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Kirk Varnedoe, 57; Ex-Curator at N.Y. Modern Art Museum

August 16, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Kirk Varnedoe, the former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City whose influence was defined by agile scholarship, important shows on such artists as Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly, and a riveting speaking style that attracted standing-room-only audiences, has died. He was 57.

Varnedoe, a resident of New York and Princeton, N.J., died Thursday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City after a long battle with colon cancer.

He had, by all accounts, a brilliant career. It began with a PhD at 26 -- awarded after he turned in a dissertation in the form of a catalog for a show he curated on Auguste Rodin. It reached its height in 1988 when he was named, at 42, to the museum post, considered the most important position in the modern art world.

His appointment ruffled the museum staff. Anointed by his predecessor, the distinguished art scholar-curator William Rubin, Varnedoe was placed in charge of the premier collection of modern art despite his lack of museum administrative experience and despite a scholarly background that seemed more engaged with the 19th than the 20th century.

For those prone to envy, he was also easy to dislike because he was handsome, with a patrician manner bred in the old South, and was certifiably brainy: He had won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 1984.

Varnedoe made his official curatorial debut with a show that was derided even before it opened. Called "High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture," it sought to show the interaction between "low" art -- such as graffiti, caricature and cartoons -- and "high" art by such masters as Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger.

He enriched the museum's collections through a series of masterful acquisitions, including seminal works by Matisse, Van Gogh, Johns, Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, Andy Warhol and Richard Serra.

Under Varnedoe's stewardship, the museum also deepened its connections to contemporary art, in part by sponsoring a series of shows called "Artists Choice," curated by living artists, such as Chuck Close.

Varnedoe was married to the sculptor Elyn Zimmerman, who introduced him to many contemporary artists. She survives him.

"There was a powerful personal vision that he brought to his work," Jeffrey Weiss, a former student of Varnedoe's who is now head of the department of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, said Friday. "He fulfilled a tradition that MOMA established of scholar-curators.... At the same time he was trying to reconnect the museum to the contemporary art world and make the place as open, dynamic and active as possible."

Varnedoe was a native of Savannah, Ga., the youngest of four children of accomplished, socially prominent parents. His father was an investment banker and his mother a political activist with a master's degree in creative writing.

He once told Vanity Fair magazine that he had been "a really overweight kid," which made for an unhappy childhood. At Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., he decided to shed his physical deficits and became an athlete, focusing on football and later rugby.

He spent the summer of 1967, after his graduation from Williams, touring Europe and was particularly fascinated by the Musee Rodin in Paris. Later, as a Stanford postgraduate and student of Rodin scholar Albert Elsen, he returned to the Musee Rodin and gained access to many of the sculptor's drawings that had not been available to the public. His work on Rodin so impressed J. Carter Brown, then director of the National Gallery, that Brown invited him to co-curate, with Elsen, a major exhibition of previously unseen Rodin drawings. The show, "Rodin Drawings True and False," opened at the National Gallery in 1971.

His submission of the exhibition catalog, which he had written, as his dissertation brought him his doctorate the following year.

Over the next 16 years he built a reputation as a thinker and spellbinding lecturer in academia, first at Stanford and later at Columbia and New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. He became a full professor at the Institute of Fine Arts in 1984, switching to an adjunct post in 1988 when he assumed Rubin's mantle at the Museum of Modern Art.

His curatorial path suggested a broad and unorthodox sensibility. As an offshoot of an article he had written about Gustave Caillebotte, the "forgotten" impressionist, he was invited by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts to be guest curator for a retrospective of Caillebotte's work in 1976; the show, which later moved to the Brooklyn Museum, revived interest in the artist. At the same time, Varnedoe organized a benefit exhibition for the Wildenstein Gallery in New York City called "Modern Portraits: The Self and Others," that, together with his work on Caillebotte, earned him a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1977-78.

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