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John Kirk Train Varnedoe

Death: August 14, 2003 (57)
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About Kirk Varnedoe

John Kirk Train Varnedoe (January 18, 1946 – August 14, 2003) was an American art historian, the Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 1988 to 2001, Professor of the History of Art at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and Professor of Fine Arts at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts.


Varnedoe was born and raised in Savannah, Georgia, and attended Savannah Country Day School. He studied at St. Andrew's School and Williams College, where he was a member of the Kappa Alpha Society. At Williams he began studying studio art, but soon switched to art history under the influence of Professor Lane Faison, and received his A.B. in 1967. He also played college football and, after graduating, returned to work as a coaching assistant and to lead art history discussion sections for a year.

In 1972 Varnedoe earned a Ph.D. at Stanford under Rodin scholar Albert Elsen, with whom he collaborated on an exhibition and catalog, The Drawings of Rodin (1971), about the profusion of drawings falsely attributed to Rodin. He married the artist Elyn Zimmerman, taught art history at Stanford for a year, then taught at Columbia University and at New York University Institute of Fine Arts. In 1987 he published a book about the French painter Gustave Caillebotte, which helped to initiate a revival of scholarly and public interest in that little-known Impressionist. A 1982 exhibition Varnedoe curated, "Northern Light: Realism and Symbolism in Scandinavian Painting, 1880-1910" introduced American audiences to yet more unfamiliar artists.

In 1984, the same year that he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, he co-curated with William Rubin, the principal curator and future director of the Museum of Modern Art, an important and controversial exhibition at MoMA, "Primitivism in Twentieth-Century Art." That relationship with Rubin led to his appointment at MoMA four years later to the prestigious position of Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, a position he held for thirteen years before leaving for Princeton. It was a precarious moment in which to take charge of the most highly regarded collection of modern art in the world; contemporary artists bitterly complained that MoMA had lost touch with the current art scene and those opposed to many of the new developments in the current art scene feared that MoMA would alter its historical allegiance to high Modernism from Matisse to Rothko. "Varnedoe inherits his mantle in difficult times," one commentator observed.

Varnedoe curated or co-curated a number of major exhibitions at MoMA during his tenure, some which were considered highly controversial. A list of the exhibitions he brought to MoMA also indicates the breadth of his interests: "Vienna: 1900" in 1986, "High And Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture" (co-curated with the writer Adam Gopnik) in 1990, retrospectives of the art of Cy Twombly (1995), Jasper Johns (1997), and Jackson Pollock (1999), and "Van Gogh's Postman: The Portraits of Joseph Roulin (2001). He was highly regarded as a public speaker and lectured frequently; among his most notable lecture series were the Slade Lectures at Oxford and the Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Varnedoe left MoMA in 2001. His departure came, according to his wife and to Adam Gopnik, after a period of difficult relations with the museum's new director, Glenn Lowry. He then became a scholar-in-residence at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies until his death two years later.

Kirk Varnedoe died of cancer in 2003 at the age of fifty-seven. Adam Gopnik, one of his graduate school protégés in the mid-1980s, wrote a tribute in The New Yorker in 2004, which was subsequently republished in Reader's Digest.


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Kirk Varnedoe's Timeline

January 18, 1946
August 14, 2003
Age 57