There are only a few people in the art field who can be described as having it all. Kirk Varnedoe was definitely one of them. As the senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he occupied one of the most prominent and influential positions in the contemporary art world. Like many of his colleagues, he had deep knowledge of the history of art, but his passion and eloquence put him, absolutely, in a league of his own.
When, last year, he came to Los Angeles to deliver a series of talks at both LACMA and MOCA, people were pleading for tickets. It was already publicly known that he was battling cancer, and this probably lent additional poignancy to the events.
He resigned his post at MOMA in 2001 and accepted a prestigious post at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton. Relieved of his consuming daily responsibilities at the museum, he could now devote all his free time to thinking and writing about the subject for which he cared the most- art. The last month of his life he spent preparing for his Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art, the most prestigious assignment an art historian can get. By all accounts they were an astounding success.
With his courtly manner and the good looks of a matinee idol, Kirk Varnedoe easily commanded attention, but the secret to his ability to hold that attention was his passionate appreciation for art, and its ability to enrich and inspire an individual's life. When he talked, it was clear that he was never at a loss for words. One had the impression that while he was talking, his ideas continued to evolve, surprising sometimes even himself. But, blessedly, he was never full of himself, the way the brilliant and annoying Gore Vidal can be.
A week or so ago, I caught a rerun of his interview with Charlie Rose on PBS. The host was obviously in love with his guest, and kept uncharacteristically quiet. By the end of the program, I felt almost overwhelmed by Kirk Varnedoe's intensity and was hardly able to keep up with his flow of thoughts. Listening to him talk made me fall in love with art all over again. I envy those who were lucky enough to have him as their teacher. I envy those who were lucky enough to work with him as a colleague. Unfortunately for us in the art world, there is no heir apparent to his unique brand of magic.
"Modigliani & the Artists of Montparnasse", But let me end up on a more optimistic note. There is a chance for all of us to catch a little bit of magic, thanks to an inspired idea of the County Museum of Art - to keep its doors open all night. Two of LACMA's current popular exhibitions, Modigliani and the French Masterpieces from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, will be open to the public, free of charge, for the whole night of Thursday, September 18th, from 9pm until 7am the next morning. There will be live music, food and plenty of prizes including museum memberships and exotic vacations. I want to believe that Kirk Varnedoe, who took quite a beating for his exhibition "High and Low", would appreciate LACMA's bold attempt to mix High Art with various earthly pleasures and delights.
FREE ALL-NIGHT PARTY AT LACMA
Thursday, September 18, 9pm - Friday, September 19, 7am
"Modigliani & the Artists of Montparnasse" and
"Old Masters, Impressionists, and Moderns:
French Masterworks from the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow"
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036