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Greg Crowther ’95, left us a gem on “Speak Up”. He says:

I just posted a blog entry that is partly about Bill Bowerman, one of the great track coaches of the 20th century. The book I’m reading about him, “Bowerman and the Men of Oregon” by Kenny Moore, opens with the following quote: “A guru gives us himself and then his system; a teacher gives us his subject, and then ourselves.” Quick, what’s the Williams connection?

You guessed it — it’s a line from Adam Gopnik’s essay on Kirk Varnedoe, as previously featured on EphBlog. I was shocked (and pleased) to run across this quote again, since I only read about two books per year. Anyway, the Bowerman book is a great read for those interested in sports mentors and the like.

I have been stopping by Greg’s site ever since Ronit posted this lovely piece by him a while back. He writes about running, and in this essay in particular, a type of training called “HARD/EASY”. He cites Coach Bowerman as an early sourceadvocate of this principle, and quotes writer Kenny Moore on the man:

“Take a primitive organism,” Bowerman would say. “Any weak, pitiful organism. Say a freshman. Make it lift, or jump or run. Let it rest. What happens? A little miracle. It gets a little better. It gets a little stronger or faster or more enduring. That’s all training is. Stress. Recover. Improve.”

Read the whole thing. Like all good writers who write about their passion, Crowther’s words will inspire you to yours, whatever that may be.


A Tribute to Kirk Varnedoe ’67 – Part X


In this, the final segment, we have an encore of Boston College- Miami, “no Hail Mary” that one, instead, “one more work of art”…

…and a return to Williams College, a tribute in itself.

(Special thanks to Adam Gopnik for taking me on a journey I will not forget.)


The Last of the Metrozoids
by Adam Gopnik
Part X

By July, the doctors had passed him right out of even the compassionate trials and were into the world of guesses and radiation. “It’s a Hail Mary,” he said of a new radiation therapy that they were proposing. “But, who knows, maybe I’ll get the Doug Flutie of radiologists.” Then a slight ache in his back that he thought was a disk he’d hurt water-skiing turned out to be large tumor in his spine, and the end came quickly.

His wife, Elyn, had to be out of the city, and I spent the last Saturday afternoon of his life with him. In the old way, I went into his office to work on something I was writing. Kirk went to see what was on television. He had, I noticed, a team photograph of the Metrozoids at their last practice propped up on the coffee table. By then he could hardly walk, and his breath came hard.
But he called out, “Yo. You got to come here.”


“You won’t believe this. Boston College-Miami.”

Damned if it wasn’t. ESPN Classics had a “Hail Mary” Saturday, all the great games decided on the last play, and now, twenty years late, they were showing the game from beginning to end: the whole game, with the old graphics and the announcer’s promos, exactly as it had first been shown.

So we finally got to watch the game. And it was 1984 again, and the game was thrilling, even though you knew what the outcome would be and how it would happen. Kirk’s brother, Sam, came around, and he watched, too, the three of us just enjoying a good game, until at last here we were at that famous, miraculous, final Hail Mary, Doug Flutie dropping back and rolling out to heave the ball desperately downfield.

“Look at that!” Kirk cried, and the ball was still in midair out of view, up above the television screen.

“What?” I asked, as the ball made its arc and fell into the hands of Gerard Phelan and the announcers went wild.

“That’s no Hail Mary. Watch it again and you’ll see. That’s a coverage breakdown.” The old defensive-backfield coach spoke evenly, as, twenty years before, the crowd jumped and screamed. “Safety steps up too soon because he doesn’t think Flutie can make that throw on the run. What he doesn’t see is that Flutie has time to square around and get his feet set on the rollout, which adds fifteen yards to his range. Safety steps up too soon, Phelan runs a standard post route, and that’s it. That safety sees Flutie get his feet set, makes the right read, and there’s no completion.” Turning to us, he said, “That is no Hail Mary, friends. That’s no miracle. That is just the play you make. That is one gentleman making the right read and running the right pattern and the other gentleman making the wrong read.” And for one moment he looked as happy as I had ever known him: one more piece of the world’s mysteries demystified without being debunked, a thing legendary and hallowed broken down into the real pattern of human initiative and human weakness and human action that had made it happen. We had been waiting twenty years to see a miracle, and what we saw – what he saw, once again, and showed us – was one more work of art, a pattern made by people out of the possibilities the moment offered to a ready mind. It was no Hail Mary, friends; it was a play you made.

He turned to me and Sam, and, still elated by the revelation of what had really happened all those years ago, we began to talk about Ralph Emerson and Richard Serra. And then Kirk said heavily, “There is nothing in the world I would rather be doing than taking part in this conversation. But I have to lie down.” He died four days afterward, late at night, having spent the day talking about Hitchcock films and eighteenth-century hospital architecture.

Luke and Elyn and I went up to the football field at Williams last fall and, with some other friends, spread his ashes in the end zone, under the goalposts. At his memorial, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Renee Fleming sang and the violinist Arnold Steinhardt played and the art world of New York turned out and listened and recalled him. I think a lot of them must have been puzzled, in the slide show that Elyn had prepared to begin the evening, and which recapitulated his career, from Savannah to Princeton, to see toward the end a separate section gravely entitled “The Giant Metrozoids,” with the big figure surrounded by small boys. But I’m sure he would have been glad to see them there. The Metrozoids are getting back in business again, with an inadequate coach. I’ve thought about finally making the motivational speech, but I don’t think I need to. The Metrozoids don’t need to learn how to separate the men from the heroes. They know.

The End


A Tribute to Kirk Varnedoe ’67 – Part IX

(image of Torqued Ellipse by Richard Serra)

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.

The line above comes from Blade Runner. It was quoted by Varnedoe in his final Mellon lecture, when he himself knew he was close to death.

I feel the need at this point to say very little, indeed, to speak in hushed tones, to give Gopnik’s words, the setting and reverence they, and their subject matter, deserve.

The Last of the Metrozoids
by Adam Gopnik
Part IX

If this story were the made-for-television movie that every story about early death threatens to become, we would have arranged one fiery game between the Giant Metrozoids and another team, a bigger, faster, slightly evil team, and the Metrozoids would win it for their coach. It didn’t happen like that. Not that the Metrozoids didn’t want a game. As their self-confidence increased, they kept urging us to find another team of eight-year-olds that they could test themselves against. I was all for it, but Kirk, I sensed, was not. Whenever the boys raised the possibility, he would say diffidently, “Let’s wait till the fall,” knowing, of course, that the fall, his fall, would never come.

I understood the hold he had on the Metrozoids. But when I thought about his hesitation, I started to understand the hold that the Metrozoids had on him. I had once said something fatuous to him about enjoying tonight’s sunset, whatever tomorrow would bring, and he had replied that when you know you are dying, you cannot simply “live in the moment.” You loved a fine sunset because it slipped so easily into a history, your’s and the world’s; part of the pleasure lay in knowing that it was one in a stream of sunsets you had loved, each good, some better, one or two perfect, moving forward in an open series. Once you knew that this one could be the last, it filled you with a sense of dread; what was the point of collecting paintings in a museum you knew was doomed to burn down?

But there were pleasures in life that were meaningful in themselves, that did not depend on their place in an ongoing story, now interrupted. These pleasures were not “aesthetic” thrills – not the hang gliding you had never done or the trip to Maui you had never taken – but things that existed outside the passage of time, things that were beyond comparison or, rather, beside comparison, off to one side of it. He loved the Metrozoid practices, I came to see, because for him they weren’t really practicing. The game would never come, and the game didn’t matter. What mattered was doing it.

At the last practice of the school year, the boys ran their plays and scrimmaged, and the familiar forms of football, of protection and pass routes and coverages, were all there, almost magically emerging from the chaos of eight-year-olds in motion. At the end, the boys came running up to him, and he stood in place and low-fived each one of them. “See you in September,” the kids cried, and Kirk let the small hands slap his broad one and smiled. “We’ll work again in the fall,” he said, and I knew he meant that someone would.

That Sunday he did something that surprised me. It was the last lecture of the Mellons, and he talked about death. Until then I had never heard him mention it in public. He had dealt with it by refusing to describe it – from Kirk, the ultimate insult. Now, in this last lecture, he turned on the audience and quoted a line from a favorite movie, Blade Runner, in which the android leader says, “Time to die,”, and at te very end Kirk showed them one of his favorite works, a Richard Serra Torqued Ellipse, and he showed them how the work itself, in the physical experiences it offered – inside and out, safe and precarious, cold and warm – made all the case that needed to be made for the complexity, the emotional urgency, of abstract art. Then he began to talk about his faith. “But what kind of faith?” he asked. “Not a faith in absolutes. Not a religious kind of faith. A faith only in possibility, a faith not that we will know something, finally, but a faith in not knowing, a faith in our ignorance, a faith in our being confounded and dumbfounded, as something fertile with possible meaning and growth…Because it can be done, it will be done. And now I am done.” The applause, when it came, was stadium applause, and it went on a long time.

(Part X, the final one, tomorrow)


A Tribute to Kirk Varnedoe ’67 – Part VIII

(for original post, please go here)

One of the things I truly love about this essay, is how beautifully it pays tribute, not just to Varnedoe, but to the mentor-protege relationship. Gopnik begins the piece with the back story of how he and Kirk first came to know one another as teacher and student, and seamlessly illustrates the transition into a deep and lifelong friendship.

It seems fitting at this point, to reflect on Lane Faison. In speaking of his mentor, Varnedoe once said:

“No single thing about Lane was so impressive, and so decisive in my life, as his pleasure. A sense of the obligatory, the routine,the bored – all those things that so often color a course taught for the umpty-umpth time, and all those things that can chill a student at a hundred paces – never intruded in anything he did.”

And Gopnik, in turn says of Varnedoe:

“[Kirk] loved life in its most tangible forms, and so for him art was as physical and pleasurable as being knocked down by a wave. Art was always material first – it was never, ever bound by a thorny crown of ideas.”

And so we have it. A handing down of what is learned, the nurturing of a way of seeing and living, a recognition of  the pleasure to be had in it, all qualities that make a life, a work of art in itself. Gopnik’s beautiful essay, yet more evidence of the value of this blessed tradition.

In this segment, Gopnik returns us to Metrozoid Field, and to the secret of great teaching.

The Last of the Metrozoids
by Adam Gopnik

That Friday, out on Metrozoid Field, Kirk divided the boys into two teams. “A team runs the play, and B team defends,” he said.

“But they’ll know what we’re gonna do,” someone on the A team complained.

“That’s okay. Most of the time the other team knows what you’re gonna do. That’s called your tendency. The key is to do it anyway.”

“But if they know-”

“Just run the play. Most of the time the other team knows. The hard part is doing it right even when you know exactly what’s coming.”

The offense boys ran their one play, the flea flicker, and the defense boys ran around trying to stop it. Standing on the sidelines, I was amazed to see how hard it was to stop the play even if you did know it was coming. The boys on defense ran around, nettled, converging on the wrong receiver and waving their hands blindly at the ball. The boys on offense looked a little smug.

Kirk called them together. “You know what they’re going to do. Why can’t you stop it?”

The boys on the B team, slightly out of breath, shrugged.

“You can’t stop it because they know what they’re going to do, but you don’t know what you’re going to do against it. One team has a plan, and the other team doesn’t. One team knows what it’s doing, and the other team knows what they’re doing, but it doesn’t know what it’s doing. Now let’s figure out what you’re going to do.”

He went to work. Who’s the fastest kid they have? Okay, let’s put the fastest kid we have on him. Or, better, what if each guy takes a part of the field and just stays there and knocks the ball down if it comes near him? Don’t move now; just stay there and knock it down. They tried both ways – man-to-man and zone – and found that both ways worked. The play lost its luster. The boys on the B team now seemed smug, and the boys on the A team lost.

“Maybe you need another wrinkle,” Kirk said to the A team. “Let’s work on it.”

Watching him on Metrozoid Field, you could see what made him a great teacher on bigger questions for bigger kids. Football was a set of steps, art a set of actions. The mysterious, baffling things – modern art, the zone defense – weren’t so mysterious or baffling if you broke them down. By the end of the spring practice, the eight-year-olds were instinctively rotating out of man-to-man into a zone and the offense audibling out of a spread formation into a halfback option, just as the grown-ups in Washington were suddenly seeing the differences and similarites between Pollock’s drips and Twombly’s scrawls.

One particularly bright kid, Jacob, was scared of the ball, the onrushing object and the thousand intricate adjustments you had to make to catch it. He would throw out his arms and look away instead of bringing his hands together. Kirk worked with him. He stood nearby and threw Jacob the ball, underhanded, and then got him to do one thing right. When he caught it, Kirk wasn’t too encouraging; when he dropped one, he wasn’t too hard. He did not make him think it was easy. He did not make him think that he had done it when he hadn’t. He made him think that he could do it if he chose.

It is said sometimes that the great teachers and mentors, the wise men and gurus, achieve their ends by inducting the disciple into a kind of secret circle of knowledge and belief, make of their charisma a kind of gift. The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that the best teachers – and, for that matter, the truly long-term winning coaches may offer a charismatic model – they probably have to – but then they insist that all the magic they have to offer is a commitment to repetition and perserverance. The great oracles may enthrall, but the really great teachers demystify. They make particle physics into a series of diagrams that anyone can follow, football into a series of steps that anyone can master, and art into a series of slides that anyone can see. A guru gives us himself and then his system; a teacher gives us his subject, and then ourselves.

(Part IX tomorrow)


A Tribute to Kirk Varnedoe ’67 – Part VII

(image from painting by Cy Twombly)

Varnedoe, unlike many in his position, did not set himself apart as judge and critic. He connected with artists in the same way that he connected with their work.

Chuck Close said of him:

“As an artist it was thrilling to have Kirk describe your work. He was a dazzling speaker, but it was not just wordsmanship. He got to the heart of things fast. He had a genuine rapport with artists. He even married one.”

In the Mellon lectures, we see full evidence of not only this wordsmanship, but also in his ability to understand the experience of the artist in producing the work. Note the deference he gives his wife (accomplished artist Elyn Zimmerman) in this particular description of a painting by Cy Twombly. It’s worth mentioning that the work he describes (of which you see a tiny snippet above) is, in reality, approximately 13 feet by 21 feet.

“Drawn with what looks like chalk but is actually an oil crayon on gray ground, it is one of his so-called blackboard series; […]. In fact, it is not a blackboard, and this forces us to deal with what it is. But what is it? It is a kind of furious scribbling, a seemingly mindless repetition of the same hand-drawn gesture. But the gesture is repeated so often and on such a scale that it begins to vault into a different set of references. We lose sight of the arm or the wrist, and begin instead to be aware of the scale of the whole body. And then, because the overlays and densities begin to create a sense of space or depth that is nowhere cued by perspective but is suggested by the blurring, cloudlike structure, we lose awareness of the scale of the body as well. My wife, who is an artist, said of this picture that it’s so large and complex that it has its own weather. We sense that it has a kind of energy to it, a pulse like that of a cosmic nebula. And we keep reaching for analogies – weather, night sky, the impulsiveness – for a vocabulary that in the end describes nothing other than this picture, We grapple with the combination of things the picture presents: with minute, intimate, and grand scale; with flatness and depth; with huge energy and vast, dissolving serenity. And we continually wind around something that never becomes any particular thing but itself, that has all of the complexity and energy that only it has, and that did not exist before.”

In today’s segment of Gopnik’s essay, Kirk is in the final weeks of the Mellon lectures. And given his beautiful powers of description (indeed, art in and of itself), it is not surprising,  that the crowd was overflowing.

The Last of the Metrozoids
by Adam Gopnik
Part VII

By the fourth and fifth weeks of the Mellons, the scene at the National Gallery was almost absurd. People were lining up at nine in the morning for the two o’clock lecture; I met a woman who had driven down from Maine to be there. The overflow room had to be supplied with its own overflow room, and the museum finally printed a slightly short-tempered handout. (“But what if I need to use the restroom while standing in line?” “If you need to use the restroom while in line, ask your neighbor to save your place.”)


The fifth lecture would, Kirk thought, be the toughest to put over. He found it easy to make an audience feel the variety, the humanity, of abstract art, even an art as refined and obstinate as the art of Judd or the young Frank Stella. But it was harder to make people accept and relish that art’s perversity, and harder still to make them see that its perversity was exactly the humanism it offered. In the lecture hall, he explained that, as E.H. Gombrich had shown half a century ago in his Mellon Lectures, representational artists were always making forms and then matching them – taking inherited stereotypes and “correcting” them in the light of new things seen. Leonardo, for instance, had inherited the heraldic image of a horse, and he had bent it and reshaped it until it looked like an actual animal. Abstract artists were always making forms and then trying to unmatch them, to make sure that their art didn’t look like things in the world. Sooner or later, though, they always did, and this meant that, alongside abstraction, there was a kind of sardonic running commentary, which jumped on it anytime that it did look like some banal familiar thing.

Pop art was the most obvious source and form of this mockery: Roy Lichtenstein made fun of the abstract Op artist Victor Vasarely for making pictures that looked like the bottom of a sneaker, and Andy Warhol thumbed his nose at Barnett Newman for making pictures that looked like matchbook covers, and so on. But this countertradition wasn’t more jeering. It was generative, too: It forced and inspired new art. It kept abstraction from wallowing complacently in a vague mystical humanism. In the parody and satire of abstraction, its apparent negation, lay its renewal.

This process,Kirk explained, easiy visible in the dialogue of minimalism and Pop, was just as vital, if less obvious, in the relationship between Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly, two of his heroes. Twombly’s squiggles and scribbles were not dutifully inspired by but actually parodied Pollock’s method: “Everything that Twombly achieves, he achieves by the ironic distancing of himself from Pollock. Everything that is liquid is turned dry. Everything that is light is turned dark. Everything that is simple and spontaneous and athletic is turned obsessive, repetitive, self-conscious in Twombly. By this kind of negation, he re-realizes, on a completely different scale and completely different terms, the exact immediacy of energy conveyed to canvas that Pollock has.” Negation and parody were forms of influence as powerful as any solemn “transmission” of received icons. Doubt led to argument; argument made art.

(Part VIII tomorrow)


A Tribute to Kirk Varnedoe ’67 – Part VI

(for original post, please go here)

Though Varnedoe seemed to recognize the value of a systematic approach to work, one requiring close examination and long hours, he also knew that real opportunity often came knocking in the random moment. Whether it be Richard Serra’s impulse to splatter hot metal on his studio floor, or William Web Ellis’s zany urge to tear ass across a soccer field, ball in hand, Kirk knew that after all was said and done, a fine disregard for the rules, and taking advantage of the unexpected, was the key to innovation. He chronicled this theory in his book (funded as a result of his 1984 MacArthur Foundation award) and he encouraged this practice in life, even on Metrozoid Field.

The Last of the Metrozoids
by Adam Gopnik
Part VI

“Okay, we’re going to learn a play,” he said the next Friday at Metrozoid practice. The boys were standing on Metrozoid Field in their Metrozoid shirts in a semicircle around him. He showed them the play he had in mind, tracing it in the dirt with a stick: The quarterback takes the ball from the center and laterals to the halfback, who looks for one of three downfield receivers, who go in overlapping paths down the right sideline – one long, one medium, one short. The boys clapped hands and ran to the center of the field, terrier-quick and terrier-eager.

“No, no. Don’t run. Just walk through it the first few times.”

The boys then ostentatiously walked through the play, clowning around a bit, as though in slow motion. He laughed at that. But he had them do it anyway, five or six times, at a walk.

“Now let’s just amble through it, same thing,” The play took on a courtly quality, like a seventeenth-century dance. The boys did it at that pace, again and again: Hike and pitch and look and throw.

“Now let’s just run easy.” The boys trotted through their pattern, and Garrett, the chosen quarterback, kept overthrowing the ball. Gently but firmly, Kirk changed the running back with the quarterback – Ken for Garrett, so that Garrett had the honor of being official quarterback but wouldn’t have to throw – and then had them trot through it again. Ken threw hard, and the ball was caught.

After twenty minutes, Kirk clapped his hands. “Full speed. Everybody run.” The boys got in their stances, and took off – really zoomed, The ball came nervously back, the quarterback tossed it to the halfback, he turned and threw it to the short receiver.

“Great!” At top eight-year-old speed, the ball had been thrown for a completion. The Metrozoids had mastered a play.

“Now let’s do it again,” Kirk said. I heard him whisper to Matthew, the short receiver, as he lined up, “Fall down!” They started the play, Garrett to Ken. Matthew fell down. Ken’s eyes showed a moment of panic, but then he looked up and saw the next boy, the middle receiver, Luke, waiting right in line, and he threw there. Complete.

“Nice read,” Kirk said, clapping his hands. “Nice read, nice throw, nice catch. Well-executed play.”

The boys beamed at one another.

“You break it down, and then you build it back up,” Kirk said as they met at the center of the field to do the pile of hands. “The hardest play you learn is just steps put together.”

(Part VII tomorrow)


A Tribute to Kirk Varnedoe ’67 – Part V

"The less there is to look at, the more important it is that we look at it closely and carefully." K. Varnedoe

"The less there is to look at, the more important it is that we look at it closely and carefully." K. Varnedoe

(image from a painting by Ellsworth Kelly)

In this fifth segment, Varnedoe delivers the first of his Mellon lectures (Pictures of Nothing). Gopnik writes that Varnedoe’s strength was in how he “walked people through.” That his methodology, whether he was coaching eight-year-olds at football, or lecturing an art crowd on how to look at an Ellsworth Kelly, involved “breaking it down” and “build(ing) it back up”; examining the seemingly simplest of things, “closely and carefully”.

The Last of the Metrozoids
by Adam Gopnik
Part V

That Sunday of the first Mellon lecture, Kirk walked to the lectern after an introduction. The room was sold out, and the overrflow had been sent to another lecture room. “Can I have the lights down, please,” he said, and I saw that he had kept his word: He had no text, no notes, just a list of slides. He began to show and describe objects from sixties American minimalism – plywood boxes and laid-out bricks and striped paintings. He didn’t offer a “theory” or a historical point. He tried instead to explain that a landscape  that looked simple – there had been Abstract Expressionist splashes, and then there were all these boxes – was actually extraordinarily complex: There was a big difference betweenthe boxes of Donald Judd, elegizing New York Canal Street culture,and the gleaming body-shop boxes of the West Coast minimalists, glorifying California car culture.

“The less there is to look at,” he said, pacing, as he always did, “the more important it is that we look at it closely and carefully. Small differences make all the differences. So, for example, the next time somebody tries to sell you on the mechanical exactitude of Frank Stella’s stripes, think again about the beautiful, delicate breathing space in these stripes, the incredible feathered edge of the touch of the picture, which has everything to do with its kind of espresso-grounds, Beat Generation blackness that gives the picture its particular relationship to its epoch and time.”

So he walked people through it. There were the bright Matissean stripes of Ellsworth Kelly, made from the traced shapes of Parisian shadows, and those dark espresso-bar simplicities of Stella. There was the tradition of the Bauhaus diaspora, all those German refugee artists who had been forced to go to South America and who had proselytized for a kind of utopian, geometric abstraction – which had then appeared in New York just as New York artists were using geometric forms to indicate a cool-guy stoical distaste for utopian aspirations, creating a comedy of misunderstanding and crossbreeding. An art that had seemed like a group of quadratic equations set by a joyless teacher had been revealed as a sequence of inventions thought up by people. Where there seemed to be things, there were stories. The audience, at the end of the hour, was riveted. Someone was breaking it down and then was going to build it back up. You didn’t want to miss it.

(Part VI tomorrow)


A Tribute to Kirk Varnedoe ’67 – Part IV

(For original post, please go here)

(image from A. Warhol’s Elvis series)

In 1990, while still fairly new in his position as Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, Kirk launched a controversial exhibit titled “High and Low”. It was inspired by an article written by Gopnik, which traced the influence of caricature and cartoons on some of Picasso’s portraiture. In defense of  initial reaction, Varnedoe asserted to writer William Grimes in this March 1990 interview, that “the relationship of high art to mass culture is one of the great subjects crucial to what made modern art modern – and is still the source of high contention and interest with younger artists today.” He argued that “if you’re interested in Lichtenstein, then it would be hard to deny that his openness to comic books was important in what he did. If you’re interested in Cy Twombly you must recognize – I’m not inventing this – that there’s some connection there to the language of graffiti.”

 Gopnik elaborates on this, by writing: “[Kirk] thought that modern art was a part of modern life: not a reaction against it, or a subversion of it, but set within its values and contradictions…”

Whether it was Dylan he talked about, or Elvis… Picasso or Twombley, Varnedoe saw the connectivity between the individual and community, between art and life.

Today’s segment begins with the boys’ practice sessions at “Metrozoid Field”, and then segues into discussions Varnedoe and Gopnik had during the chemotherapy sessions that took place between these practices.

The Last of the Metrozoids
by Adam Gopnik
Part IV

“I think I’m going to make the motivational speech,” I said to Luke as we walked over to Metrozoid Field the next Friday. I had been working on the motivational speech for several days. I didn’t see a role for myself on the Metrozoids as a leader, and I thought I might make a contribution as the Tommy Lasorda type, raising everyone’s spirits and bleeding Metrozoid blue.

“Okay,” he said, relenting for the moment. “Tell it to me again.”

“We’re here to separate the men from the boys,” I said, stopping at the Miners’ Gate entrance to the park, at Seventy-ninth Street,  and trying to growl like Gary Busey as the Bear, “and then we’re going to separate the warriors from the men.” I paused to let this sink in. “And then we’re going to separate the heroes from the warriors – and then we’re going to separate the legends from the heroes. And then, at last, we’re going to separate the gods from the legends. So, if you’re not ready to be a football god, you don’t want to be a Metrozoid.” Long pause. “Now, won’t that make the guys motivated?”

He reflected. “I don’t know if they’ll be motivated. They’ll certainly be nauseated. Nobody wants to be motivated to play football, Dad. They want to play football.

Kirk ran another minimalist practice on this second week, and he missed the next because he was too sick from the chemo. I ran the session, and I thought ambitiously that it would be good to try a play at last, so I set about teaching them a simple stop-and-go. I got them to line up and run short, stop, and then go long. They ran it one by one, but none of them could get the timing quite right, and the boy who was supposed to be quarterbacking the thing couldn’t get the right zip on the ball. Everyone was more annoyed than motivated, so I stopped after ten minutes and sent them back to scrimmaging. They were restless for their coach. 

It wasn’t any surprise that he missed a practice; the surprise was that he made as many as he did. The chemo he was getting was so caustic that it had to be infused gradually,over sessions lasting three or four hours. Years of chemotherapy had left the veins in his arms so collapsed that sometimes it took half an hour for a nurse just to find an entry. He would grimace while being poked at with the needle, and then go on talking. He had the chemotherapy at one of the midtown extensions of the hospital, where the walls were earnestly decoratd with Impressionist posters, Manet and Monet and Renoir – the art that he had taught a generation to relish for it’s spring-coiled internal contradictions and tensions there as something soothing for dying patients to look at.

He would talk for hours. Sometimes he talked about the Metrozoids, and sometimes about Dylan or Elvis, but mostly, he tried to talk through the Mellon Lectures he was to give in Washington. He was, he said, going to speak without a text, just with a slide list. This was partly a bravura performer’s desire to do one last bravura performance. It was also because he had come to believe that in art history, description was all the theory you needed; if you could describe what was there and what it meant (to the painter, to his time, to you) you didn’t need a deeper supporting theory. Art wasn’t meaningful because, after you looked at it, someone explained it; art explained itself by being there to look at.

He thought that modern art was a part of modern life: not a reaction against it, or a subversion of it, but set within it’s values and contradictions, as surely as Renaissance art was set in its time. His book on the origins of modernism, A Fine Disregard, used an analogy from the history of rugby to illuminate the moment of artistic innovation: During a soccer game at the Rugby School, in England, an unknown young man named William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it, and a new game came into being. A lot of people thought that Kirk was celebrating a Romantic view of invention. But his was a liberal, not a Romantic, view of art. It began with an individual and extended to a community. What fascinated him was the circumstances that let someone act creatively and other people applaud instead of blowing the whistle.

That was what he loved to talk about when he talked about Elvis. He revered the moment when, in 1954, Elvis walked into a studio and played with Scotty and Bill and Sam, and everything suddenly came together. Had any of the elements been absent, as they easily might have been, as they usually are – had the guitarist Scotty Moore been less adaptable, the producer Sam Phillips less patient – then Elvis would have crooned his songs, no one would have cared, and nothing would have happened. The readiness was all. These moments were Kirk’s faith, his stations: Picasso and Braque in their studios cutting the headlines right out of the newspapaers and pasting them on the pictures to make collage; Richard Serra (first among Kirk’s contemporary heroes) throwing hot lead in a studio corner and finding art in its rococo patterns.

Toward the end of one chemotherapy session, as he worried his way through his themes, a young man wearing the usual wool cap on his head came around the usually inviolable barrier of drapery that separated one “suite” from the next.

“You are professor?” he asked shyly, with a Russian accent, and Kirk shook his head.

“No, you are professor. I know. We have treatment at the same time, every week. Same three hours,” and he gestured toward his cap with a short we’re-in-this-together smile. “I used to bring book, but now I just listen to you.”

(look for Part V tomorrow)


A Tribute to Kirk Varnedoe ’67- Part III

(For  original post, please go here)

From all accounts, Varnedoe was a talker, a gifted one. Many attributed this skill to his Savannah upbringing and the Southern propensity to spin a good yarn. Verlyn Klinkenborg puts it well in this NY Times Opinion piece written just days after Kirk passed away:

Nearly everyone who met Kirk Varnedoe felt his volubility, the sometimes astonishing flow of words and ideas at his command. There were set pieces in his conversation, favorite stories, well-trod paths. But mostly there was the feeling that a newly begun sentence could wind up going almost anywhere, crossing the plains into an unknown country or doubling back on a settlement that suddenly looked different than it did the first time we passed it. The great talkers — and he was one — are great because they are always embarked on a voyage of discovery.

In today’s segment, we get a sense of Varnedoe’s way with words, as well as of the work ethic he claims was largely shaped by his involvement in sports. And for all those who have experienced the little sacrifices necessary to the success of a partnership, do not miss “Boston College-Miami”, in the last paragraph. 

The Last of the Metrozoids
by Adam Gopnik
Part III

When I say that I began working harder, I can barely begin to explain what his idea of working harder meant: It was Bear Bryant’s idea of hard work circa 1955, it was General Patton’s idea of of being driven, only more military. It was coupled with a complete openness and equality, a vulnerability to his students’ criticisms so great that it was almost alarming. Kirk was working that hard, and was as eager to have you spot his weights as he was to spot yours. In what now seems like the halcyon days of 1984, a Saturday morning in winter would begin with a phone call and a voice booming, breaking right through the diaphonous protection of the answering machine, “Hey, folks, it’s Kirk. I got up early to walk the pooch, and I think I got some progress made on this here problem. What say we meet at eleven and trade papers?” I would curse, get out of bed, get to work, and be ready three hours later with a new draft of whatever the hell I was supposed to be working on. We would meet at the little island that separates Soho, where we lived, and Tribeca, where he and his wife, the artist Elyn Zimmerman, had their loft, and standing there, he would turn the pages, and I would turn the pages, and he would show me all the ways in which I had missed the boat.

Above all, he would insist, break it down: Who were the artists? What were the pictures? Give me the dates. Compile lists, make them inclusive, walk through it. You break it down in order to build it back up. What does it mean, why does it matter, for this artist, for art history, for the development of human consciousness? I would go back to work, and the phone would ring again at three. “Hey, folks, it’s Kirk. What do you say we meet and go over this new draft I’ve done and then maybe get some dinner?” And we would meet, and all four – or six or eight or ten – people would come together around him, and have dinner, and drink a good bottle of white wine and a good bottle of red wine and finally, exhausted, I would get to bed.

And then the phone would ring again. “Hey, folks, it’s Kirk. I got to walk the pooch one last time, and I was just thinking that I may finally have sorted out the locomotive from the caboose in this thing. What do you say…” And I would put a coat on over my pajamas and go out one last time, in the whipping cold of midnight, and he would open the envelope right there and start reading, signaling to me to do the same, while his black Chow raced around, and we would try one more time to clarify exactly why Picasso looked at African art or why Gauguin went to Tahiti, while a generation walked by us in Astor Place haircuts and long vintage coats on their way to the Odeon.

He gave football all the credit. He had discovered himself playing football, first at his prep school, St. Andrew’s in Delaware, as an overweight and, by all reports, unimpressive adolescent, and then at Williams, where, improbably, he became a starting defensive end. The appeal of football wasn’t that it “built character” – he knew just how cruddy a character a football player could have. It was that it allowed you to make a self. You were one kind of person with one kind of body and one set of possibilities, and then you worked at it and you were another. This model was so simple and so powerful that you could apply it to anything. It was ordinary magic: You worked harder than the next guy, and you were better than the next guy. It put your fate in your own hands.

I had always loved football, too, and we watched it together on Saturday afternoons and Monday nights for years. We saw a lot of good games, but we missed the big one. In 1984 we went up to New England to celebrate Thanksgiving, and we were supposed to watch what promised to be the greatest college football game of all time, Boston College – Miami, Doug Flutie versus Bernie Kosar. But our wives wanted to do something else – go look at things at a Shaker fair, I think – and we came home to find that we’d skipped the greatest college football game of all time, which Flutie had won by a Hail Mary, a long desperation heave on the last play of the game. We stared at each other in disbelief – we missed that? – and for the next twenty years, “Boston College – Miami” was code between us for something you really, really wanted to do but couldn’t, because your wife wanted to do something else. “You want to try and grab a burger at six?” “Uh – Boston College – Miami.” It was code between us also for the ironies of life, our great, overlooked game, the one that got away.

(look for Part IV tomorrow)


A Tribute to Kirk Varnedoe ’67-Part II

(For original post, please go here)

Phong Bui, publisher of The Brooklyn Rail, paid tribute to Kirk Varnedoe in this October 2003 piece. He remarks on Varnedoe’s unusual practice of drawing parallels between art and football:

Kirk loved sports, and drew on them for metaphors (an artist would “take it into the end zone”). People in the art world sometimes found this a little odd, as if art were something too serious and recondite to be compared to a popular diversion like professional football. But for Kirk football was something complicated and thrilling. I watched the Super Bowl with him once. To me, it was just a bunch of guys in funny padded suits, running around at random, and trying to throw the ball before someone jumped them. To Kirk, I realized, it was a game of exquisite strategy and skill, full of subtle stratagems, daring feints, missed opportunities, and narrowly averted catastrophe— much like a Jackson Pollock, in other words. In a world of specialists, Kirk saw life— and art— whole.

In today’s segment, the “Metrozoids” find their playing field . As P’12 commented yesterday, it was “just south of the Metropolitan Museum and Cleopatra’s Needle, as well as just east of Belvedere Castle & Delacorte Theatre, home to Shakespeare in the Park.” And as Gopnik writes below, “it was perfect.”

The Last of the Metrozoids
by Adam Gopnik
Part II

A quarter century later, he was coming to the same field from the hospital. He was a handsome man, in a big-screen way, with the deep-set eyes and boyish smile and even the lumpy, interesting complexion of a Harrison Ford or a Robert Redford. The bull-like constitution that had kept him alive for seven years, as the doctors poured drugs into him like Drano into a clogged sink, might have explained why the chemo, which thinned and balded almost everyone else, had somehow made him gain weight and grow hair, so, though he was a little stocky now, and a little gray, his step was solid and his eyes were rimmed with oddly long Egyptian lashes.

The boys came running from school, excited to have been wearing their Metrozoid T-shirts all day, waiting for practice: Eric and Derek and Ken, good athletes, determined and knowing and nodding brief, been-there-before nods as they chucked the ball around; Jacob and Charlie and Garrett talking a little too quickly and uncertainly about how many downs you had and how many yards you had to go; Will and Luke and Matthew very verbal, evangelizing for a game, please, can’t we, like, have a game with another team, right away, we’re ready; and Gabriel just eager for a chance to get the ball and roll joyfully in the mud. I was curious to see what Kirk would do with them. He was, first and foremost, a teacher, and his lectures still resonated in the halls of the institute. But how would he teach these eight-year-olds to play football? Orate at them? Motivate them? Dazzlethem with plays and schemes?

“Okay,” he said very gently, as the boys gathered around him in an attentive, slightly wary circle. “Let’s break it down. First thing is how you stand. Everybody get down in a three-point stance.”

The boys dropped to their haunches confidently.

Kirk frowned. He walked up and down the line, shoving each one lightly on a shoulder or a knee and showing how a three-point stance could be a weak or strong tripod, a launching pad or a stopping place, one that let you push off strongly or one that held you back. At last he got everybody’s stance correct. “Okay, let’s run,”  he said. “Just run the length of the field, from these cones to those cones, and then turn back. Last guy does fifteen push-ups.” Luke stumbled and was the last guy, and Kirk had him do fifteen push-ups. The point was made: no favorites.

Right around then a young park worker came up in one of those officious little green carts the park people ride around in. “I’m sorry,” he said, “you can’t play here. It’s ruled off for games.”

I was ready to get mad – I mean, hey, who was making these rules? We had been playing touch football here for years – when Kirk stepped in.

“We-ell,” Kirk said, and the Southern accent he brought with him from his youth in Savannah was suddenly more intense, an airplane captain’s accent. “Well, uh, we got ten young men here eager to play football. Where can we take them to play?”

To my surprise, the park worker was there for the enlisting. “Let me see – I’ll come back,” he said. We went on with the drills, and ten minutes later, the guy scooted up again in his cart.

“I think I’ve found just the place,” he said. “If you go off there, right over the road, and take the left fork, you’ll find this field that’s hidden there behind the parking lot.” He added almost confidentially, “It’s just opposite the toilets near the Ramble, but it’s flat and large, and I think it’s perfect.”

“Much obliged,” Kirk said, and he gestured to the boys, a big arm-sweeping gesture, and led them off in search of the promised field. They followed him like Israelites. We walked across the road, took the left, went down the hill, and there it was – a little glade that I had never seen before, flat and fringed by tall trees, offering shade to the waiting moms and dads. It had a slightly derelict look – I could imagine that in a livelier era, this field might have been a Francis Bacon mural, men struggling in the grass – but today it was perfect.

“Gentlemen,” Kirk said clearly to the boys as they struggled on, looking around a little dubiously at the tufts of grass and the facing bathrooms. “Welcome to Metrozoid Field. This is the place we have been looking for.” He set out the red cones again around the fringes.

“Okay, let’s scrimmage,” he ordered. He divided the guys in half with a firm, cutting gesture, and they began an intense, slightly nervous touch-football game. Kirk watched them, smiling and silent.

“Shouldn’t we teach them a play?” I suggested.

“No,” he said. “They’re off to a good start. Running and standing is a good start.”

The scrimmage ended, and the winning team began to hurrah and high-five.

“Hey,” he said, stepping forward, and for the first time I heard his classroom voice, his full-out voice, a combination of Southern drawl and acquired New England sharpness.

“No celebrations,” he said, arriving at the middle of the field. “This is a scrimmage. It’s just the first step. We’re all one team. We are the Giant Metrozoids.” He said the ridiculous name as though it were Fighting Irish, or Rambling Wrecks, an old and hallowed name in the American pigskin tradition. The kids stopped, subdued and puzzled. “Hands together,” he said, and stretched his out, and solemnly, the boys laid their hands on his, one after another. “One, two, three, together!” and all the hands sprang up. He had replaced a ritual of celebration with one of solidarity, and the boys sensed that solidarity was somehow at once more solemn and more fun than any passing victory could be.

He had, I realized on the way home, accomplished a lot of things. He had taught them how to stand and how to kneel – not just how to do these these things but that there was a right way to do these things. He had taught them that playing was a form of learning – that a scrimmage was a step somewhere on the way toward a goal. And he had taught them that they were the Giant Metrozoids. It was actually a lot for one hour.

(to be continued tomorrow)


A Tribute to Kirk Varnedoe ’67- Part I

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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