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. …