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Kirk Varnedoe, January 18, 1946—August 14, 2003

August 14, 2003
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The art historian Kirk Varnedoe died on August 14, 2003, after a long and valiant battle with cancer. He was 57. He was a Faculty member in the Institute for Advanced Study’s School of Historical Studies, where he was the fourth art historian to hold this prestigious position, first held by the German Renaissance scholar Erwin Panofsky in the 1930s.

Prior to his appointment to the Institute for Advanced Study in January 2002, Dr. Varnedoe served for thirteen years as Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, and prior to his museum career he taught History of Art at Stanford, Columbia, and New York Universities.

"Kirk Varnedoe’s distinguished scholarly record is notable for its exceptional range and for its pioneering role in key areas," said Phillip A. Griffiths, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study. "Dr. Varnedoe’s work has repeatedly been at the forefront of the history of modern art, and his numerous publications have reshaped and opened up a variety of fields within art history. He has also developed a wide-ranging series of exhibitions that have raised new questions, redefined central issues, and offered the public an informed, thoughtful access to modern art."

Dr. Varnedoe organized more than a dozen major exhibitions, both for MoMA and for other institutions. His credits included, at MoMA, "Van Gogh’s Postman: The Portraits of Joseph Roulin" (2001); "Open Ends: Eleven Exhibitions of Contemporary Art from 1960 to Now" (2001, with Paola Antonelli and Joshua Siegel); "Jackson Pollock" (1999, with Pepe Karmel); "Jasper Johns: A Retrospective" (1997); "Cy Twombly: A Retrospective" (1995); "High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture" (1990, with Adam Gopnick); "Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture and Design" (1986); and "'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern" (1984, with William Rubin).

"Kirk Varnedoe’s extensive publications on European and North American art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries display a gift not only for rethinking large movements and ideas," said Professor Glen Bowersock, a Faculty member in the Institute for Advanced Study’s School of Historical Studies, "but also for close analysis of individual works of art. His scholarship has been instrumental in bringing ‘marginal’ and neglected artists into the center of debate and in opening or reshaping entire fields of enquiry - for example, Impressionism, Scandinavian modernism, and the influence of photography on painting. His writing has focused on the ongoing mechanisms - social, psychological, cultural, historical, and personal - of innovation and of influence that have shaped and continue to shape modern art."

The field of art history has a long tradition at the Institute for Advanced Study, beginning in 1933 with the appointment to the Faculty of the renowned German art historian Erwin Panofsky. Panofsky’s scholarly interests ranged across the entire gamut of European art from the Middle Ages to motion pictures, but he was most closely associated with the development of the field of iconology. The art historical tradition was continued by the faculty appointment in 1958 of Millard Meiss, a specialist on late medieval manuscript painting in Burgundy, and in 1973 by the appointment of Irving Lavin, a specialist on Bernini and Renaissance art.

Dr. Varnedoe’s many contributions to the discipline of art history began in 1972, when after a three-year period of research in Paris, mainly on the drawings of Rodin, Dr. Varnedoe’s doctoral dissertation provided not only the first sound chronology of Rodin’s drawings, but also the first in-depth critical examination of the epidemic problem of forgeries of the later drawings. He succeeded in identifying the forgers by name and by style, and he provided the first firm criteria for discriminating between the authentic and inauthentic drawings. This work was so significant that its core results were published, in collaboration with Albert Elsen (The Drawings of Rodin, New York: Praeger, 1971), when Dr. Varnedoe was 25 years old, and his dissertation had not yet been submitted.

Immediately after completing his pioneering doctoral work, Kirk Varnedoe turned to a new question: the seemingly incongruous overlaps of Realism and Symbolism in European art after 1860. This work resulted in his influential re-evaluation of the then little-known Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte, which included an initial article, the first museum retrospective, in 1976-77, of the artist’s work, and a subsequent book, Gustave Caillebotte (Yale University Press, 1987) that has become the definitive study on this artist.

In 1975, on the hundredth anniversary of Rodin’s journey to Italy, Dr. Varnedoe returned to his work on Rodin and succeeded in identifying fragments of the sketchbook Rodin had taken with him to Italy, and also discovered important motifs Rodin had drawn from the art of Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, and other Italian artists of the Renaissance. These discoveries resulted in a significant revision of our understanding of Rodin’s sources of inspiration.

Soon afterwards, Dr. Varnedoe’s work re-examining portraiture and self-portraiture in modern art from 1900 to the 1970s resulted in an exhibition in New York: "Modern Portraits: The Self and the Other" (Wildenstein Gallery, 1976), and an essay that remains an authoritative contribution on portraiture in twentieth-century art. The following year, Varnedoe continued the work he had begun with his earlier publications on Caillebotte, and published Graphic Works of Mark Klinger (New York: Dover, 1977), which offered an analysis of the etchings of the German artist and of his place in the development of Realism.

A year of research in Paris in 1977-78, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, allowed Kirk Varnedoe to turn his attention to the history of photography. In a number of subsequent articles, he examined the question of the influence of photography on Impressionist painting, effectively countering many prevailing ideas about the impact of photography on Monet, Degas, Caillebotte, and others.

In 1982, Dr. Varnedoe organized another ground-breaking exhibition, "Northern Light: Realism and Symbolism in Scandinavian Painting, 1880-1910," which introduced American art historians and the non-Scandinavian public to a ‘provincial’ regional style whose seminal importance was unsuspected, and opened a lively chapter on studies of early modern European art. Dr. Varnedoe subsequently published Northern Light: Nordic Painting at the Turn of the Century (Yale University Press, 1988). As in his work on Rodin, on Caillebotte, and on photography, through Northern Light Dr. Varnedoe revealed numerous significant but unexplored and unexpected complexities in the path to modernism in the visual arts.

From 1984 to 1990, Dr. Varnedoe made a series of contributions related to a still unfolding debate about the political and ethical implications of western artists’ engagement with non-western art. In 1984 he co-organized (with William Rubin) a provocative exhibition, "Primitivism in Twentieth-century Art," at MoMA. The exhibition was a comprehensive exploration of a pioneering generation of mainstream artists who opened western eyes to the beauty and expressive power of art created by cultures then called ‘primitive’.

In 1986, Varnedoe’s new book Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture, and Design, and the exhibition of the same title, offered a critical overview of the relatively new field of Viennese studies, and placed the artists’ achievements not only in a Viennese cultural and historical context but also in a wider European context.

In A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern (New York: Abrams, 1990), Kirk Varnedoe re-examined some key structural changes that defined modernism. The book’s revisionist model of modern cultural change offers complex and subtle perspectives on the mechanisms of innovation at work in the seminal changes that defined the advent of modern art. In that same year, Varnedoe tackled (with Adam Gopnik) further fundamental, difficult questions concerning modern art in High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture (New York: MoMA, 1990).

In the 1990s, Kirk Varnedoe made another remarkably prolific move into a different field, and published a series of books on major North American painters of the post-War era: Cy Twombly (1994), Jasper Johns (1996), and Jackson Pollock (1998). The book on Jackson Pollock (written with Pepe Karmel) was awarded the Alfred Barr Prize by the College Art Association as well as the Henry Allen Moe Prize awarded by the New York State Historical Association. At the same time, a steady flow of articles reminded Varnedoe’s audiences of his continuing work in other areas.

This past spring, Professor Varnedoe delivered the fifty-second annual 2003 A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, which he titled "Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock." The six lectures took place at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The first lecture, "Why Abstract Art?" took place on March 30, followed by "Survivals and Fresh Starts" on April 6, "Minimalism" on April 13, "After Minimalism" on April 27, "Satire, Irony, and Abstract Art" on May 4, and "Abstract Art Now" on May 11.

Prior to joining MoMA in 1985, Dr. Varnedoe was a tenured full Professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, where he had been on the Faculty since 1980. He previously taught at Columbia Law School, Columbia University, Stanford University, and Williams College. Dr. Varnedoe has also served as the Slade Professor of Art History at Oxford University (1992) and as Christensen Visiting Lecturer at Stanford University (1999), and was the Mellon Professor at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts).

A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1993, Dr. Varnedoe was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1984, a Knighthood of the Royal Order of Donnebroge (Denmark) in 1983 and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in 1977, among other honors.

Born January 18, 1946 in Savannah, Georgia, John Kirk Train Varnedoe earned a bachelor's degree in 1967 from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and a doctorate from Stanford University in 1972. He was also an Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a Member of the American Philosophical Society, a trustee of the National Humanities Center, a member of the Steering Committee of The New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers, and the recipient of two honorary degrees.

Kirk Varnedoe is survived by his wife, the sculptor Elyn Zimmerman.