J. Kirk T. Varnedoe
Karmel, Pepe, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society
18 JANUARY 1946 * 14 AUGUST 2003
Modernist against the Current
"COMET" was the title Kirk Varnedoe chose for his essay on Jackson Pollock's brilliant, brief career. The description seems only too apt for Varnedoe himself. He began his career in 1967 with a joint appointment as assistant instructor of art history and assistant varsity football coach at Williams College. By 1980, after stints at Stanford and Columbia, he was invited to teach at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, reaching the pinnacle of his profession at the age of thirty-four. In 1984 he received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, widely known as the "genius award." In 1985 he was recruited as an adjunct curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and in 1988 he was appointed chief curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture-the most important curatorial position in the field of modern art.
Varnedoe was a spellbinding speaker. In his academic classes and his public lectures, he would brilliantly synthesize the existing scholarship on an artist or movement and then go beyond it, combining formal insights with analyses of social and philosophical issues. His vast vocabulary and baroque syntax challenged and delighted his listeners. At the same time, Varnedoe had an extraordinary "eye" for the selection and installation of art-something that not all art historians or even all curators possess. In the years 1970 through 2003, he organized or helped organize sixteen exhibitions, winning particular acclaim for monographic shows of the artists Gustave Caillebotte, Jackson Pollock, and Jasper Johns, and for thematic shows on Scandinavian modernism and on Viennese modernism.
It was a rude shock when Varnedoe was first diagnosed with cancer in 1996, at the age of fifty. He carried on with a full workload while enduring a stiff course of chemotherapy, and seemed for several years to have beaten the disease. In 2001, the cancer suddenly returned in full force. Varnedoe resigned his position at MoMA, and took up a research position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. While searching for new therapies, he threw himself into writing and lecturing. When he died on 14 August 2003, he was just fifty-seven.
Much has been written about Varnedoe's public career as a curator and lecturer. On this occasion, it seems appropriate instead to look at his career as a scholar of modern art.
Varnedoe did his undergraduate and graduate work in art history in the years 1963-72, a period of dramatic change in the history and criticism of modern art. For the preceding fifteen or twenty years, the study of modern art in the United States had been dominated by the criticism of Clement Greenberg. For Greenberg, the development of modern art followed a kind of Hegelian dialectic toward a self-conscious focus on the material and formal conditions of its own being. Greenberg was not blind to the social and historical circumstances of modern art's emergence, but he felt that those were secondary to the art's formal achievement.
In the 1940s and the early 1950s, this kind of thinking had offered liberation from the left-wing dogmas of the 1930s, but by the 1960s it had hardened into a new orthodoxy. It was the era of the civil rights movement and of protests against the war in Vietnam. Greenbergian formalism was tarred by its association with the corporate and political establishment that had embraced abstract art as a symbol of American democracy. In reaction, modernist historians of Varnedoe's generation were drawn to other critical approaches and to other kinds of art. Some turned to the social history of art, others to the "new" discipline of semiology, publicized by translations of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes. Interest shifted away from the canonical history that began with Impressionism, continued with Cubism, and ended with Abstract Expressionism and Color-Field Painting. There was a revival of interest in Dadaism, Surrealism, and the varied modernist realisms that had seemingly been superseded by abstraction. Contemporary art hovered ambiguously between representation and abstraction.
Varnedoe's dissertation focused on the drawings of Auguste Rodin, a great sculptor who did not fit into the canonical history of modernism. In keeping with the tenor of the times, his first exhibition, organized in 1970 while he was a graduate student, was Against the Madness: Protest Art from California Campuses. What established his originality as a scholar, however, was a pair of exhibitions that he organized in 1976, while he was teaching at Columbia. One of these was devoted to Modern Portraits: The Self & Others. In the catalogue, he began by recalling the "disdain for direct resemblance" that characterized so much of modern art, noting that it was often "reinforced by a modern pessimism about the worth and importance of the individual." (Roland Barthes's seminal essay, "The Death of the Author," had been published in 1967.) Against this current, Varnedoe set out to explore the counter-tradiotion of modernist portraiture, in which the formal resources of advanced art were deployed for the "profound revelation of individual personalities."
The other exhibition was devoted to the artist Gustave Caillebotte, who had until that time been remembered primarily as a patron of the Impressionist movement. Caillebotte produced a number of paintings in a brushy, colorful style recalling Monet and Renoir, but his most distinctive work consists of a group of large realist paintings depicting the life of the haute bourgeoisie in Haussmann's Paris. Some pictures show the newly widened streets where well-dressed couples parade in splendor past the shabby representatives of the working class; others depict spacious apartments where melancholy gentlemen stare down at the boulevards or supervise workmen stripping the parquet floors. What drew Varnedoe to Caillebotte was his "expressive use of emptiness and swift perspective" and his "uncanny sense of time arrested," which seemed to express the "psychic world" of the leisure classes. Varnedoe argued that the "rigidity" of his figures was not simply a result of inadequate technique, but was rather a means of communicating the "life-condition" of his bourgeois subjects.
Like Linda Nochlin, Robert Herbert, T. J. Clark, and other art historians of the time, Varnedoe wanted to explore the way that modernism's formal innovations were rooted in the bourgeois culture of nineteenth-century France. Much of Varnedoe's work of the late 1970s and early 1980s was devoted to what might be called the iconography of bourgeois culture, but he was equally attentive to the formal characteristics of the work he examined. Noting that Caillebotte's paintings often resembled wide-angle photographs, Varnedoe argued that the artist had arrived at a quintessentially modern way of evoking subjectivity, not by colorful brushwork, but by perspectival distortion. Varnedoe was assisted in this analysis by his student Peter Galassi, who went on to explore the link between perspective and subjectivity in a seminal 1981 exhibition on Painting and the Invention of Photography. (Galassi now heads the photography department at MoMA.)
Continuing to explore the role of subjectivity in modern art, Varnedoe organized a ground-breaking exhibition on Northern Light: Realism and Symbolism in Scandinavian Painting, 1880-1910, which opened at the Brooklyn Museum in 1982. As he wrote in his introduction to the catalogue, the development of Scandinavian painting did "not conform to the sequence of stylistic progress we know so well from the oft-described evolution of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism." The Scandinavian realists, such as Vilhelm Hammershøi, often resembled Caillebotte in their depiction of everyday spaces rendered uncanny by the artist's choice of viewpoint and perspective. The symbolists, such as Edvard Munch, used the simplified contours and exaggerated colors of Post-Impressionism for emotional effect, not just visual impact.
Four years later, Varnedoe's revisionist account of early modernism climaxed with Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture and Design, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art devoted to the only metropolis that could seriously challenge the claim of Paris to be the capital of early modern life. Insofar as the three greatest Viennese painters-Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka-were all extraordinary portraitists, Vienna 1900 extended the premise of Varnedoe's 1976 exhibition, Modern Portraits. The architecture and design of the same period were of almost equal interest, in large part because their elegantly reductive geometric forms were not indebted to Parisian Cubism, the main source for most other varieties of modern design. Varnedoe's beautifully sequenced, stylish installation made the show into a surprise blockbuster.
Meanwhile, he had begun teaching at the Institute of Fine Arts, where he got to know William Rubin, then director of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA. Rubin recruited Varnedoe to work with him on his 1984 exhibition, "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. In the catalogue, Varnedoe contributed chapters on Paul Gauguin, on primitivist tendencies in Abstract Expressionism, and on contemporary art. "Primitivism" was widely criticized for the curators' alleged indifference to the cultures that had produced the non-Western art in the exhibition. Nonetheless, together with Vienna, it demonstrated Varnedoe's talent as a curator and historian, and his ability to work brilliantly on art after 1900. It thus set him on his path as Rubin's successor at MoMA.
In 1990, together with one of his students, Adam Gopnik (now a distinguished writer for the New Yorker), Varnedoe organized High and Low, an exploration of the long and fruitful interaction between modern art and popular culture. Unfortunately, the Museum of Modern Art is a perpetual lightning rod for the crankiness of the art world; much as "Primitivism" had been attacked for its treatment of non-Western art, High and Low was criticized for subordinating popular culture to high art-although in reality it did no such thing.
In the same year, Varnedoe published A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern, based on the Beatty Memorial Lectures that he gave at McGill University in spring 1988. Here, in his first book that did not double as an exhibition catalogue, Varnedoe discussed the formal and thematic innovations of modern art. Chapters on "Near and Far" and "Flight" recapitulated and enlarged on his earlier discussions of perspective and subjectivity, while a section on "Primitivism" teased out the theoretical implications of his earlier research on Gauguin. Another chapter discussed "Fragmentation and Repetition" as ambiguous "metaphors of modernity," formal qualities that could symbolize either "euphorias" of liberty and equality or "torments" of alienation and conformity. Varnedoe's analysis remained rooted in the art of the years 1870-1910, although he illustrated his themes with examples of work by more recent artists such as Andy Warhol and Sol LeWitt.
The curiously embattled tone of the text was inspired in part by Varnedoe's experience as a MoMA curator; more profoundly, however, it reflected his dismay at the contemporary state of art criticism. The new ideas and topics that had seemed so profoundly liberating in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he was a graduate student and assistant professor, had by the late 1980s hardened into new orthodoxies every bit as confining as the Greenbergian formalism they replaced. Social history, with its attention to the variety of historical experience, was increasingly pushed aside by academic Marxism, summing up the essence of modernism and post-modernism in a few verbal formulae. Semiology, which had seemed to open up a third way for modern art criticism, between the Scylla of formalism and the Charybdis of Marxism, was similarly reduced to a set of clichés borrowed from Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Saunders Peirce. Against these neo-metaphysical dogmas, Varnedoe proposed an empiricist approach rooted in history and biography and in the careful description of particular works of art. Invoking the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovski, he defined modern art as "making the world anew by bringing us back to familiarity with it, by paying attention to what we are doing." Varnedoe continued this argument in the Slade Lectures that he gave at Oxford University in the fall of 1992, under the title "The Poverties of Post-Modernism," recalling Karl Popper's manifesto, The Poverty of Historicism. Dissatisfied with the combative and reactive quality of the lectures, however, he withheld them from publication.
After 1992, Varnedoe shifted his scholarly and curatorial focus from the late nineteenth century to the second half of the twentieth century, bypassing the movements-Cubism, Surrealism, and the School of Paris-that had traditionally occupied center stage in MoMAs collection and exhibition program. (He did, however, write several superb essays on Pablo Picasso, the single artist most identified with the MoMA.) As chief curator of painting and sculpture, he worked hard to strengthen the Modern's holdings of work from the 1960s and later decades. He also organized three large retrospectives devoted to Cy Twombly (1994), Jasper Johns (1996), and Jackson Pollock (1998). Two main new themes emerged in his essays about these artists.
In writing about Johns, Varnedoe confronted an enigmatic artist who began by making deceptively simple compositions based on familiar motifs like flags and targets, and then proceeded to make more and more complex works combining motifs from a bewildering variety of sources: maps, body parts, architectural plans, flagstones, doodles, and other artists' paintings. Like his longtime artistic interlocutor, Robert Rauschenberg, Johns used painting as a medium for commemoration, but his pictures (again like Rauschenberg's) were monuments of private symbolism, whose opacity was an integral part of their meaning.
Cy Twombly's paintings-though more abstract than Rauschenberg's or Johns's-often included Italian place names and inscriptions from classical authors, creating a similar atmosphere of ambiguous significance. Like Johns's, Twombly's pictures were notable for the energy and authority of their mark-making-the way that the paint was sculpted or smeared across canvas, or that pencil marks were gouged into a ground. In this respect, both artists looked back to Pollock and to Willem de Kooning, the founding fathers of Abstract Expressionism, who demonstrated that the handling of paint, in the virtual absence of recognizable imagery, could be a powerful source of meaning and emotion. Varnedoe's catalogue essay for the Pollock retrospective offered a vivid synthesis of the vast biographical, cultural, and critical literature on the artist, but its high point came in a description of the varied physical qualities of Pollock's paint surface: "The variations from filament to delta in a given vector, the scales of high and low relief, the different viscosities of enamel and oil, the edge qualities of soft bleeding or fringed leakage . . . not to mention the fields of splotches, blobs, pointillist spatters, and droplet spots that sometimes trail and other times under- or overlay the webs, combs, nests, dendrites, and nebulae that line clusters conjure." Similarly, in discussing Twombly's technique, Varnedoe addressed the way that the "spillage, excess, and overflow" of painting carried "connotations of flesh, skin, and fluids." Since 1980, numerous authors have addressed the theme of abjectness in modern art and literature; what was distinctive in Varnedoe's writing was his insistence that the bodily qualities of painting could signify not just debasement but also a celebration of physicality, and that they could be combined productively with lyricism and intellectual refinement.
It seemed to Varnedoe significant that three of the key artists of the 1950s and 1960s-Rauschenberg, Johns, and Twombly-had grown up in the southern United States. Born in Savannah, Georgia, Varnedoe was acutely aware of the tension (sometimes productive, sometimes destructive) between the cultures of South and North. His next major project, if he had been given a few more years, would have been a book on this trio of artists, linking their southern heritage to the combination of memory and physicality in their work. In the event, however, his last major project proved to be the A. W. Mellon Lectures that he gave at the National Gallery in the spring of 2003, just a few months before his death, under the title Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock. Here, he proposed a theory of modernist abstraction as an evolving sign language, accreting meanings from its social context, shucking them off by a return to zero, and then developing new signs and new meanings. Rather than a Hegelian dialectic leading toward a definitive conclusion, modern art was a changing series of responses to the unpredictable vicissitudes of modern history. The Mellon Lectures will be published by Princeton University Press in 2006-07, and it is hoped that they will be followed by a volume of Varnedoe's collected essays. His skeptical, creative response to the art of the modern era has much to teach future generations of art historians.
Department of Fine Arts
New York University…
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Publication information: Article title: J. Kirk T. Varnedoe. Contributors: Karmel, Pepe - Author. Journal title: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. Volume: 149. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2005. Page number: 631+. © American Philosophical Society Dec 2007. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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