In his 2003 New York Times obituary for Museum of Modern Art curator Kirk Varnedoe, Adam Gopnik, a friend of the curator and essayist for The New Yorker, wrote that Varnedoe’s imperative was to rethink, tweak, and tinker with the museum’s collections. He quoted Varnedoe as saying that modern art represents an embrace of change, to live with no absolutes and “to accept the individual consciousness for all its flaws and deforming optics.”
Three current exhibitions at the Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah triangulate to offer unexpected links to this mantra, drawing connections between New York and Savannah, Rodin and modernism, and art-making and history-making that would likely please the late MoMA curator today. The three include “Complex Uncertainties: Artists in Postwar America,” curated by the Telfair’s Rachel Reese; “Kirk Varnedoe: In the Middle at the Modern,” curated by Reese in partnership with the art historians Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, better known as Triple Candie; and “Rodin: The Human Experience” curated by Judith Sobol, Executive Director of the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.
This trifecta of small shows calls for a lens that zooms outward to capture the larger picture of interpretive possibilities and curatorial connections. To see these three shows and miss what connects them is to miss out on the changing nature of museum practice. This is to say that, increasingly, what a museum does best is to provide space for links to be made: a laboratory for ideation and construction rather than a container for control and display. These three shows offer this possibility.
The connecting thread is a single figure, John Kirk Train Varnedoe, who was born and raised in Savannah and who would serve as the Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1988 to 2001. Varnedoe was a Rodin scholar and friend of many of the artists whose works can be found in “Complex Uncertainties,” and his curatorial legacy is explored in “Kirk Varnedoe: In the Middle at the Modern.” Varnedoe explored the relationship between high and low, real and fake, in his dissertation on Rodin at Stanford University and more famously in his controversial 1990 exhibition titled “High & Low” at MoMA.
Rodin himself challenged notions of high and low, original and copy, finality and partiality by leaving many open questions about authenticity and completion for scholars to tackle after his death. He deemed the fragment as a worthy stand-in, capable of representing a complete idea, of being a complete work of art, and of having multivalent meanings. A hand of St. John the Baptist could be reused on an unrelated figure. This was one of the things that Varnedoe found so compelling and modern about Rodin. The high and the low, the sacred and the profane, were combined by Rodin. This flexibility of an object’s meaning must have appealed to the historian, professor, and curator who then took up this mantle in “High & Low,” further muddying the already blurry line between popular culture and fine art.
“Complex Uncertainties” is an ongoing exploration of the modern and contemporary collection at the Jepson that acknowledges the complexities of curating as a construction of historical narratives. As the Jepson’s first curator of contemporary art, Reese felt that Varnedoe’s influence was a benevolent shadow hovering over her. Though a Savannah native, Varnedoe never worked there, and never set foot in the Jepson Center, which opened in 2006, three years after his death. Nonetheless, the museum assembled a collection of artworks in his honor, all gifts from the artists or their representatives including Chuck Close, Elizabeth Murray, Jeff Koons, and Roy Lichtenstein, to name a few. “Complex Uncertainties” contains some of these works, which formed the foundation for the museum’s modern and contemporary permanent collection. A 1999 Brigitte Lacombe photographic portrait of Varnedoe is central to the exhibition, offering a snapshot-like, personable depiction of the dapper 52-year-old, cradling his head in his hand, his casual “low” slouch consciously contradicting his otherwise “high” comportment.
Across the hall from “Complex Uncertainties,” “Kirk Varnedoe: In the Middle at the Modern” is the most compelling of the three shows, and pulls them all together. Looming here even larger is a hand-drawn, scaled-up copy of the Lacombe photograph by the research-oriented independent curatorial agency Triple Candie. The photo is the show’s focal point, suggesting that this figure and his biography frame all of the objects in this exhibition, a show that narrates his story for the sake of rethinking curatorial practice in 2017. Reese collaborated with Triple Candie, a sort of roaming curatorial practice now based in Washington, D.C., but that had a gallery in Harlem between 2001 and 2010. They have a wide-ranging practice of doing art history rather than writing art history. Controversial and thought-provoking, their practice involves using copies, surrogates, text and handmade “artifacts” to narrate moments in art history. So Reese curated Triple Candie, who curated the curator, Kirk Varnedoe. Complex and uncertain. Yes, all history is. That’s the point.
The exhibition is intentionally didactic; the first room of the space tells a story of Varnedoe using black & white photos, plaster casts, drawings, flat paint on the walls, and faux exhibition catalogues with blank pages to referencehis biography and career highlights. Tinfoil African masks hang next to a copy of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are a nod to Varnedoe’s work with William Rubin on the infamous “Primitivism” exhibition held in 1984 at MoMA. The wall texts suggest the controversial nature of the Primitivism exhibition and emphasize that it was just one telling of the story of the development of modernism and its roots in African cultures. Nearby, a video monitor with footage of Varnedoe’s lectures on Rodin and on other research in preparation for his Mellon Lecture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is hidden behind the redrawn portrait. As such, his voice-over provides a contextualizing audio backdrop for all of the work in this show.
The next gallery in this exhibition contrasts the first with an explosion of color. Behind a “framework” or a barrier stud wall, as if the show itself may still be under construction, objects and words float on a bright red-orange wall. Adjectives such as “arbitrary,” “canonical,” or “one-sided” hover in lower-case black font as if to suggest the flexibility of art historical narrative. A “soft sculpture” triple-layered fake Claes Oldenburg cake slice made out of motorcycle covers is reference to Varnedoe’s driving a motorcycle. Fake Dubuffets and Ruschas hang near low-tech, crafty rugs, thrift-store paintings, and tinfoil Duchamp-Villons, setting up a conversation ideally broached with an art world insider. The works are in triplicate, with minor shifts in color or scale to suggest shifting perspectives. They are handmade surrogates of works of art that were in Varnedoe’s 1990 “High & Low” exhibition, a show that built on the questions of appropriation raised by “Primitivism” and which caused significant controversy about the institutional sanctioning of pop culture within the hallowed walls of the museum.
These surrogates also link to his scholarship on Rodin and the question of fakes that he explored in Rodin’s drawings. The Triple Candie surrogates offer a detail, an alternative scale or a color adjustment of the original images. All are cheaply made replicas or fragments of original works of art á la Benjamin, reminding that the history of art can be playful and can be a transformative act of re-construction. Varnedoe initiated a series at MoMA inviting artists to “play” with the collection and to build exhibitions-as-artworks, re-drawing connections amongst works of art in the archives. In many ways this is what Triple Candie does best, though using copies as a way to minimize originality and maximize accessibility and dialogue.
But what I love about these three shows is their invitation to the engaged viewer to meta-process, to link fragments and draw new connections. “The Human Experience” – the subtitle of the Rodin exhibition – deepens the connection to all three, suggesting that art is a way to experience humanity. This is echoed by Triple Candie’s expressed interest in how biography informs curatorial practice, art production and our interpretations of history. A Rodin scholar by age 26 and a MacArthur “genius award” fellow by age 34, Varnedoe as a subject could easily border on hagiography, but ultimately he is depicted as a Savannah native, a New Yorker, a researcher, and a storyteller, and art history is demystified here and presented as less hallowed, a mere human endeavor. The timing of these three shows together suggests history as a fallible construction of both public events and private biographies truth and perception, reality and fiction.
Much of Varnedoe’s Rodin scholarship elucidated the difference between a real Rodin and a fake Rodin, and Triple Candie’s use of consciously and obviously fake works of art within the confines of construction, reminds us that there is truth, and there are fakes, but what is most compelling is the craft of the narrative: who is telling what story and when? What is included and what is omitted? Rather than playing it safe, and staying in the box or in the gallery confines, we have the opportunity to acknowledge the museum as a space for the skillful navigation of a web of information – the artist, curator and historian as trifecta -and that the contemporary viewer, rather than being caught in this web, must actively navigate the links of history.
“Kirk Varnedoe: In the Middle at the Modern,” at the Telfair Museums in Savannah through February 11. “Rodin: The Human Experience” can be seen through January 7, and “Complex Uncertainties” is an ongoing installation drawn from the permanent collection.
Lisa Jaye Young is the editorial director of Ain’t-Bad Magazine and a professor of art history at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She received her PhD in art history from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York in 2008.