Last month, Mary Ann Miller, Sterling Professor of Art History at Yale, finished delivering the 59th annual Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art (her talks will be available online this Fall). This renowned lecture series invites a noted art scholar to speak on their area of expertise and bears the name of Andrew W. Mellon, the museum’s initial benefactor.
When I lived in Washington some 35 years ago, I remember walking into the National Gallery for the first time and knowing, moments after entering, that I had found a kindred place. The spacious grand lobby and rotunda gave off a feeling of old-fashioned grandeur mingled with serenity that one rarely finds now in museums.
The West Building is a museum of its time (1941), a place for quiet encounter with and reflection on art. We owe Mellon our gratitude for his enlightened gift of art and architecture (John Russell Pope designed it) to the nation. Today, we thank him for this annual series of enlightening lectures.
This year’s Mellon talks brought to mind the 52nd Mellon Lectures, given in 2003 by the late Kirk Varnedoe, former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. It sent me back to his talks, captured in book form in 2006, titled “Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art After Pollock” (Yale University Press).
Varnedoe was a gifted curator, engaging writer and speaker, a fearless tackler of complex issues of art theory and practice. His provocative and endlessly original insights never fail to convey his appreciation and zest to artistic peers and plain fans like myself. Lane Faison, his mentor at Williams College, once told me that Varnedoe was the best student he had ever taught. His death at an early age robbed us of a great scholar and communicator; perhaps America’s closest counterpart to England’s Sir Kenneth Clark.
Varnedoe worked on the lectures while he was dying. He knew they would be his last testament. Three months after delivering these six talks, he passed away. His aim for the lectures was daunting: to make us see by the sheer power of his words (delivered extemporaneously solely from notes!!) that abstraction or imageless works of art were not about “nothing” but something, even about representation, if only in opposition. He intended to also offer a logic for abstract art of as much “a valid and valuable aspect of liberal society” as the eminent art historian E.H. Gombrich did for representational art’s ideal of “illusionism”. (Delivered as the 1956 Mellon Lectures and published as “Art and Illusion”. You need to read the book to see what Varnedoe is talking about.)
My intent, at first, was to summarize his main points, starting with the revolutionary nature of Abstract Expressionism and the outsize influence of Jackson Pollock and action painting. But I soon realized the impossibility of doing justice to such a goal in a blog post. It also would deprive you of meeting this charming tour guide and enjoying the richness of his intellect.
The pleasure of this book is that you will learn a great deal about contemporary art painlessly. Varnedoe’s playful personality is captured on the page. His tone throughout is not stuffy or academic but conversational.
Varnedoe filled these talks with a lifetime’s worth of insights based on intent study of the works. He teases out influences between artists, makes distinctions within movements (particularly with minimalism), adds references to philosophy, literature and art history. He asks probing questions like, “What is abstract art good for?” and offers an observation like, “Abstract art, while seeming insistently to reject and destroy representation, in fact steadily expands its possibilities.”
The book ends with a two-page profession of faith in Art and artists, a testament much like an NPR “This I Believe” essay. His words are stirring. “Abstract art is a symbolic game, and it is akin to all human games: you have to get into it, risk and all, and this takes a certain act of faith. But what kind of faith? Not faith in absolutes, not a religious kind of faith. A faith 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, a faith fertile with possible meaning and growth.”