CURATORS OFTEN remain in the background of an exhibition, but "Kirk Varnedoe: In the Middle at the Modern" at the Jepson Center brings them front and center by celebrating one who was larger than life.
A Savannah native, Kirk Varnedoe was the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 1998 to 2001. He was directly appointed to his position by his superior, and his Southern bad-boy aesthetic was the dividing factor in his popular appeal.
As an outsider, New Yorkers either loved him and thought he was brilliant or hated him and thought he was a hack. His first curated exhibition of his tenure, “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” was so highly anticipated that he was featured in the New York Times Magazine ahead of the opening date.
Then “High and Low” opened on Oct. 7, 1990, to heavy criticism.
“The whole premise of the show was that artists were looking to popular culture to inform their work. You think about Warhol looking to advertising or street art, or Lichtenstein,” says Rachel Reese, the Telfair’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art.
“It’s interesting in premise, but this was 1990. He was derided on both sides because the left said, ‘Okay, we’ve had these conversations for a while; we’ve kind of established this. You’re not pushing MoMA far enough into the future.’ They didn’t think he was doing enough to advance the language of the institution in the 90s. Then you had people on the right who were like, ‘This is totally dismantling the institution of what MoMA is.’ They thought he was bringing high art down to the street too much.”
Varnedoe found no middle ground in the critical reception—“We thought there would be a middle. There was no middle left,” he said after the exhibition.
“Back in the 80s and 90s, there was so much attention around MoMA and the press was so focused between a few sources, the New York Times Magazine being one of them,” Reese explains.
“Essentially, you’ll never have this happen again because the press has become so fractured. You have everything online and in print, on social media, and one critic’s voice does not carry as much weight as it did, even a short time ago. [Critics] were ready to pounce on this guy. Annie Leibovitz was doing editorial photography with him wearing these Ermenegildo Zegna suits in front of the artwork. You would never see that today, especially around a curator.”
In fact, it’s curious to see so much buzz around a curator. Exhibitions traditionally focus on the work of artists, and curators simply do the choosing, not the art-making.
But does it have to be that way, and why is it that way now? How does a curator decide what works of art are valuable enough to fit into the exhibition? What if the curators do the art-making themselves?
Enter Triple Candie, an independent curatorial agency made up of art historians Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett. Instead of including original art in the exhibitions they curate, they create duplicates of the work. Like traditional curators, they remain ghostlike in physical presence. However, their curatorial role is more involved than selecting pieces that work well together.
“The interesting thing about Triple Candie is that they’re kind of high and low themselves,” Reese notes. “They’re high academics and the concept of this show is very high, but the production and results are very low.”
The splintered reception of “High and Low” was of particular interest to Triple Candie, who are especially interested in biography.[image-2
“You always want to put the artist in the best light,” says Reese. “That’s how museums and the whole field frames things. But [bad exhibitions] happen. We’re all human. So what Triple Candie is trying to do is say, Kirk Varnedoe was human. He had a childhood; he had these quirky things about him. He had many different sides and they were all part of who Kirk Varnedoe was.”
Triple Candie partnered with the Telfair to curate “In the Middle at the Modern.” The exhibition, appropriately placed in the Kirk Varnedoe Gallery, consists of a selection of objects that Triple Candie felt best described Varnedoe, as well as a replica of the “High and Low” exhibition. Triple Candie placed that installation behind an open stud wall.
“For them, it’s an interesting device,” Reese points out. “It’s a mise en scène. To them, it’s the idea of something being under construction, since our ideas are always under construction. In 1990, when this show came out, we had many different opinions on it. Here we are in 2017, nearly thirty years later, and we’re still talking about it. Our opinions are still evolving. The works on the wall are surrogates of what was in the show, but they’ve been changed and altered by Triple Candie—it’s very evident that everything in this exhibition has been touched by their hand.”
Triple Candie identifies as art historians, not curators, which continues their conversation of what curation really is—and what it can be.
“We had the [Oct. 21] talk with [Atlanta art magazine] ART PAPERS, and a lot of art history students came,” Reese muses. “An interesting discussion was that this is a valid form of art history and a valid way to be a historian and still approach things critically and not take things at face value. It blurs the line between curator, editor, historian, but also while being critical of all these things. It’s very contemporary. I think that’s what Triple Candie does really well.”
Varnedoe was a Rodin scholar and went to Stanford to work with Albert Elsen, largely considered an expert on Rodin. As a result, Varnedoe was able to tell the difference between a real Rodin watercolor and a duplicate. That ability, Reese notes, carried through Varnedoe’s curatorial career.
“If you think about someone in their mid-twenties who becomes fascinated with what’s authentic and what’s original and what’s fake, that’s something that carried through all of his practice,” Reese explains.
“Questioning authenticity, questioning why some things are considered high and some things are considered low—and that’s something that Triple Candie does too. They’re questioning authenticity, but they’re creating fakes themselves. They’re reconstructing things in a very superficial way sometimes, but in a very authentic way sometimes, too.”
Triple Candie’s work for the exhibition is an inspiration to think differently about curation.
“We’re all in the business of making exhibitions—curators, museums—but there’s a microcosm of something bigger,” says Reese. “You go into a space that’s constructed, that’s supposed to teach you something. You leave the space with some new knowledge. How does Triple Candie take the work of another curator and frame that to an audience to take something away?”
The exhibition will remain up until Feb. 11.