Museum of Modern Art curator dies at 57

Kirk Varnedoe acquired important Picasso, Warhol paintings for MOMA

Sunday, August 17, 2003

— 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 Ph.D. 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 people 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, including 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, D.C., 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."