Died: August 13, 2003
Friend, Turner B. Smith:
I am taking the liberty of passing on some sad news about one of our classmates. Elyn Zimmerman, Kirk Varnedoe’s wife, called this morning to tell me that Kirk had passed away last night at Sloan Kettering Hospital in NYC. As many of us know, Kirk had been waging a heroic battle with cancer since it was first detected in his colon some 8-9 years ago.
Recently, he had organized and delivered six masterful lectures on modern art as a part of the Mellon Series at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and many of us were truly fortunate to have attended some or all of these. Nevertheless, our good friend finally surrendered.
Kirk will leave a massive legacy for the art world and some special memories in the hearts of those of us who knew him. He will be deeply missed.
Elyn mentioned that Kirk’s wishes were that he be cremated, that there would be a memorial service in NYC sometime after Labor Day, and another in Savannah sometime after that. All the best to all of you. R. I. P. Turner Smith.
The New York Times
Kirk Varnedoe, 57, Curator Who Changed the Modern’s Collection and Thinking, Dies
The New York Times
August 15, 2003
By Michael Kimmelman
Kirk Varnedoe, the articulate, courtly and wide-ranging art historian who as chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art helped to reshape the museum’s collection and philosophy and in so doing created a broader public understanding of modern art, died yesterday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. He was 57 and lived in Manhattan and Princeton.
The cause was colon cancer, said his wife, the sculptor Elyn Zimmerman. Mr. Varnedoe had been fighting cancer for seven years, during which he had left the Modern to accept a position on the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. That gave him time to write the Mellon Lectures for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which he delivered this spring. His subject was abstraction since 1945, not the most popular topic ordinarily, but overflow crowds lined up hours beforehand to hear him speak.
“He loved life in its most tangible forms, and so for him art was as physical and pleasurable as being knocked down by a wave,” said Adam Gopnik, the writer and a former student of his who collaborated on Mr. Varnedoe’s first big show at the Modern, High & Low. “Art was always material first – it was never, ever bound by a thorny crown of ideas. His incredible faith in real things for him found its highest expression in art, but extended way beyond to include everything from an Elvis record to a bottle of Krug, and it brought to life, every day, the ordinary existence of everyone around him.”
Chuck Close, the painter, said yesterday: “As an artist, it was thrilling to have Kirk describe your work. He was a dazzling speaker, but it was not just wordsmanship. He got to the heart of things fast. He had a genuine rapport with artists. He even married one. When he asked me to do a show choosing works from the museum’s collection, his support was total in the service of taking a fresh look at the collection. And personally, he was instrumental, after I became paralyzed, in having my work seen not as the work of a handicapped artist but as the work of an artist with a handicap. I can’t tell you how important that was. Then when he became ill he never allowed himself to be defined by cancer.”
Among the many acquisitions for which Mr. Varnedoe was responsible at the Modern was one of van Gogh’s great portraits of Joseph Roulin, the bearded postmaster the artist befriended in Arles, France. Mr. Varnedoe was finishing a book about the painting when he died. He also acquired for the museum a sketch by Picasso for “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.” Above all, he helped to build the collection of art from the 1960’s and 70’s, which had been underrepresented at the Modern. The museum acquired James Rosenquist’s enormous, iconic pop mural “F-16,” Andy Warhol’s famous suite of soup-can paintings and major works by Richard Serra, Rauschenberg, James Turrell, Cy Twombly and others.
His exhibitions included the hugely successful Jackson Pollock retrospective in 1998, which he organized with Pepe Karmel, a former student, and retrospectives of Jasper Johns (1996) and Mr. Twombly (1994). With Mr. Gopnik he did High & Low in 1990, a historical survey of the traffic between high modern art and popular culture. Mr. Varnedoe’s first big undertaking as curator, it was a brave debut because it predictably caused much debate, and some bitter criticism, while the contemporary art world was sharply divided. With time, the breakdown of traditional artistic hierarchies and the book that came out of the exhibition have been increasingly accepted and influential.
Before then, as a guest curator at the museum, Mr. Varnedoe helped to organize, with William Rubin, who previously headed the painting and sculpture department, the equally contentious “Primitivism” show (1984), which traced the influence of so-called primitive art on Western artists from Gauguin to the present. And by himself he put together the much-praised, popular “Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture & Design” (1986).
Less conspicuously, but very significantly, as curator he initiated the Artists Choice series. Artists – Scott Burton, Elizabeth Murray, Chuck Close, John Baldessari, Ellsworth Kelly – were invited to organize exhibitions of works from the museum’s permanent collection. Mr. Varnedoe explained, “I would really like the public to see the collection through the eyes of the people to whom it means the most.”
His marriage to an artist, Ms. Zimmerman, had helped alert him to the value of including the views of living artists at the museum. Before Mr. Varnedoe arrived, the museum had increasingly come to be perceived within much of the contemporary art world as disconnected from, even hostile to, new art. These modest shows not only reconnected the museum with the contemporary scene but also helped to establish terms for a long overdue reconsideration of the presentation of modern art history at the museum.
This reconsideration took place mainly through Mr. Varnedoe’s reinstallation of the collection. He progressively turned what had been a hard and narrow view of the course of modern painting and sculpture, focused almost exclusively on France and then the United States, into a more flexible and inclusive narrative without undoing what he believed was essentially right and elegant about the old view.
His installations gave new prominence to Russian, German and Italian art before the war and to a wide array of art since 1960, including art by women. The galleries were literally opened up so that they were no longer arranged as an inescapable sequence of rooms dictating a single story. It was a judicious, diplomatic reappraisal, not a drastic overhaul, reflecting his personality. Naturally, conservative critics and more radical revisionists fumed anyway, but the changes have come to be widely accepted and imitated.
Mr. Varnedoe’s willingness to rethink, tweak and tinker with the history of art at the world’s most influential modern art museum came from a vitality and a large curiosity that expressed themselves before he arrived in books about underappreciated and occasionally oddball figures like the French painter and collector Gustave Caillebotte, the Scandinavian artists Vilhelm Hammershoi and Eugene Jansson, and the American superrealist Duane Hanson.
Some of these books resulted from exhibitions. Mr. Varnedoe organized a Caillebotte retrospective for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 1976, as well as “Northern Light: Realism and Symbolism in Scandinavian Painting” for the Brooklyn Museum in 1982, while he was still a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. They helped to bring him to the attention of the Modern as a scholar of independent inclinations who could put together popular exhibitions and write smartly and accessibly for a wide audience.
The jury for the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship noticed these qualities, too, and granted him one of its genius prizes in 1984. Among other things, he used the grant to write a history of modernism, “A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern.” He borrowed the title from a plaque near the Rugby School in England honoring William Webb Ellis, “who, with a fine disregard for the rules, invented the game of rugby.” Mr. Varnedoe, a rugby player and avid athlete, proposed Ellis’s mad dash with the ball as a metaphor for artistic innovation. It was an anti-Hegelian, anti-Marxist position, wherein art was regarded not as an inevitable unfolding of progressive events but as a variety of inspired inventions by remarkable and imaginative people. It was also, importantly for Mr. Varnedoe, a visceral and immediate experience.
John Kirk Train Varnedoe was born on Jan. 18, 1946, the youngest of four children, into an old, distinguished family from Savannah, Ga. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two brothers, Sam, a photographer from New York City, and Gordon, an arts administrator from Savannah, and a sister, Comer, also from Savannah.
As a boy, Mr. Varnedoe had a flair for drawing and painting, and at St. Andrews, a prep school in Delaware, his caricatures ran in the school yearbook. He became one of many museum professionals to have graduated from Williams College, where, he recalled, Lane Faison Jr. was one of the professors who opened his eyes to art history. “You were encouraged to believe that you should look hard at paintings and that what you had to say about them would be worthwhile,” Mr. Varnedoe said, “which in a sense was a false hope, because many people had said thousands of things about these pictures before. But it was very salutary.”
As a doctoral student at Stanford under Albert Elsen, the Rodin scholar, he gained access to hundreds of previously unseen drawings by Rodin, which caught the attention of J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery, and the result was his first major exhibition, of Rodin drawings, in Washington in 1971.
For years, he taught at Columbia University and at the Institute of Fine Arts, where his lectures routinely attracted huge audiences of students and the public. Even in one-on-one conversation, his speaking style was custom-made for the lecture hall: astonishingly fluent, easy and organized in perfectly formed, complex paragraphs that seemed to flow naturally and without hesitation. In person he had no time for idle charm, but people who sometimes found him brusque at first came in time to recognize shyness, loyalty, an occasional naïve streak about art world politics, and empathy. Typically, he ceded some of the dictatorial power that had been exercised by predecessors at the Modern, and shared more responsibilities with junior colleagues who had different interests and strengths.
For him, modern art was like modern life, Mr. Gopnik added. It was not a religion but a way of experiencing the world.
“Modern art writ large,” Mr. Varnedoe once wrote, “presents one cultural expression of a larger political gamble on the human possibility of living in change and without absolutes, and also on the individual human consciousness, for all its flaws and deforming optics, as our prime resource and treasure.”
View this article online at The New York Times
The Washington Post
Kirk Varnedoe, Modern Art’s Athletic Mind
By Blake Gopnik
The Washington Post
August 15, 2003
Kirk Varnedoe, who died Wednesday night at age 57 after a long fight with cancer, was a forceful guy. Though he was an important historian of modern art from early on, and went on to public prominence as the top curator at the Museum of Modern Art, he never had much of the delicate aesthete about him. Over the dozen or so times I met Kirk — he was one of my brother Adam’s closest friends and a close collaborator — traces of his early love of college rugby always seemed to linger. (At the very end of his life, he could still be seen teaching football moves to 8-year-olds in Central Park.) I once got to witness him tackle a senior colleague in absentia; that famous scholar’s obscure prose, Kirk was happy to insist, merely hid how little sense there was behind it.
Kirk’s athletic, virile manner made him an oddity in the art world, and less than a favorite of a few of its inhabitants. His forceful surface also contradicted the delicately subtle tenor of his work and thought. His unique brand of art history always concentrated on the close-up complexities of what artists really do, and rejected any grand explanatory scheme that manhandled crucial details just to score a point.
Kirk’s last major public appearance was at the National Gallery in Washington this past spring, when he gave the six Mellon Lectures, art history’s most prestigious series of public talks. He spoke about the nature of abstraction and its recent history.
As usual, Kirk’s delivery and energetic rhetoric were stunning, though he spoke with a bare minimum of notes — the scholar’s equivalent of working without a net. (The first time I heard him speak, years ago in Montreal, the light on his lectern refused to work. Rather than keep his audience waiting while it was fixed, Kirk claimed that he could read well enough by light reflected from his slides. After a brilliantly fluid talk, it turned out that even the few notes he’d brought had been invisible to him throughout.) Record-breaking crowds turned up at the National Gallery for Kirk’s Mellon Lectures, and the numbers only seemed to grow as the weeks passed and word of mouth spread. By the end, fans were waiting hours in line for a chance to hear him speak, and they gave him a standing ovation when the series closed.
But for all his crowd-pleasing verbal fireworks, the content of Kirk’s talk was miraculously subtle, as he insisted that there could be no single explanation for how abstraction works, that each piece had to be understood on its own terms — how it came to be made, what it meant then and what it has gone on to mean to viewers since. Dour works like Frank Stella’s early gray-on-black canvases, or Richard Serra’s pours of molten lead, seemed to open up under Kirk’s touch to reveal a delicacy and complexity lost in less textured explanations.
After Kirk’s lectures, there may have been some slight disappointment at the lack of a single message to take home, but there was exhilaration at the variety of meaning that his deliberate lack of message opened up.
This is Kirk’s legacy: a determination to favor the particular realities of art over the shoehorning generalizations of scholarship.
February’s blockbuster “Matisse Picasso” show was the last major project that Kirk worked on for MoMA. (In 2001, he discovered that the colon cancer he had thought was in remission had metastasized; he left the museum in early 2002 to take up a pure research position at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he wrote the Mellon Lectures.) Despite being co-curated with five other scholars, “Matisse Picasso” seemed to have a Varnedoe touch. In its most Kirkian moments, the exhibition had a strong concentration on the documented complexities of history — on precisely when and how Matisse had contact with Picasso, and vice versa — rather than on larger ideas about Picasso-hood and Matisse-ishness. (When it veered into groundless speculation, I liked to imagine I was seeing other curators’ hands at work.)
Earlier MoMA exhibitions organized by Kirk showed his touch in purer form.
A major Jackson Pollock retrospective in 1998 seemed a straightforward survey of the painter’s work — Kirk often liked to let an artist’s pictures speak for themselves — but it had moments of strong insight into precisely how that work took shape. A full-size reconstruction of Pollock’s cramped studio, for instance, gave a clear idea of the specific physicality involved in his act of painting. No wonder Pollock loomed on top of his canvases; there was no room to back up from them. (That reconstruction was often misread as a corny homage to a space once inhabited by genius. Kirk admired artistic innovation, but no one ever caught him canonizing its practitioners.)
And Kirk’s first major MoMA show, the hugely controversial “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” co-curated with my brother in 1990, was Varnedoe art history at his purest. From Picasso through pop art, it had always been obvious that modern artists had borrowed from the everyday world around them — but no one had ever bothered to spell out all the specificities of how that borrowing actually came about, and what it might have meant. “High and Low” set out to do just that. In the process it discovered, for instance, that Max Ernst’s famous collages were glued together from advertising imagery that was already old-fashioned by Ernst’s day; when they were made, Ernst’s collages were more about nostalgia for the past than current consumerism.
The show also discovered that pop artist Roy Lichtenstein wasn’t just influenced by the style of comic book art, as had always been assumed; his paintings are precise blow-ups of particular panels from a small roster of favored artists and comics. They come closer to homage than to satire.
“High and Low” was savaged from all sides: Right-wingers thought it heresy to pollute sacrosanct great art by showing it alongside ads and comics; the art world’s militant left thought the pollution went the other way.
And Kirk just wanted to do away with all such hierarchies, and get at precisely what had happened on the ground when someone like Picasso borrowed the typeface from a newspaper or the graphics from an ad.
In “A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern,” a book-length essay published the year of “High and Low,” Kirk staked out his territory: “Innovation is a kind of secular miracle; secular, because it happens amid the humdrum machinery of life getting along, and virtually everything about it is comprehensible without recourse to any notion of supernatural mystery or fated destiny; miraculous, not only because it can change things dramatically, but because none of that machinery suffices to explain why it had to happen this way. . . . The raw material here is not random change, but personal initiative: The individual decisions to be an outsider within one’s own world, to try new meanings for old forms, and attack old tasks with new means, to accept the strange as useful and to reconsider the familiar as fraught with possibility.”
And he chose his metaphor: “The exploit of William Webb Ellis, who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game.”
Kirk had that kind of fine disregard.
View this article online at The Washington Post
Like most of us, I had followed Kirk’s career — and visited his exhibitions — with fascination, but not until I read the articles (reprinted below) did I grasp the full range of his achievement. Let’s just say that the articles are almost as eloquent and engaging as Kirk himself.
The New York Times, Editorial Page
The Curatorial Voice: Kirk Varnedoe
The New York Times, Editorial Page
August 16, 2003
By Verlyn Klinkenborg
It’s natural enough to talk about the eye of an art historian. But when it comes to Kirk Varnedoe, who died this week at the age of 57, it’s just as important to talk bout his voice. His eye, after all, will live on, embodied as it is in the additions he made to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, where he was the chief curator of painting and sculpture from 1988 to 2001. What has really gone with his premature death is his living voice and everything it represented.
Nearly everyone who met Kirk Varnedoe felt his volubility, the sometimes astonishing flow of words and ideas at his command. There were set pieces in his conversation, favorite stories, well-trod paths. But mostly there was the feeling that a newly begun sentence could wind up going almost anywhere, crossing the plains into an unknown country or doubling back on a settlement that suddenly looked different than it did the first time we passed it. The great talkers – and he was one – are great because they are always embarked on a voyage of discovery.
There was a fine, dark gravel on the streambed of Kirk Varnedoe’s voice. Occasionally, a Southern note from his childhood would float to the surface like a perfectly formed bubble. He was a conveyor of knowledge, not a hoarder. No idea, no fact, became quite real to him unless he had passed it along to someone else first.
Despite his volubility, I was always struck by the tangibility of the words he used, whether he was talking about college football, which he had played and coached, or modernism, which he had spent most of his life studying. It was as if he were laying words down on the table one by one as he used them, like brushes in an artist’s studio. That was why students crowded into his classes and why the National Gallery of Art had overflow audiences for his Mellon Lectures earlier this year. Something synaptic happened when you listened to Kirk Varnedoe, and, remarkably, something synaptic happened when he listened to you. You never knew what you might discover together.
this article online
As we remember Kirk, let us be thankful that we could call him our friend and that he will suffer no longer.
Kirk always had the abilitlty to laugh at himself. He liked to tell the story of his football “glory” days. He was as conscientous as a football player as he was as a student. One day on the way to practice, he looked at the board and saw the team would be working on the Polish offense and the Polish defense. How could he have missed these in the play book? He must have been studying too hard for his art hour test.
So as not to appear ignorant, Kirk went right in and asked Coach to explain this new Polish offense and defense. Well, Coach just smiled and told Kirk the word would be polish, not Polish. Talk about eating crow!
After graduation, Kirk and I spent a month traveling around Europe visiting the greatest galleries in the world. What a learning experience for me, a not-so-solid C art history student. I’m sure I slowed his development as a scholar to a snail’s pace. Among other things, we shook hands with Wilt Chamberlin (his one hand simultaneously engulfed our two), swam in the Trevi Fountain, overslept and missed an audience with the Pope, and generally offended Europeans from Norway to the French Riviera. Kirk never forgave me for destroying his only copy of “Down in the Boondocks” by Billy Joe Royal.
After a summer like that, it’s no wonder Kirk went off to grad school. Kirk, I loved you as a friend and I miss you.
JOHN KIRK TRAIN VARNEDOE
1946 – 2003
EULOGY, DELIVERED AUGUST 25, 2003
BY ALBERT SCARDINO
What a Renaissance life we’ve come together to celebrate! Not a Renaissance man in the clichéd version of the term, not a Leonardo. Kirk was instead a product of the Renaissance, one who threw over the blind faith and prejudices of the past, examining the world around him with a fresh intellectual rigor, a cerebral revolutionary freeing human expression.
How ironic then that we are here in the mournful setting of this Southern Gothic cemetery on a sticky afternoon in late summer, surrounded by so many religious icons, to say goodbye in something of a spiritual way to our rationalist friend and brother.
Rationalist, yes, but, oh! he had spirit, maybe more than anyone else we’ve known. You might have seen it in the way he struggled as a tubby youngster to win a place on the St. Andrew’s School football team, waddling to the scrimmage line, refusing to give in to the waves of nausea that washed over him in training, until finally, against every conceivable set of odds, he emerged as a leader of a championship team.
If you missed that, you certainly couldn’t miss it in everything he said and did in the seven or eight years after he learned about the cancer that was gradually but relentlessly crowding away his life. During a long walk in May, he said he often thought: “What would I do today if I knew I were going to be dead next week?” The answer, he said, was that he would do just what he had been doing during those intense months leading up to the Mellon lectures: No chasing about the world in search of a miracle. No joining therapy groups in search of sympathy. No surrendering to fear, to hopelessness, to fatigue. And no pleading to a higher power to save him. Just working those 18 hour days, and thinking about the story of contemporary art and artists, and talking, always the talking, the power of his own voice reassuring him that he could still hold on to his life.
He loved his work
He loved the people in his life.
He loved his life – Shakespearean as it was – right up to the end.
In another age, he might have been a boisterous Prince Hal maturing into a Henry V. At his moment of greatest achievement, his acceptance into the Institute for Advanced Studies, he also learned that his cancer, dormant for five years, had bloomed maliciously to invade every part of his body.
Right up to the end he remained dedicated to the principle that the power to reason – and that power alone – would sustain him. If only he could understand, he could endure.
Giving him credit for being a rationalist is not to say that he lacked a soul. Oh, did he have a soul! A depth of soul that could reach across months or years or generations to feel and smell and touch and share ideas with those he taught and those he studied – which includes just about all of us here, and millions more who were exposed to his open, warm, embrace through lectures and exhibitions and who exposed themselves to him in return – not just close family and old friends, but also friends of children of distant cousins. He’d drop everything to escort a group of 15-year-olds, children of friends of high school buddies, through the galleries of the Modern, but recognizing their boredom about abstract expressionism engage them instead in the construction methods to be used on the museum’s new wing.
“I know you’re only here because your parents told you to call me,” he would say, “but on your way out, you might want to take a look at Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. It’s a story about war and death and courage. And it’s only going to be hanging where it is for a few more weeks.”
Guess where those teenagers spent their next two hours.
But rich as he was in spirit and soul, Kirk was as pure a humanist as his generation has known, an intellectual product of an era of enlightenment, rather than a captive of dogma and mystery. The closest thing he had to a religious experience in the 50 years I knew him was Doug Flutie’s famous Hail Mary Pass in the Boston College game against Miami.
A couple of years ago he told the television interviewer Charlie Rose that art was his religion. I think he misspoke. Art was his church. It was people that he worshipped. He drew his strength and vision from people, in vast numbers and in enormous quantity, and he returned energy to them in exactly the same way. It’s hard now to visualize him alone, at a podium or a desk or in a single skull or on his motorcycle. I see him in an embrace of one kind or another – both arms over the shoulders of friends singing Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve, or one arm around the waist of a patron at the opening of an exhibition, or hugging a brother at a family dinner, or grabbing the head of a teammate in celebration at the end of a football match, or gently but firmly grasping Elyn’s hand on the couch in the loft in Soho. He craved human contact, both to transmit and receive.
We think of him now as a genius of art history. He never forgot a detail, whether about a Rodin photograph or a primitive cave painting of a bison. More importantly, he never forgot his own history. In his adult life the rest of the world thought of him as almost too handsome to be taken seriously. How many other museum curators could have been captured so beautifully by Annie Liebowitz for that Barney’s ad in The New York Times – and how many others would have caused so much jealousy by doing it? His friend Ruth Rogers told me a couple of years ago, “Kirk Varnedoe is the most vibrant, handsome man I’ve ever known.” A week later, over dinner at Jerry’s around the corner from the New York apartment, Kirk was telling me what he himself saw in the mirror.
“If the definition of beauty is symmetry, this ain’t it,” he said, gesturing to his own chin. “My face is skewed to the right because my jaw juts out one way and my forehead is out of balance and my ears don’t match and I have all of these moles all over the place.”
He thought an Olympian god with a Cubist sense of humor had assembled him. But what he saw as barnacles others saw as beauty marks.
There was certainly nothing handsome about him as a child. He remembered himself rolling home from school, two feet tall and ten feet wide, dragging a giant leather briefcase behind him.
Savannah was an isolated, hothouse environment in those days, not a breeding ground for genius – segregated, poor, crumbling, too genteel to be as reactionary as the rest of the South, but certainly a participant in a rigid class system rooted in race and money. Kirk was oblivious at the time. He was the class entertainment, sketching caricatures of teachers on the blackboard just before the day began.
Art, and, as he later described it, the vocabulary of art, had almost no place in that time – in this place – no room for his genius. Science was the intellectual activity in fashion. At the top of his grade school class were a future astronomer, a mathematician, a cancer researcher.
Had it not been for a mother whose ambition for him exceeded his own initial ambition for himself, Kirk might well have stumbled along with a repressed talent in a world that could not understand his language. But that wasn’t good enough for the Varnedoe house on 45th Street. This was a family that had a broad view of the world, far broader than its privileged place in post-war Savannah. When Kirk’s brother Sam was born, he didn’t become Little Sam or Sammy, as he would have in many families. The father instead became Big Sam. And by the time Kirk came along, fourth in line, his mother wasn’t just Lilla, as many of us would eventually call our mother by her first name. She morphed into Diamond Lil, and then into the crystalline form, “Diamonds.”
It was Diamonds who determined to force Kirk out of the nest, who packed him off to Delaware rather than to the more gentlemanly institutions of Virginia, to start his real education, to shape him into an intellectual, to let him find his own voice – and to start him on his way of amplifying the voices of so many others. And she got him a passport, rare enough in America today, a bizarre affectation in the Savannah of 50 years ago.
Had he stayed glued to Savannah, Kirk might have accepted a comfortable role as an eccentric aristocrat. He had the rounded O’s and the pedigree for the part. There was the family line to one of the great Georgia textile families, other branches into banking, the professions, politics. But once his education began, there was never an air of entitlement about him, never a moment of posing, only an appreciation for family, for history, for opportunity. He emerged as one of the finest democrats – with a small “d” – that I’ve ever known. He could share the same story of a painting with a doorman that he did with a chairman – and probably learn more from the doorman in the bargain.
Last fall, Kirk was invited to join a weekend retreat of great minds at the Larkin home on St. Catherine’s Island, just a few miles down the coast from here. The guests were expected to hold forth after Saturday night dinner on a subject of their professional interest. When lunch was over, the great men and women dispersed to gather their thoughts, some strolling along the miles of sparkling beach, others studying the teeming wildlife in the slough that breaks into the middle of the island, still others spending time surveying the island’s breeding program for rare African animals. Because it operates as a retreat for intellectuals, there is no television set in the Larkin house, other than the one in the kitchen to keep the staff entertained between meals.
Kirk lingered after lunch, and then, exhibiting a previously undisclosed enthusiasm for assisting in the kitchen, rose to help clear the dishes. After dumping his armful of plates, he whispered to the cook, “Any score yet in the Georgia Tennessee game?” They switched on the box to see, and for the next two hours, Kirk stood with the staff and coached and cheered and wailed, that wonderful voice of his echoing across the swamps and through the forests of St. Catherine’s. “Go, Dogs, Go, Go, Go…”
It’s that voice that stays with us now. So many have remarked in the last few days about his ability to speak in paragraphs, to make the words roll over us, absorb us, warm us. I’m not sure that the content was all that important. The transcripts of his remarks can sometimes leave you feeling that something has been lost in translation. But the beautiful expression of those thoughts, the explaining to us all what it was that others were trying to say, the way his beautiful voice gave an amplified voice to so many artists here and gone, to so many students of art, to so many of those privileged to collect art and protect it and interpret it – that was the genius.
Not the words themselves, but rather the words as they emerged from that body, from that giant of a friend, from that grand, noble, generous mountain of a human being. That is the spiritual gift he has left us all.
And the greatest of all his expressions was his laugh, a rolling thunder of joy, a sound so rich that it could infect the galleries and the atrium of a crowded museum on opening night, that could echo through the pine woods of the farm in Port Wentworth on a New Year’s Eve, that could embrace an audience in any one of a thousand lecture halls, that could lift a football team to a championship or that could make you wish your private dinner would never end.
I can hear that laugh now, rolling away gently into a seismic chuckle.
I hope you can remember it the way I do.
It was miraculous.
Classmate, Turner Smith
A number of us, 8-10 from ’67, made it to Kirk’s graveside service this past Monday. It was hot and sticky but a wonderful service with a reception afterwards. The eulogy was delivered by Albert Scardino, a childhood friend of Kirk’s from Savannah now living in London with his family. I’ve known Albert for 15 years. He was a perfect choice as you will see from his wonderful eulogy.
Metropolitan Museum Of Art
JOHN KIRK TRAIN VARNEDOE
1946 – 2003
EULOGY, DELIVERED OCTOBER 27, 2003
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
by Turner B. Smith ‘67
I first met Kirk in September of 1963. We were two of the five boys from Georgia entering the Class of 1967 at Williams College. I consulted this same class for particular memories of Kirk that I could use in these comments. I received several that speak to the qualities of our good friend.
One classmate recalled how in freshman year our class was charged with providing the ice sculpture for Winter Carnival. The theme was a Mid-Winter Night’s dream. And how Kirk quickly organized bucket brigades for transporting snow, and in the end Kirk had pulled at least two all nighters carving ice with a hatchet. This was before chain saws. Before the carnival began the class had a two-story ice sculpture of the half man-half donkey character in Shakespeare’s play, even with the bent ear. And this from a guy who just 4 months before had barely seen snow.
Another credits Kirk with the discovery of personal dry cleaning. This was a process in which Kirk would remove his soiled clothes at the end of a day, place them in his drawer, sprinkle them with a little Old Spice and talcum powder and continue this process until the drawer was full. Then he would rotate the clothes from the bottom as needed. This gave us an early glimpse of how cultured a man Kirk was because a similar process developed in our house only we didn’t use the Old Spice…or the talcum powder. Still another wanted to introduce his girlfriend (a woman who would later become his wife) to Kirk, only to find Kirk recently off a rugby field, muddy, and in the basement of the house swilling beer, without a shirt, and reciting the bawdy Eskimo Nell to what was always an appreciative audience.
I could go on.
Suffice it to say that our association with Kirk was deep, and it was rich. He was a part of us. And we were a part of him. He was our friend and we were his.
Over the years since Williams Kirk was able to take some of us hardened cynics from that purple valley in Western Mass., dress us up and take us to openings and private showings, introduce us to his books and lectures, and in so doing he unselfconsciously allowed us to enter his world and become part of it. To us, Kirk opened a box. Kirk explained art as the sum of its parts, and the parts were the sum of their parts, and those parts their parts and so on. Whether it was an individual painting or the study of art history itself, the key was how to put this sequence together. This was his genius. To study and explain this required a curious, tenacious and extraordinarily articulate mind. Kirk’s mind qualified. Now, he has left us all with insight we would not have had had we not known him. He touched the way we look at things. In short, he touched our very perspective, and he will forever be a part of us.
Our class chose Kirk as our speaker upon the occasion of our 25th reunion. In his speech he said as much. I quote…. “The remarkable thing is how much of what we learned here still has to do with our lives, with our sense of how to live the rest of those lives. The paradox is that, while we must demand representations, cultural and political, that will be equal to the complexity of our lived experience, we recognize that we often know that experience most keenly through the forms we learned from others. (He continues….) We build ourselves from borrowed parts; many of us here owe something crucial to someone else sitting here, and to professors and classmates now gone. And we have the solace of sharing some basic parts, such as the beauty of this valley.”
I’ll close with a story not so much about Kirk but his dad, Big Sam. I mentioned earlier that Kirk and I were from Georgia. Years ago I had occasion to go to Savannah fairly regularly on business. When Kirk learned of this he suggested that I stay with his parents whom I had gotten to know over the years during and after college. I dragged my feet thinking Kirk was just being polite until one day Kirk’s mom, Diamonds, called and insisted that I stay with them. The next trip I stayed with the Varendoes and after a nice dinner, the table was cleared, Kirk’s dad, Big Sam, and I went into the sun room to talk about the things that weigh so heavily on men’s minds – such as good whiskey, how many really good bird dogs a man can expect to have in the course of his life, and of course, University of Georgia football.
On one occasion Big Sam said to me, after pouring us a glass of Rebel Yell Bourbon (this was the only bourbon Big Sam drank since it was deliberately not marketed north of the Mason-Dixon line), “Turner, you do know Robert E. Lee’s farewell address, don’t you?” I said that I didn’t but that I had memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in high school. Big Sam just said, “Wrong side,” and then recited Lee’s address. He went on to say that every good southern boy should know this, and I thought that if Kirk could learn Eskimo Nell, I could learn Lee’s farewell. I memorized it. I now know it cold. And I only realized after August 14 how prophetic it has become.
I’ll spare you my full rendition but I will paraphrase… In it, Lee talks about an heroic 4-year struggle, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude. But in the end, a final surrender to overwhelming numbers and resources. Now that it’s ended, Lee says that “You can go home now, and take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed.” He adds, “And I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection.” And lastly,” … with increasing admiration of your constancy and devotion, and a strong remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, we bid you an affectionate farewell.”
God speed, Kirk.