I’m not going to eat my words about the current state of the Guggenheim. Still, it’s thrilling to be able to say an exhibition at this museum is terrific. Probably no other New York institution would give a 36-year-old American artist this kind of space or produce such a lavish, well-researched, 525-page catalog. After a delay of more than a year—which, as luck would have it, improved the final focus of this exhibition—”Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle” is a silver lining in the Guggenheim’s dark cloud, a respite from this museum’s season in hell.
Moving up Frank Lloyd Wright’s great ramp, with side trips to adjacent galleries, the exhibition is like a cyclone that takes you through the beautiful, bizarre phantasmagoria of the Cremaster epic. This five-part, seven-and-a-half-hour extravaganza, eight years in the making, takes its lofty-sounding title from a fairly ludicrous source: the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles. It touches on Freemasonry, Celtic mythology, and the lost tribes of Israel; ranges in time between 1874, the year of Harry Houdini’s birth, and 1977, the year murderer Gary Gilmore was executed; has a Rubens-meets-Cronenberg feel for the flesh; and features Ursula Andress, Norman Mailer, and Richard Serra, the last of whom Barney oedipally kills before being killed himself by no less a phallic character than the Chrysler Building (you’ll see).
Having mutated into an abstract origami of its original narrative, the cycle’s core story is nonetheless tiny: the moment of sexual differentiation within the womb. Many claim Barney’s narrative is impenetrable and impossible to follow. But, as with Wagner’s Ring, part of the fun of the Cremaster cycle is immersing yourself and parsing its symbolism and themes. (The sick part is, I sometimes think I get the entire thing.) The optical force and intellectual sparkle of Barney’s work renders claims of obscurantism beside the point. Like all great art, Barney’s exists beyond language.
At the Guggenheim, the Cremaster cycle’s profusion, eccentricities, and even its flaws are on full display. True to form, Barney has customized or embellished nearly every surface in the museum, outfitting parapets with athletic padding, hanging banners, laying Astroturf. Videos are shown continuously in each section of the show; a five-sided Jumbotron is suspended from the skylight. The entire building has been spectacularly transformed into an architectural organism or body that Barney has moved though and interacted with like some crazed humanoid enzyme.
Still, Barney’s art presents a serious critical problem for me, one that borders on embarrassment, and may disqualify me from writing on it at all. It began almost the instant I set eyes on his work in a 1990 group show at the now defunct Althea Viafora Gallery, when I experienced what can only be called an epiphany. The art world was in crisis; everything was in flux. Suddenly, this 22-year-old appeared naked, in a videotape, climbing ropes, then lowering himself over a wedge of Vaseline and applying dollops of it to his body. Spellbound and flabbergasted, I thought, “Whoever or whatever this is, I need to see more of it—much more.”
Since then, Barney has been able to do no wrong by me, which is exactly the kind of unequivocal wet kiss from a critic I hate. The problem is, Matthew Barney exists at the dead center of the blind spot in my taste in contemporary art. Even though his art can be oppressive, fussy, grandiose, melodramatic, supermale, hollow, hokey, dogged, and daft, I’m smitten by it. Not just some of it—all of it, an endlessly interconnected, open-ended gesamtkunstwerk.
For me, Barney is a quadruple threat—equally adept in four mediums. His drawings generate videos, which generate photographs and sculptures, which generate more drawings. By now he’s constructed an aesthetic apparatus that spins out stories and characters I imagine even he can’t predict. His most overlooked works are his scrawled, notational pencil drawings. Framed in “self-lubricating plastic,” these gnarled sketches are often no bigger than index cards. Yet they contain massive amounts of visual information and psychic energy. Ditto his photographs, which are so high-strung it’s almost funny.
Even Barney’s most ardent supporters dismiss his sculptures as “docu-fragments” or mere “props.” This is wrong and shortsighted. At the Guggenheim, the sculpture looks especially strong. Barney regularly uses and coaxes latent narrative meaning out of things like tapioca, beeswax, satin, lace, silicone, petroleum jelly, and “cast thermoplastic.” He’s a virtuoso of materials. In a sense, everything he makes is sculpture—even the videos, for all their unnatural splendor. Despite control-freak levels of deliberateness, conventional cutting, and glacial pacing, these videos overflow with excess, freedom, chaos, and a visceral sculptural quality.
In the order that they were made, Cremaster 4, with its jerky cuts and relatively meager budget, is the rawest of the lot, and the one that hones closest to the original biological story. Cremaster 1 is my least favorite, perhaps because it’s the only one Barney’s not in, and I miss his considerable star power. Nevertheless, it’s growing on me; though the slowest, this part is still gorgeous, and shows Barney spreading his creative wings. Cremaster 5 is a magnificent operatic leap of artistic faith, ravishing in its use of crimson and black, and deeply melancholy. Cremaster 2 is stunning, complicated, lucid, and underestimated. The sprawling, majestic Cremaster 3 is my nomination for Best Picture by an Artist.
The Cremaster cycle is unabashedly about big, unmanageable things. As with Melville’s Moby Dick, Barney’s tetrology is digressive; mystical about locations and objects; rife with Rabelaisian humor and overabundance; filled with historical, biblical, and mythical allusions; and takes place in micro- and macro-scales simultaneously.
But Barney’s world is also quite insular. There’s a preponderance of small, claustrophobic spaces. Spent, febrile, or hapless heroes go through absurd motions. Some tunnel or climb; others dance or simply sit. Cloistered, all seem focused on some single activity. Roland Barthes wrote about the “ceaseless action of secluding oneself”; Edmond de Goncourt about “subtle and elegant depravity.” All this links Barney to the languorous realm imagined by J.K. Huysmans in Against Nature, with its sapped, isolated protagonist, and his visions of the female genitalia as a Venus flytrap.
As a form, the Cremaster cycle is an opportunistic genre that latches onto other genres. This connects Barney to another avant-garde artist-filmmaker who loved latching onto things, and who also reveled in tiny changes: Andy Warhol. Like Warhol’s, Barney’s actors are androgynous; his storytelling, unconventional; character development, virtually non-existent. Both artists make films that are at once boring and hallucinatory. Although many say Barney’s videos are slick, they all look like they were made by a handful of dedicated, if slightly demented, people—Barney’s Factory, if you will.
Barney’s is an art of exquisite parts—moments that solidify into lasting visions. Many, frozen in my memory, include Barney: dressed as a satyr tap-dancing his way through a floor into the sea; burrowing through a tunnel of Vaseline; naked, on a bridge in Budapest, about to plunge into the Danube; and bending to kiss Ursula Andress goodbye. I remember three fairies peering through a hole like figures from a Mantegna painting; pigeons lifting Barney’s scrotum skyward (one of the most ecstatic and tragic moments in the cycle); adorable dancers forming elaborate patterns on blue Astroturf; and, in a sequence that has all the fear of the American night, Barney as Gary Gilmore (fitted with a teeny-tiny prosthetic penis) failing to crawl from one parked Ford Mustang to another—a turning point in this saga of turning points.
There is one serious problem with the show as far as I’m concerned: The catalog lists the first two articles on Barney as mine and Lane Relyea’s, both published in April 1991. In fact, my Barney article came out in Arts magazine in May of that year. Relyea’s wasn’t published in Artforum until way later, in September, an entire 123 days after mine, not that anyone’s deranged enough to count.