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Matthew Barney: Artist Biography

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 4137 words Published: 14th Jun 2018

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The mythological world of Matthew Barney

Matthew Barney was born on 25th March 1967, in San Francisco, California. He attended school in Boise, Idaho from 1973 to 1985. He was brought up between Idaho and New York and first encountered on visits to his mother. He went to Yale University, New Haven where he enrolled to study medicine but transferred to study Fine Art. After graduating from Yale in 1989, he made a swift impact on the art world. He has had exhibitions in San Francisco and London. He is based in the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

While attending Yale he paid his way through college by modelling while studying medicine. After a couple of semesters, he transferred to the art department where his abstracts became popular. It was here that Barney began to experiment with Vaseline as a creative medium.

From bursting into the art world in 1991, Barney has been able to create a distinguishing world from using multimedia, sculpture, photography, film and drawing. His work following careful study in process and the evolution of form has been informed by the human body, art history, cultural production and biological development. Early in his career he worked with sculpture fused with video and performance. His work reflects on his past as a gridiron footballer and a wrestler as well as the study of the human form and the work of many of his contemporary artists. Some of his earliest work in Yale was staged in the University’s sports complex.

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He is most famous for his work as producer and creator of the Cremaster (1994 – 2002) films – five visually excessive works which have been created out of sequence. Barney features in the films in a countless roles with some being as diverse as a magician, a ram, a satyr, Harry Houdini and infamous murderer – Gary Gilmore. Not only have his films included himself but have also included artist Richard Serra, writer Norman Mailer, and actress Ursula Andress. His use of imagery, narrative and dialogue weaves a unique mythology. These films are seen as a self enclosed aesthetic system. Jonathan Bepler composed and arranged the films soundtracks. These are not just a series of films, also involved are photographs, sculptures, drawings and installations which the artist produces in combination with each film.

The title Cremaster refers to the muscle that raises and lowers the male reproductive system according to temperature, external stimulation or fear. The films are a mixture of autobiography, mythology and history, his universe is connected and densely layered. The film consists of anatomical allusions, with the position of the reproductive organs during the embryonic process of sexual differentiation. Cremaster 1 is the most ascended position while Cremaster 5 is the most descended. In Barney’s metaphorical universe these pieces represent a condition of pure potentiality. Over the eight years of production, Barney looked beyond biology as a way to explore form creation and took his universe to new levels and other realms indulging in biography, mythology and geology.

“Cremaster Cycle” director/artist Matthew Barney. Matthew Barney, CREMASTER 3, 2002 Prodution Photograph, © 2002 Matthew Barney Photo: Chris Winget, Courtesy: Barbara Gladstone

Cremaster 3 was the final film in the series. It was the most elaborate of the five films. It referenced Barney’s position in the art world. This final film is set on location at Fingal’s Caves in Scotland and Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Both of these locations are symbolic. They resemble each other and are entrenched in deep mythology. These films have depicted a parallel mythological world, with rich and complex symbolism. It delves into the dilemmas and traumas that shape today’s society. This was Barney’s ambitious project which took a decade to make. It was packed with references to pagan mythology, modern architecture, popular culture, human biology and art history. The Cremaster Cycle has earned Barney much praise despite its notorious scenes of solipsism and banal masculine trials. It is a highly ambiguous piece.

The Drawing Restraint series began in 1997 as a series of studio experiments, which draws upon an athletic model of development in which growth occurs only through restraint. When the muscle encounters a resistance, it breaks down and becomes engorged, but through healing the muscle becomes stronger. This series is well documented through video and photography especially 1 – 6 (1987 – 1989). Drawing Restraint 7 is marked with narrative.

His concept lies in three elements – situation, condition and production. These constitute the origins of Drawing Restraint. They are illustrated in highly intricatecreative process of sexual energy divided into the three elements. This series was inspired by the condition of hypertrophy where the muscles of the body develop strength and size when they are placed under restraint. Barney has turned this from artistic production that investigates restraint as a source of creativity.

It was in the project Drawing Restraint 9, a feature length film whose song track was composed by Bjork which consisted of sculptures, photographs and drawings which built upon the Shinto religion and on whaling. There are sixteen of these pieces.

It’s as if his work is meant to shock. He art is a form of abstract and surrealism, with the use of aesthetic athleticism which underscores the sports iconography which is evident in his work. Through his work the audience can see his icons and who he idolizes in a cult status – Harry Houdini and Jim Otto and the system which he uses to portray these idols. He portrays them as satyrs, with athletic iconography, medical gadgets, mythological creatures etc. It leaves the audience wondering where he gets his ideas from. Once of Barney’s influences seems to be the work of Antonin Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty as it tends to stage events rather than men.

When he broke onto the scene with his surreal sculptures and videos and form of art he was instantly successful. He is a phenomenon of his time and from his breakthrough his art has gotten strange and stranger. His is seen as the most important American artist of his generation. His unique production of films, which he also appears in, houses his sculptures and objects which he has designed especially for the use in his films. His ideas come from a host of sources – books and photographs. His work is not regarded by him or others as subsidiary to any others, they are an expression of him in different forms of the same ideas.

Barney’s work is very ambiguous and it is best to accept it this way as this is his basic point. If the art is unresolved it is interesting. In the Cremaster series, he has stated that this idea is as a sexual metaphor, that the characters in his films can not be identified as being either male or female. He considers his work as abstract.

He has been seen as a bad, late surrealist or because of the nature of his work as a sensationalist and that some of his critics are upset by the scope of his success. His success mirrors the success of Jasper Jones who made his debut some 40 years ago. After graduating from Yale, the word had begun to circulate about him around influential artists, dealers, editors and critics in New York. In the early 1990’s he was taken on by two galleries – Barbara Gladstone in New York and Stuart Regen in Los Angeles. At this point he was a huge phenomenon and he had not even had a solo show yet. By his absence he was present on the art scene, which is his trademark. His work was more accepted due to bad economic times as the galleries where more willing to take a risk on an artist without a track record than they had been in more prosperous times. It was through this that Barney’s work became marketable as well as his Yale connections.

His early art work reflects the use of elaborate sexual and biological references and allusions to the world of fashion and sports with obvious links to those who went before him in the 1960’s and 1970’s the likes of Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman. His reviews seemed orchestrated because they were so good. Any bad reviews which he received were dismissive, like those of Hilton Kramer and through these reviews only heightened his profile. In the early 1990’s the art scene had become about conceptual art on identity politics and the body and sex which was visually meager. The peak was reached with Whitney Bienneal in 1993 and with this it seemed that the art work was doing a penance for all the excesses of the 1980’s. Critics had professed that he was a video version of Mapplethorpe and gay artists openly joked that he was the most successful young gay artist who was not gay. Barney’s idea of art is obviously meant to make the audience laugh, it has its own strange sense of glamour and it is definitely not preachy.

Formally his work was in tune with the younger generation’s priorities, where cross media and installations replaced painting as the dominant art form. His films instantly became collectables, as this medium was not traditionally used but with the advent of this technology it became hot property. This video art was making a comeback with performance art – two of his art forms, from the 1970’s when low technology videos had been used to record artist’s performance.

The early 1990’s saw conceptual art be enabled by the technology which was now available and became about the story which the artist felt they had to tell. It was about gender identity and diversity politics and the more eccentric the art/ story the better. Barney’s work mirrored this image, his stories were plentiful and were all eccentric. He has even been referred to as the Wagner of the art world, as like Wagner, he has operated in a mythological language which has seemed irrational and his plan for the Cremaster series would take years to complete.

His works are lavishlessly wordless, with soundtracks composed by Jonathan Bepler. They are very slow moving films with fantastic desolate settings. As the series progressed they became more visual with more saturated colours and costumes. His budgets were constantly growing but seemed non existent. He earns back the costs of his films through the limited editions of his photographs, sculptures and laserdiscs. He has, of course, sold his work through private buyers but it is the big museums which compete for his work and through this he has become somewhat of a cult figure. In the 1990’s he was American art star. He does not have any social ambition, public profile or interest in money which seems to enhance his allure. He feels that the bad reviews are more memorable to him than the good ones. He insists that he pays no attention to the critics and insists that his primary focus for art is as a sculptor and that his films reflect this.

He is increasingly focused on the visual effects such as colours, shapes, and forms. He is ultimately the most important artist of his generation, in America at least, and as the audience have experienced his imagination is so big. His art is intensely visual and makes use of visual imagery. His works – performance works, sculpture and cinematic works are portraying a civilisation which is in decline. His work is full of references to freemasonry. His works are loaded with initiations and is full of symbolism. He has been proclaimed as the pioneer and saviour of video art and his work is most successful in the genre of body and performance art. He seamlessly creates dramas which are compelling with a compulsive force that are alive in a zone between the psychological and physical. He has a clear mythological vision which can be seen in his work. His practice is that of a diverse array including use of media, which includes performance art, sculpture, drawing, photography and installation. He uses a varied variety of both traditional and unconventional set of materials to create this innovative work. His sculptures are the reinterpretations of his film themes for the gallery setting. Art critic, Jerry Saltz wrote of Barney:

One of the most interesting artists to emerge in the 1990’s, and hands-down…the most interesting when it comes to the way he works with video.

Barney tries to establish narratives in which both characters and the environment are interchangeable and with the use of symbols he conveys the meaning or feelings. Matthew Barney has also been compared to the avant garde and this concept of the artist avant garde has been widely used in theories about modern art. This is a key component of modern art and has become synonymous. The terms of artistic freedom throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century through a succession of objects and practices. The modernist sense of avant garde has implied that art does not require external justification, whether it be political or ethical. Modern art critics have claimed that Barney is an advocate and paid up member of the present avant garde movement as well as being an important influence of modern art. His work definitely confirms the existence of a modern avant garde movement which he has followed on from the works of Clement Greenberg, Meyer Shapiro, Walter Benjamin and Thomas Crow.

This avant garde movement emerged in the 1930’s in art but also in early socialist tradition. Once this tradition was established, work such as Barney’s has been more readily placed at the forefront of the movement. Thomas Krens, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation has acknowledged that from Barney’s first gallery show in 1991 he has developed a uniquely aesthetic vocabulary. Barney draws his ideas from all walks, from Hollywood movies, professional sports, mythology, medical processes, biological systems, and psychological pathologies. He has also drawn from hardcore music and spiritual tendencies and mixed them all to provide a blend of allusive narrative structures which he uses the media of film, sculpture, photography and drawing to articulate to his audience. He has been recognised in the artistic community as a great American artist whose work has attracted a vast audience both nationally and internationally. Matthew Barney matches all the criteria for being of the avant garde persuasion which is active in the present art culture.

David Hopkins, in his book After Modern Art 1945 -2000 recognises Barney’s work as interpretation that could be a parody of masculine aspirations. When Barney began to create his art it was widely recognised that there had been a crisis of masculinity which was tied to the social shift which arose from the empowerment of woman in the 1990’s. There were also the issues regarding cloning and genetic engineering. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, a contributing editor of the Tate Magazine described Barney’s work as

dense, compacted and multi-layered.

Obrist is interested that the Cremaster series reaches back to a time of mythology, biology and the geology of creation while jumping forward to a time of modified genetics and the mutation of identity. Culture attempts to articulate changes but finds it hard to keep pace with the changing culture. Barney is on a journey alone in his efforts to build his parallel mythological world which probes into the traumas and dilemmas experienced in modern society.

Barney in an interview with Scott Foundas spoke of his desire to communicate the tension within our culture between the male and female forms and the wavering between the sexes. Barney is interested in creating a field that attempts to locate desire and eroticism in an undifferentiated way. His work aims to challenge the grounded notions of gender through making a critique of society as a whole and the insistence of society to only view gender through binary opposition.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York continues to exhibit young upcoming artist’s work while their careers are still young. Barney began his relationship with the Guggenheim Museum in 1996 when he was awarded the museum’s Hugo Boss award for excellence and innovation in the visual arts. But it was five years earlier that his status was declared as great. He was honoured with a solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Matthew Barney’s innovative work has been recognised by the contemporary art world and has won many accolades but despite these his work remains difficult to understand especially by the mainstream. And it seems to be only accessible to a subculture of artists and his supporters. Without these members he would never have received the attention or acclaim for his work.

Barney once said in an interview with Michael Kimmelman (1999) Barney said

Art needs to be defended.

And also

Its fragile. If a work of art is shown too many times, something gets stolen from it. You come to it with preconceptions, or you get tired of it.

Barney feels that when something becomes an image it is unrecognisable and because they are invested in the subject they cannot operate as an image. He is also worried about his work losing it authenticity due to issues of reproducing the images. Barney is able to draw his themes from issues which are relevant to modern society. Barney meets the criteria of the avant garde group in that he challenges the social conventions, he is an active member of a cohesive group, he maintains an authentic quality despite reproductions and he serves as a social mediator between social classes with drawing from themes of everyday life. His works, therefore, shows evidence that an avant garde does exist in modern and cotemporary culture and this work still remains a motivator for social advancement. Barney redefines the boundaries between the artist and the audience as he focuses on the broader theories of his medium. With his work, he is able to compartmentalise strategically the creative process which he then exploits the experience into one giant spectacular. He forges the different media together to create his tangible and imaginary worlds.

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Barney’s singular vision has created works which fuses performance and video with sculptural installations. The audience can see reflections of Barney’s past i.e. athletics but is able to tune into the new politics of the body which are evident in the work of many of the contemporary artists. His careful exploration of the body draws upon the athletic model of development which only occurs through restraint.

Damien Hirst has been acknowledged as one of Matthew Barney’s contemporaries. Hirst was born in Bristol, UK in 1965 and now lives and works in London and Devon. He is the most prominent member of a group known as ‘Young British Artists’ (YBA’s). He has been dominant in the British art scene since the 1990’s and is internationally renowned. His career was closely linked to collector Charles Saatchi in the 1990’s but due to increasing frictions this relationship collapsed in 2003. Hirst was an organiser and organised an independent student exhibition while in his second at Goldsmith’s College in London where he studied Fine Art. Hirst has since admitted that he had drink and drug related problem which spanned a ten year period from the early 1990’s, during this time he was famous for his wild behaviour and extrovert acts.

Hirst, too, has tried to challenge the boundaries between art, science and popular culture. He, like Barney, has a wide ranging practice of using sculptures, installations, painting and drawing. He has been praised for his work, his energy and his inventiveness. His work has made him a leading artist of his generation through his constantly visceral and visually arresting work. His work consists of the exploration of the uncertainty at the core of human experience, life, death, love, loyalty and betrayal. Hirst is best known for his work Natural History which features animals in vitrines suspended in formaldehyde. Hirst uses the vitrines to put meaning as both a window and a barrier, providing a minimalist frame but also to attract the attention of the audience. Hirst is also renowned for his paintings which includes his Butterfly Paintings which feature actual butterflies suspended in paint. Tracey Emin compared Hirst to Andy Warhol, in the mid 1990’s Virginia Bottomley described him as a pioneer of British art.

Hirst sees the real creative theme as being the conception of the project not the execution. Death is a central theme in Hirst’s work and he became famous for a series in which dead animals – a shark, a cow and a sheep, – are preserved after sometimes been dissected in formaldehyde.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in Mind of Someone Living.

This piece became an iconic work of the British art world and its sale in 2004 made him the

world’s second most expensive living artist after Jasper Jones. He has since eclipsed Jones when Lullaby Spring sold for £9.65 million on 2007. Hirst has been a controversial figure not only through his art work but also on the public stage, on the eve of the first anniversary of the World Trade Centre attacks, he commented to BBC News Online (Allison, 2002):

The thing about 9/11 is that its kind of like an artwork in it’s own right…Of course, its visually stunning and youve got to hand it to them on some level because they have achieved something which nobody could have ever thought possible especially to a country as big as America. So on one level they kind of need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerous thing.

Following public outrage at his remark, he had to issue a statement through his company, Science Ltd (Science Photo Library Press Release, 15th March 2005):

I apologise unreservedly for an upset I have caused, particularly to the families of the victims of the events on that terrible day.

In comparison, both Barney and Hirst are contemporaries in the modern art world. They are both renowned in their field. They are both out to shock and maybe this is not their intention. Barney through his use of mythological imagery and his use of the human form has been criticised but are these criticisms right. Can an artist not express themselves in this way? It seems that modern art is full of debate with regards to style and appreciation.

There is plenty of shock value in both Barney’s and Hirst’s work. Critics have asked if the audience needs to see the imagery these two have produced. Barney’s work Cremaster is full of this imagery and it is based for a specific audience. He is trying to convey in his imagery the use of the body and how unstable the relationship between male and female is. He has both been praised and criticised for his work, Hirst has also been criticised for his work. It seems that the only way to grow within the art world is to prompt discussion and criticism. Both of these men are at the top of their profession through getting acclaim and winning various awards and prizes. They both use the abstract to create a surreal and almost sensationalist image. While Hirst is very public, Barney stays in the background with no public profile to speak of.


Allison, R., (2002) 9/11 wicked but a work of art, says Damien Hirst, The Guardian, 11th September 2002

Artaud, A., (1958) The Theatre of Cruelty in The Theatre and its Double, trans. Richards, M.C., Grove Press

Crow, T., (1996) Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts, Yale University Press

Edwards, Steve. Art and Its Histories: A Reader. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Foundas, S., (2003) Self Portraiture Meets Mythology: Matthew Barney Talks about his Cremaster Cycle, IndieWire on the Web

Hopkins, D., (2000) After Modern Art: 1945 – 2000, Oxford University Press

Kimmelman, M., (1999) The Importance of Matthew Barney, New York Times. 10th October 1999

Obrist, H., (2006) Artist Project: Matthew Barney, Tate Magazine: Issue 2. 15th February 2006

Science Photo Library Press Release, 15 March 2005


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