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. …