Papers of critic and curator Kirk
Varnedoe include student papers and lecture notes, research files for exhibitions and
publications, typescripts and audio tapes of lectures, and a small amount of material
related to his position at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Kirk Varnedoe was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1946 to a wealthy and distinguished Southern
family. He attended Williams College, where he began studying studio art, but soon switched
to art history under the influence of Professor Lane Faison. He also played college football
and, after graduating, returned to coach the football team and teach art history for a year.
He then earned a Ph.D. at Stanford under Rodin scholar Albert Elsen, with whom he
collaborated on an exhibition and catalog about the profusion of drawings falsely attributed
to Rodin. From 1974 to 1988 he taught first at Columbia University and then at the Institute
of Fine Arts, while also curating exhibitions on Scandinavian painting, Gustave Caillebotte,
turn-of-the century Vienna, and primitivism in Modern Art. From 1988 to 2002 he was the
curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. His exhibitions
there, beginning with High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, and
ending with a major retrospective on Jackson Pollock, attempted to acquaint the museum-going
public with art historical narratives that artists and academics had long accepted. These
efforts, together with Varnedoe's Artist Choice series, which engaged contemporary artists
to organize exhibitions of work from the permanent collection, helped move the museum into a
less canonical and more dynamic presentation of modern art.