AT FIRST THE NEWS OF KIRK 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 t hat."
Varnedoe departs MOMA with an impressive fifteenyear 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 Varendoe'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. …