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Books: Kirk Varnedoe’s Mellon lectures prove to be a fitting swansong for the famous MoMA curator

Given three months before his death, these last lectures are now in print

It is hard to approach Kirk Varnedoe’s final undertaking impartially. A celebrated career as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, eminence as an art historian and acclaim as a public speaker guarantee a certain aura. This book comes with the added knowledge that it was the author’s last project: his series of lectures in 2003 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, three months before his death from cancer.

At one level, Pictures of Nothing is a poignant envoi: at another, it exudes intellectual life. As the 52nd A.W. Mellon lecturer, Varnedoe responded to one of his most illustrious predecessors, Sir Ernst Gombrich. His target was Gombrich’s rejection in Art and Illusion of the enduring validity of abstraction.

In six lectures, Varnedoe may not have matched Gombrich’s analytical rigour, yet he produces a persuasive apologia for a significant chunk of western art from Pollock onwards. Adam Gopnik’s smart preface also enhances matters. If the logic has repetitions, gaps or loose ends, then this is inevitable with a polished transcription, rather than a fully considered revision, of the spoken word.

Pictures of Nothing is neither laden with scholarly revelations nor ground-breaking theory. On the contrary, Varnedoe speaks with quiet acumen and enthusiasm; on the page, this translates into immense readability. He also eschews the academe-speak of the new art history. Those who find negation or Cold War culpability in abstract expressionism get short shrift while feminist readings of minimalism as a macho manifestation of America’s military-industrial complex emerge as silly and simplistic.

A subtle deconstructive trend underlies Varnedoe’s erosion and complication of the neat “isms” that usually package abstract art since the late 1940s. Nevertheless, it would have been a nice touch for him to note that Gombrich’s emphasis on schemata in the pictorial process of mimetic “matching and making” ironically suggests an abstracting bias at the core of human vision. On the positive side, although the focus is the US, some excursions lead elsewhere—to the work of Victor Vasarely, Richard Paul Lohse, Gerhard Richter and other Europeans—refreshing the usual cast of suspects.

Like Robert Hughes, Varnedoe had a knack for telling phrases. With mordant accuracy, he remarks that “it is as if [Peter] Halley translates Foucault as a kind of neon Monopoly board”; discerns the elegiac hint in Richard Serra’s sculptures by noting their “big, rusting hardware made in a software age”; terms Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns “part-time abstractionists”; observes that Dan Flavin drew “something sublime from the five-and-dime”. One may argue with Varnedoe’s tastes—his downplaying of Morris Louis and liking for Roy Lichtenstein’s tricksy formulae—while concluding that it is always a pleasure to confront convictions with which to grapple.

The crux of Pictures of Nothing is that abstraction has run against the assumptions of its great founding prophets. Whereas Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and Newman upheld (or so Varnedoe proposes) absolutes, utopianism, the ideal and the transcendent, such latter-day successors as Don Judd, Eva Hesse, Carl Andre and Frank Stella prized immediacy, the literal and the empirical. In this respect, Judd’s combative 1964 pronouncement could almost stand as Varnedoe’s epigraph: “The history of art and art’s condition at any time are pretty messy. It should stand that way. One can think about them as much as one likes, but they won’t become neater; neatness isn’t even a good reason for thinking about them.”

Varnedoe’s fundamental virtue is that through close looking he rethinks various art histories. Instead of a hermetic language, abstraction emerges as open-ended, a seismograph to the “real” world and a network of meanings that is only (and, at most, provisionally) completed by the subjective factors we bring to it. Here Varnedoe is especially skilful at teasing apart minimalism, weaving an intricate fabric from the many threads which composed this ostensibly monolithic movement. Besides minimalism’s overt pragmatism, he also justly stresses its sheer oddness, a very “American” homespun eccentricity, which more academic readings sometimes overlook.

This book may not be altogether original—possibly it owes debts to Carter Ratcliff’s book on Pollock and postwar art (1996). But it offers vintage Varnedoe, an apt memorial and the perfect complement to an earlier and likewise distinguished set of Mellon lectures, John Golding’s Paths to the Absolute (2000).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A fitting swansong for a famous MoMA curator'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 178 March 2007