“Kirk Varnedoe: In the Middle at the Modern” opened at the Jepson Center last Friday, although the controversial art world legend is hardly a stranger to the museum.
Born in 1946 to a wealthy Savannah family, Varnedoe showed a remarkable skill in drawing at a young age and began art classes at the Telfair Academy, winning many prizes. He shifted his studies toward art history at Williams College and intensified them at Stanford by pursuing a Ph.D.
At Stanford, Varnedoe studied the drawings of Auguste Rodin and received a fellowship from Rodin collector B. G. Cantor (whose collection can also be viewed at the Jepson through January) and traveled to the Musée Rodin in Paris. He quickly learned to discern originals from “fakes,” prompting him to consider why museums value certain objects over others and why a bad original was valued more than a good copy.
In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) invited Varnedoe to co-organize the landmark exhibition “Primitivism in 20th Century Art.” Despite the show’s mixed reviews, the MoMA appointed Varnedoe as Chief Curator of the Painting and Sculpture Department in 1988 and he began work on a new exhibition entitled “High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture.”
As word about the new show spread, an article in The New York Times anticipated the resulting onslaught. “Varnedoe, standing between [high and low], may find that the middle can be a dangerous place, as left and right trample over him to go for each other’s throats.”
“High & Low” opened in the fall of 1990. It consisted of 250 works by 50 artists spread throughout two floors of the museum, each of which looked to popular culture like advertising, comics, and graffiti to express the ideals of the time. The intention was to raise the question “Are the distinctions museums place between fine art and everything else healthy?”
The press was less than enthralled. The New York Times cited it as “the wrong exhibition in the wrong place at the wrong time” and The Los Angeles Times argued it was “a flop, but a flop worth analyzing.”
The Jepson’s current exhibition, in the right place at the right time, will allow patrons to do just that. Mixing a bit of biography with analysis three decades in the making, the exhibition features artifacts from Varnedoe’s career, recreations of sculptures and paintings, and simulated views of galleries from the MoMA.
The show’s highlight is an installation in response to Varnedoe’s controversial exhibit. Before a backdrop of half-painted red walls, paintings and sculptures resembling those from the original show join surrogates with no relationship to Varnedoe’s to create a “low,” erratic display, more reminiscent of a yard sale than a gallery show. Words like “sophisticated,” “arrogant,” “conventional” and “comical,” hang on the walls, inviting viewers to draw their own conclusions.
The exhibition was curated by Rachel Reese, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Triple Candie, an institution founded by art historians Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesblett in 2001. “This exhibition represents our view of Varnedoe’s legacy,” reads a statement made by the curatorial team. “We’ve focused on certain aspects of his life and career. Other historians may tell a different story.”
The exhibition will remain on display at the Jepson Center through February 11, 2018.