During college and grad school, Kirk Varnedoe managed to find a rugby team wherever he went. Later, the football- and rugby-obsessed athlete scored what is arguably the most important position in the world of modern art. Rarely have athletics and aesthetics fused so happily.
Varnedoe, former chief curator of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, died August 14 in New York of colon cancer. He was 57.
Born and raised in Savannah, Ga., Varnedoe graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts before earning his master’s and doctorate in art at Stanford. A noted authority on 19th- and 20th-century European sculpture and painting, whom the New Yorker once described as “dauntingly articulate,” he was briefly an assistant professor at Stanford before teaching at Columbia University and at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. His lectures always attracted huge crowds, and the exhibitions he organized during this time—displaying conceptual originality and a writing style that had broad appeal—drew the attention of the Museum of Modern Art.
Varnedoe joined the Modern in 1988 as chief curator of painting and sculpture. Though he had exceptional curatorial and scholarly qualities, there was some controversy about his lack of administrative experience. Yet Varnedoe moved forward boldly. His first exhibition, developed with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, investigated the interaction between “high” art (like Picasso) and the “low” media of ads, comics and graffiti. “High & Low” was criticized when it opened in 1990, but the concept has since gained acceptance.
Despite initial raised eyebrows, Varnedoe’s 13-year tenure brought great curators, more contemporary art and more interest in such art to the Modern. “He moved that monolithic museum in a new direction, and because of the prominence of the museum, he legitimized the study of this elsewhere,” says Bernard Barryte, chief curator at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center. Among Varnedoe’s acquisitions were Picasso’s preparatory sketches for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and pieces from the previously underrepresented 1960s and ’70s. Varnedoe’s monographic exhibitions on Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock were highly praised, and his Artist’s Choice series, in which artists organized small exhibitions using the museum’s permanent collection, helped convey an openness to fresh ideas. He also encouraged the acquisition of works by young contemporary artists, giving them the opportunity to be part of a major collection.
Varnedoe left the Modern in 2001 and joined Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Last spring, he delivered the Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
A recipient of a 1984 MacArthur Foundation “genius” prize, Varnedoe wrote 18 books, including A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern (Abrams, 1990). He gave Stanford’s Commencement address in 1992, telling graduates, “One of art’s functions, personally and socially, is to propose new worlds different from the ones you know.”
He is survived by his wife, sculptor Elyn Zimmerman; two brothers; and a sister.