left-wing populists while depicting MoMA’s curators as lackeys of the ruling class clinging to reactionary concepts of formal purity and artistic genius. This specious battle line drawn in the arguments over “Primitivism” and “High and Low” remained entrenched throughout Kirk’s years at the museum.

The attacks on “High and Low” pushed Kirk away from exhibitions devoted to critical issues. Why address theoretical problems when it was a foreordained conclusion that he and the Modern would be condemned as defenders of the status quo? Furthermore, he concluded, such “thesis” shows posed almost insurmountable installation problems. It might be true that Robert Crumb had influenced Philip Guston’s later work, but when you put them together in a gallery, as in “High and Low,” Guston’s large canvases inevitably overpowered the small panels of Crumb’s cartoons. Such arguments worked better in book form, where reproduction could equalize disparities of size and medium, and the text could explicate the connections between physically dissimilar but conceptually related objects. After 1990, Kirk focused increasingly on exhibitions of individual artists—such as Cy Twombly (1994), Jasper Johns (1996), and, of course, Pollock—in which the art came first and foremost and where any critical “argument” could be made by the installation of the exhibition. These exhibitions won nearly universal praise.

Meanwhile, Kirk quietly carried on with the essential task of expanding and upgrading MoMA’s permanent collection. By 1988, the Modern was widely perceived as having lost touch with contemporary art. In fact, this was a long-standing problem. In the ’50s and ’60s, even as MoMA’s exhibitions helped promote Abstract Expressionism, its acquisitions had not kept pace. When Rubin arrived at the museum in the late ’60s, he moved rapidly to make up for the oversight, acquiring key AbEx works such as Pollock’s mural masterpiece One: Number 31, 1950. Twenty-five years later, recognizing that the museum had again fallen behind, Kirk negotiated the acquisition of major examples of Pop Art such as Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans of 1962 and James Rosenquist’s F-111 of 1964–65. Ranging over the modern era, he pushed for the museum to purchase remarkably diverse works, from Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1889, to Jeff Koons’s iconic Rabbit, 1986, to Richard Serra’s monumental Intersection II of 1993.

Kirk also did his best to make the permanent collection more inviting and accessible. Where Rubin had installed the collection to offer a single trajectory through the history of modern art, Kirk punched holes in the walls, allowing visitors to enter and exit at different points in the story. Finding the final galleries of the permanent collection inadequate for the display of the large-scale art made after 1960, Kirk had the ceilings raised. Into these new, beautifully proportioned spaces went a superb installation of the work of Donald Judd, Eva Hesse, and other artists of the ’60s and ’70s. This reinstallation lasted around three months. Recognizing that Kirk had created the best exhibition space in the museum, other curators began requesting these galleries (rather than the usual temporary exhibition spaces on the ground floor and in the basement) for their shows. Ironically, the end result of Kirk’s improvements was that the museum usually had less post-1960 art on view than it had before. (This is one of the problems that will be rectified with MoMA’s current expansion.)

Installing exhibitions was one of Kirk’s greatest satisfactions as curator, and one of his greatest skills. While planning the Pollock show, we struggled for months to figure out how to display the three great mural-size paintings of 1950 in the Modern’s central galleries, which were constricted by a twenty-foot column bay. We arrived at a merely adequate arrangement, cramming them onto three walls of a long, narrow space. On the morning we were to install Autumn Rhythm, Kirk came up with a better solution, placing each painting in a room of its own but arranging them so that all three were visible from the central room. The arrangement created the illusion of a single large space divided by free-floating panels. When the three paintings were all in place, the effect was magnificent. “With the possible exception of the main gallery at the Frick,” I said to Kirk, “this is now the greatest space in New York.”

“Fuck the Frick,” he replied.

By the time “Pollock” opened, Kirk’s cancer seemed to be receding. It returned, suddenly and severely, in spring 2001. It was mostly the demands of battling his illness that led Kirk to resign from the Modern a year later. But I think he was also glad to get back to being a scholar. “When you teach,” he once said to me, “you’re continually charging up your batteries. When you’re a curator, you run them down. You use up whatever ideas you have, and you don’t have time to generate new ones.” After leaving MoMA, he became a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and returned to writing and research. It was a race against time. As one chemotherapy regimen after another proved ineffective, Kirk responded by working harder, as if he could force the cancer into remission by being more energetic than it was. Almost to the very end, his energy seemed to triumph over the disease, but late last summer the cancer began to spread with wildfire rapidity. Kirk died on August 14, 2003.

Looking back, it seems to me that Kirk’s brilliant career as a curator obscured the importance of his scholarly work. His style and convictions, furthermore, made him something of an outsider to the critical establishment. When obscurity was considered a sign of profundity, he wrote clearly and with gusto. Kirk’s politics were liberal, even leftist, but he had no patience for academic neo-Marxism. His writings and exhibitions of the ’70s and ’80s, focusing on artists such as Gustave Caillebotte, Vilhelm Hammershøi, and Edgar Degas, offered a radically new approach to late nineteenth-century art. Rather than considering the innovations of early modernism solely in formal terms, Kirk saw them as a group of strategies for foregrounding visual subjectivity. Caillebotte’s “photographic” distortion of perspective was as modernist, in this sense, as Monet’s intuitive brushwork.

In his essays and lectures of the ’90s, Kirk was clearly working his way toward a new understanding of modernist abstraction, one inhibited by neither Greenbergian formalism nor semiology. His Mellon lectures, delivered with heartbreaking eloquence at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, last spring, provided a compressed overview of this new understanding. Kirk was fascinated by the continual exchange between abstraction and figuration and by the way that abstract marks and structures echo those of everyday life, from chalk scribbles on blackboards to the rusted hulls of ocean freighters. While admiring the Apollonian purity of Donald Judd and Agnes Martin, he responded most strongly to Dionysian artists such as Cy Twombly and Richard Serra, whose work is rooted in an awareness of the human body—its actions and reactions, weight and frailty, crevices and excretions. Ironically, Kirk was often drawn to the same art his critical opponents championed. But where they saw a demonstration of “abjectness,” he saw a joyous evocation of the human condition.

Pepe Karmel is associate professor in the Department of Fine Arts at New York University. His book Picasso and the Invention of Cubism is forthcoming this month from Yale University Press.