b. 1967, San Francisco
Matthew Barney was born in 1967 in San Francisco. In 1989 he graduated from Yale University. Since then, he has created work that fuses sculptural installations with performance art and video. His singular vision foregrounds the physical rigors of sport and its erotic undercurrents to explore the limits of the body and sexuality. In this way, the artist’s work reflects his own past as an athlete, while also being attuned to a new politics of the body evident in the work of many contemporary artists. Barney’s ritualistic actions unfold in hybridized spaces that at once evoke a training camp and medical-research laboratory, equipped as they are with wrestling mats and blocking sleds, sternal retractors and speculums, and a range of props often cast in, or coated with, viscous substances such as wax, tapioca, and petroleum jelly. Indeed, his earliest works, created at Yale, were staged at the university’s athletic complex. Within this alternative universe, Barney’s protagonists—including an actor dressed as Oakland Raider Jim Otto, and the artist himself naked or cross-dressed—engage in a metaphoric dance of sexual differentiation.
Barney’s exploration of the body draws upon an athletic model of development, in which growth occurs only through restraint: the muscle encounters resistance, becomes engorged and is broken down, and in healing becomes stronger. This triangulated relationship between desire, discipline, and productivity provides the basis for Barney’s meditation on sexual difference. These athletic and sexual references converge in Otto’s jersey number “00,” which becomes a leitmotif for the artist’s ongoing exploration of a polymorphous sexuality. Woven cipherlike throughout Barney’s work, this motif intermittently appears as if marking elapsed time in his videos, and in altered form as a single oblong shape, resembling a football field. Barney notes, however, the oblong represents “the orifice and its closure—or the body and its self-imposed restraint.” Homonymic with the word “auto” Otto also suggests autoeroticism, or a closed, self-sufficient system.
Barney began work on the CREMASTER cycle in 1994. Eschewing chronological order, he first produced CREMASTER 4 (1994), followed by CREMASTER 1 (1995), CREMASTER 5 (1997), CREMASTER 2 (1999), and CREMASTER 3 (2002). Along with each feature-length CREMASTER film, which Barney wrote and directed, and in which he often played one or more roles, the artist created related sculptures, drawings, and photographs. This epic cycle has as its conceptual departure point the male cremaster muscle, which controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli. The project is rife with anatomical allusions to the position of the reproductive organs during the embryonic process of sexual differentiation: CREMASTER 1 represents the most “ascended” (or undifferentiated) state, CREMASTER 5 the most “descended” (or differentiated). The cycle repeatedly returns to those moments during sexual development in which the outcome of the process is still unknown—in Barney’s metaphoric universe, these moments represent a condition of pure potentiality. As the cycle evolved over eight years, Barney looked beyond biology as a way to explore the creation of form, employing narrative models from other realms, such as biography, mythology, and geology.
In subsequent work Barney continued to expand upon the materials and motifs explored in the CREMASTER series. His sculptural work, like Chrysler Imperial (2002) and The Deportment of the Host (2006), utilize same self-lubricating plastic Barney employs to frame his drawings and which consistently appeared in the CREMASTER films. His ongoing Drawing Restraint series, begun while Barney was still a student in 1987, took as its point of departure the biochemical principle of hypertrophy, or how muscles develop in response to increasing resistance. For Drawing Restraint 9: Shiomenawa (2005) Barney contemplated his strained role as “Occidental Guest” when invited to create an exhibition at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan. For Drawing Restraint 11 (2005), also conceived for Kanazawa, Barney returned to the root of the conceived project and climbed the gallery wall, thus fighting increasing resistance, to create a series of escalating drawings.
In 2007 Barney began The River of Fundament in collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler. The final film presents the pair’s experimental opera, each act of which was performed only once in separate locations over a five-year period. Taking Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings (1983) as a point of departure, the work combines characters from the novel and Barney’s own CREMASTER 3 to create a hyper-sexualized and scatological vision of death, Egyptian mythology, and the history of the United States car industry.
In 1991, at the age of twenty-four, Barney was honored with a solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Museum Boymans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, organized a solo exhibition of his work that toured Europe throughout 1995 and 1996. Barney has been included in many international exhibitions, such as Documenta in Kassel, Germany (1992); the 1993 and 1995 Biennial exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and Aperto ’93 at the 48th Venice Biennale, for which he was awarded the Europa 2000 Prize. Barney has been awarded numerous other prestigious awards, including the Guggenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Prize (1996); the Skowhegan Medal for Combined Media (1999); the James D. Phelan Art Award in Video by the Bay Area Video Coalition (2000); the Irish Museum of Modern Art Glen Dimplex Artists Award (2001); the Kaiser Ring Award, Mönchehaus Museum für moderne Kunst, Goslar, Germany (2007); and the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award, 54th San Francisco International Film Festival (2011).
Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle, an exhibition of artwork from the entire cycle organized by the Guggenheim Museum, premiered at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, in June 2002 and subsequently traveled to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Barney has since had major solo exhibitions organized by Astrup Fearnley Museet for Moderne Kunst, Oslo (2003); Living Art Museum, Reykjavik (2003); 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa (2005); Sammlung Goetz (Goetz Collection), Munich (2007); Fondazione Merz, Turin (2008); The Morgan Library and Museum, New York (2013); Bibliotheque nationale de France, Paris (2013—14); Haus der Kunst, Munich (2014); and the Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania (2015). His work has also been presented in numerous group exhibitions, including those at MoMA PS1, New York (1999, 2001, 2002, 2006, 2013); the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (2002, 2011); Venice Biennale (2003); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2005); Biennial of Moving Images at Centre pour l’Image Contemporaine, Paris (2005); Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (2006); the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2007); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2009, 2010, 2011); the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (2010, 2013); and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2012). Barney lives and works in New York.