Sad to note the passing of Kirk Varnedoe, class of 1968 (I think). [Full disclosure: Varnedoe was also my brother’s wife’s cousin, although I never met him.] The NYT noted:

Kirk Varnedoe, the articulate, courtly and wide-ranging art historian who as chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art helped to reshape the museum’s collection and philosophy and in so doing created a broader public understanding of modern art, died yesterday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. He was 57 and lived in Manhattan and Princeton.

The jury for the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship noticed these qualities, too, and granted him one of its genius prizes in 1984. Among other things, he used the grant to write a history of modernism, “A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern.” He borrowed the title from a plaque near the Rugby School in England honoring William Webb Ellis, “who, with a fine disregard for the rules, invented the game of rugby.” Mr. Varnedoe, a rugby player and avid athlete, proposed Ellis’s mad dash with the ball as a metaphor for artistic innovation. It was an anti-Hegelian, anti-Marxist position, wherein art was regarded not as an inevitable unfolding of progressive events but as a variety of inspired inventions by remarkable and imaginative people. It was also, importantly for Mr. Varnedoe, a visceral and immediate experience.

I believe that Varnedoe played rugby at Williams, but can’t confirm that. Certainly. “A Fine Disregard” would make for some excellent rugby t-shirts, right up there with “Nihil in Moderato” — or whatever the Latin is for the late 1980’s motto of “Nothing in Moderation.” For Eph’s, the nice part of the obituary is:

He became one of many museum professionals to have graduated from Williams College, where, he recalled, Lane Faison Jr. was one of the professors who opened his eyes to art history. “You were encouraged to believe that you should look hard at paintings and that what you had to say about them would be worthwhile,” Mr. Varnedoe said, “which in a sense was a false hope, because many people had said thousands of things about these pictures before. But it was very salutary.”

Although the only thing (my fault and my loss) that I remember about Art History 101 is “soaring verticallity”, the same sentiment that Varnedoe expressed about art history at Williams in the 1960’s certainly applied to philosophy at Williams in the 1980’s. Other nice appreciations of Varnedoe can be found here and here.

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