Retrospective

The Will of an Athlete: On Matthew Barney’s Early Career

Matthew Barney, MILE HIGH Threshold: FLIGHT with the ANAL SADISTIC WARRIOR, 1991, still from color video, silent, 41 minutes, 42 seconds. ©MATTHEW BARNEY/PETER STRIETMANN/COURTESY GLADSTONE GALLERY, NEW YORK AND BRUSSELS

Matthew Barney, MILE HIGH Threshold: FLIGHT with the ANAL SADISTIC WARRIOR, 1991, still from color video, silent, 41 minutes, 42 seconds.

©MATTHEW BARNEY/PETER STRIETMANN/COURTESY GLADSTONE GALLERY, NEW YORK AND BRUSSELS

Before The Cremaster Cycle existed, and long before Kanye West claimed its director as an inspiration, Matthew Barney climbed across the ceiling of Gladstone Gallery in New York for his first show there. That was 25 years ago, in 1991, and now Gladstone is celebrating Barney’s legendary exhibition by more or less restaging it. In honor of that presentation, titled “Facility of DECLINE,” below are excerpts from the ARTnews archives about the early part of the artist’s career.

“Matthew Barney at Barbara Gladstone”
By Norine Dworkin
February 1992

Football, with its premium on bodily contact, has always seemed sexual, and Matthew Barney’s installation bore this out in its gooey, erotic ode to the game. Combining sculpture and video, Barney turned the gallery into his own private training camp as he raised athletic equipment (with a wink to Duchamp) to art status. Cast in wax, petroleum jelly, and tapioca, Barney’s Olympic weights, dumbbells, blocking tackles, and curling bars all became sculpture, exhibited individually and as props in his videos. . . .

Barney’s “gym,” stark white and littered with medical instruments, evoked not a sweaty haven for tussling jocks, but the antiseptic coldness of a hospital. Was Barney couching an AIDS metaphor in the perils of sports, or simply acknowledging the inevitable decline of the body?

Matthew Barney, OTTOshaft, 1992, production still. ©MATTHEW BARNEY/COURTESY GLADSTONE GALLERY, NEW YORK AND BRUSSELS

Matthew Barney, OTTOshaft, 1992, production still.

©MATTHEW BARNEY/COURTESY GLADSTONE GALLERY, NEW YORK AND BRUSSELS

“Fast Forward”
By Mary Haus
November 1993

While his props are exhibited as art objects, Barney’s installations hinge on his videos. These sequences, episodes in an ongoing epic, revolve around two principal players: Jim Otto, a legendary center for the Los Angeles Raiders in the ’70s (who has appeared in uniform, in drag, and as a satyr), and the great escape artist Houdini. For Barney each personifies a concept that is central to his work—as he puts it, “the way that a body is developed under the will of an athlete. How self-imposed resistance made that possible. Houdini is a great example of someone who took on a self-imposed restraint mechanism as a means to grow creatively.”

“Top 10 Living Artists: The Wizard of Odd”
By Barbara Pollack
December 1999

“CREMASTER,” a series of films he began showing in 1994, is Barney’s most famous body of work. Instead of merely employing special effects and science-fiction films, Barney creates a personal vocabulary. The film’s title refers to the gland that causes the testicles to retract when exposed to cold, and the series has caused more than a few viewers to shudder. Each highly produced segment evokes the Surrealist films of Luis Buñuel. However, Barney presents his visions as real narratives, not dreams or fantasies. The characters, including those played by the artist, are oddly formed creatures with equally bewildering genitals. Penile racing cars traverse foreign landscapes, and a Goodyear blimp, bearing a resemblance to a vagina, becomes a residence for a harem of color-coded stewardesses. Barney tap-dances his way through the floor of a lighthouse to the water below, then crawls back through a slime-filled tunnel. Though the plots are hardly conventional, the “CREMASTER” films are filled with vivid images difficult to shake from memory.

A “bad boy artist” of the early 1990s, Barney presents manliness as an elusive goal. In Barney’s world, the natural is impossible, as is ideal masculinity. While other artists have started from a similar premise—that gender is the product of civilization, rather than vice versa—Barney pushes this argument further than any of them. Plastic surgery, gene therapy, gym culture, and supermodeling may be standard fare, but Barney shows that these body-altering endeavors have nothing on the artist’s imagination.

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