When Kirk Varnedoe was a child in Savannah, Ga., his father once coerced him into sitting still for a family photograph by posing him with a proper-looking book that had a comic book hidden inside it. Times have changed for Varnedoe, the handsome, well-spoken, self-assured director of the department of painting and sculpture at New York's venerable Museum of Modern Art. In the three years since he became the most powerful curator in the country, he has graciously posed for dozens of photographs in newspapers and art magazines.
But one thing remains the same: Varnedoe still has his head in comics. The first major exhibition he organized since assuming his post at MOMA is "High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture," which opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art, making its final appearance after traveling from New York to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Varnedoe, 45, was educated at Williams College and Stanford University. He has written about such disparate subjects as Romantic sculptor Auguste Rodin, Impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte and contemporary super-realist sculptor Duane Hanson, and in 1984, he won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (a so-called genius grant). Like the scholar himself, "High and Low" involves more than comics.
The exhibition and its enormous catalogue also explore graffiti, caricature and advertising in the process of exposing precise relationships between elite works of art and products of mass culture. Varnedoe and co-curator Adam Gopnik, art critic for the New Yorker, did an extraordinary amount of digging to discover the exact publications and objects that inspired the artworks they had selected.
The intended result of the curators' labors was an exhibition that now fills the Museum of Contemporary Art with lowly advertisements, newspapers, comic strips and illustrations as well as revered masterpieces, such as Fernand Leger's 1919 painting "The City." The unintended result was a barrage of criticism that greeted the show in October when it opened in New York.
"Oh boy, what a storm," Varnedoe recalled during an interview at MOCA while the exhibition was being installed.
Charging that the show's thesis is "crushingly familiar, superficial and one-sided," Roberta Smith of the New York Times damned "High and Low" as, "at best, the wrong exhibition in the wrong place at the wrong time. At worst, it may be a textbook case for the maxim that an exhibition top-heavy in masterpieces can still be a disaster."
"What we have here is just one more version of that time-honored art world formula: Need new blood? Get the lower classes!" wrote Newsday critic Amei Wallach.
"What we are offered in 'High and Low' is less an explanation of modern art than a preposterously distended taxonomy of certain cultural materials that have been used in some parts of it. Never has so much miscellaneous detail been marshaled with such paltry results," wrote Hilton Kramer in the New Criterion.
Varnedoe expected objections. "I thought it was a given, going in, that those on the right . . . and those on the left would not like the show. You could certainly have written the reviews a year in advance. The vision of the left says the show is elitist, it co-opts the true energies of popular culture, it's all about class divisions. The view on the right says the show is demagogic, populist, it plays to the masses. Those are just the standardized responses, and you could see them coming," he said.
"But I don't think I was quite prepared for either how little middle ground there was or how few people were willing to stand on it and look at it. No one could have been prepared for the kind of crazy ferocity (of the criticism). I mean, there was a weird tone: 'Let the dogs loose.' Barbara Rose wrote a review in the Journal of Art that was published 10 days before the show opened which already had that kind of tone to it. . . . The New York Times review on opening day . . . had a lot of negative energy and essentially just opened up the pound and said, 'Go get it.'
"I don't mean to discredit the criticism of the show," Varnedoe said. "It's obvious this is a limited show. It took a particular point of view. I'm willing to take my beating. But it's hard not to feel there's some extra factor of energy in that peculiar storm.
"If you want to speculate about what's in that storm that's not in the show, then you start thinking about that moment when . . . the tide was going out at the end of the '80s, the recession was looming and there was a change in feeling about institutions like the Modern and a change in the nature of public discourse in the press, which goes back to the election. There is a context in which this phenomenon could be seen as related not just to the local incidents but to a general climate."