This post marks the first of a ten part series from “The Last of the Metrozoids” , a tribute to the late Kirk Varnedoe ’67 by his friend and protege, Adam Gopnik.

The entire essay was originally published in The New Yorker in 2004, and more recently in Gopnik’s collection of essays, Through the Children’s Gate. 

As was Varnedoe, the essay is rich and varied. It touches on football, which Varnedoe played and coached while at Williams, and art, which made up the thrust of his career as a noted historian and curator.

I’ll refrain from telling you more about Varnedoe, because Gopnik does it so beautifully. However, if you have any anecdotes about him, or Williams’ beloved “holy trinity” (Faison, Pierson, and Stoddard) under whom he studied, please share them with us.

(special thanks to P’12 and LG for bringing Gopnik’s essay to my attention)

 The Last of the Metrozoids

by Adam Gopnik

Part I

In the spring of 2003, the American art historian Kirk Varnedoe accepted the title of head coach of a football team called the Giant Metrozoids, which practiced then every week in Central Park. It was a busy time for him. He had just become a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, after thirteen years as the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and he was preparing the Mellon Lectures for the National Gallery of Art in Washington – a series of six lectures on abstract art that he was supposed to deliver that spring. He was also dying, with a metastasis in his lung of a colon cancer that had been discovered in 1996, and, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, he was running through all the possible varieties of chemotherapy, none of which did much good, at least not for very long.

The Giant Metrozoids were not, on the face of it, much of a challenge for him. They began with a group of eight-year-olds in my son Luke’s second grade class.

Football had replaced Yu-Gi-Oh! cards and the sinister water yo-yo (poisonous) as a preoccupation and a craze. The boys had become wrapped up in the Tampa Bay Bucaneer’s march to victory in the Super Bowl that winter, and they had made up their minds to be football players. They wanted a team-“a real team that practices and has T-shirts and knows plays and everything”- that could play flag football, against an as yet unknown opponent, and I set about trying to organize it. (The name was a compromise: Some of the boys had wanted to be called the Giants, while cool opinion had landed on the Freakazoids; Metrozoids was arrived at by some diplomatic back formation with “Metropolitan.”)

Once I had the T-shirts, white and blue, we needed a coach, and Kirk, Luke’s godfather, was the only choice; during one of his chemotherapy sessions, I suggested a little tentatively that he might try it. He had been a defensive-backfield coach at Williams College for a year after graduation, before he went to Stanford to do art history, and I knew he had thought of taking up coaching as a full-time profession, only to decide, as he said once, “If you’re going to spend your life coaching football, you have to be smart enough to do it well and dumb enough to think it matters.” But he said yes eagerly. He gave me instructions on what he would need, and made a date with the boys.

On the first Friday afternoon, I took the red cones he had asked for and arranged them carefully on our chosen field, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Seventy-ninth Street, just a couple of blocks from the Children’s Gate. I looked over my shoulder at the pseudo-Renaissance mansion that houses NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts,right across the street. We had met there twenty-three years earlier, his first year at the Institute of Fine Arts, and mine, too. He had arrived from Stanford and Paris and Columbia, a young scholar, just thirty four, who had made his reputation by cleaning up  one of the messier stalls in the art-historical stable, the question of the authentic Rodin drawings. Then he helped revive some unfairly forgotten reputations, particularly that of the misunderstood “academic” Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte.

But, as with Lawrence Taylor’s first season with the Giants, though we knew he was supposed to be good, nobody was this good. He would come into the lecture room in turtleneck and sports jacket, professor-wear, and staring at his shoes and without any preliminaries, wait for the lights to dim, demand, “First slide, please,” and, pacing back and forth, look up at the image, no text in his hand but a list of slides. “Last time we left off looking at Cezanne in the eighties, when the conversation between his code, registered in the deliberately crippled, dot-dot-dash, telegraphic repetition of brushstrokes, and his construction, built up in the blocky, stage-set recessional spaces, set out like flats on a theater,” he would begin, improvising, spitballing, seeing meaning in everything. A Judd box was as alive for him as a Rodin bronze, and his natural mode was to talk in terms of tension rather than harmony. What was weird about the pictures was exactly what there was to prize about them, and, his style implied, all the nettled and querulous critics who tried to homogenize the pictures into a single story undervalued them, because, in a sense, they undervalued life, which was never going to be harmonized , either.

It was football that made us friends. In that first fall, he had me typed as a clever guy, and his attitude was that in the professions of the mind, clever guys finish nowhere at all, That spring we organized a touch-football game at the institute, and although I am the most flatfooted, least-gifted touch-football player in the whole history of the world, I somehow managed to play in it. A bunch of us persuaded our young professor to come out and join in one Sunday. The game was meant to be a gentle co-ed touch game. But Kirk altered it by his presence. He was slamming so many bodies and dominating so much that a wary, alarmed circle of caution formed around him.

Finally, I insisted to John Wilson, the Texan Renaissance scholar in the huddle, that if he faked a short pass and everybody made a lot of noise- “I got it!,” “There it is!,” and so on- Kirk would react instantly and run t0ward the sound, and I could sneak behind him for the touchdown.

Well, the play worked, and, perhaps recognizing that it was an entirely verbal construction, Kirk spotted its author and came right over, narrow-eyed and almost angry. “Smart play,” he said shortly, with the unspoken words “Smart-ass play” resonating in the leaves above our heads. But then he shook his fist happily, a sign meaning okay, nice one. He turned away. He sees right through me,  I thought; he knows exactly what I’m up to. I began working harder, and we became friends.

(look for Part II tomorrow)

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