Graduates of the class of 1992 will remember Kirk Varnedoe as their commencement speaker, whom then-President of the university, Donald Kennedy, called “an acknowledged intellectual leader in defining the role of the arts in modern American life. Through distinguished scholarship and a notable creative flair, this Stanford graduate has helped shape our understanding of the relationship between art and popular culture.”
Varnedoe received his B.A. from Williams College before his arrival at Stanford, where he studied with Albert Elsen while pursuing his M.A. and PhD. Like his mentor, his dissertation concerned the work of Auguste Rodin, producing the first thorough criteria to distinguish the artist’s genuine drawings from those of imposters. Varnedoe taught briefly at Stanford before returning east for positions at Columbia University and later New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, with visiting professorships at Oxford and Stanford. After collaborating on an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), he became an adjunct curator and was later named director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture in 1988, a post he held until 2002.
Throughout his career, Varnedoe addressed a variety of topics in his research and exhibits, whose subjects range from Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns to primitivism in 20th-century art and popular culture, to impressionist Gustave Caillebotte and Viennese and Scandinavian contemporary art. In 2002, he was assumed the prestigious role of Professor of the History of Art at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Less than two years later, he lost his long battle with cancer at age 57. Honors include time as a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a Knighthood of the Royal Order of Donnebroge, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship.