New York

“Matthew Barney: The CREMASTER Cycle”

Other ambitious young artists might have been content to go to the studio, tack up a poster of Harry Houdini, a postcard of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and the famous image of Richard Serra flinging molten lead like Vulcan in his forge, and sublimate. But not Matthew Barney. For better and worse, Barney had to make a multimedia spectacle of himself, his youthful ambitions, infatuations, and oedipal urges, with various heroes, past and present, in attendance.

As is well known by now, Barney had to write and direct the five increasingly long, complex, and hermetic films of the CREMASTER cycle, 1994–2002, starring in all but one. This extravaganza recasts the moment of embryonic sexual differentiation as a multinarrative epic struggle that begins in Boise, Idaho, the artist’s hometown, and ends in Budapest, where Houdini was born.

What this project entailed has become a familiar litany. The on-location shoots, original scores, and over-the-top sets, costumes, and maquillage, the scaling of landmark architecture performed by the artist, the strange rites and tortures performed on him. The cameos from assorted celebrities and wondrous creatures, among them Norman Mailer, Ursula Andress, Serra, a seven-foot, five-hundred-pound giant, three corset fetishists, a four-horned ram, and a double-amputee supermodel. The retinue of drawings, photographs, banners, sculpture, objects, accoutrements, and regalia generated by, and sometimes deployed in, each film. The profusion of signature Barney substances—tapioca granules, petroleum jelly, beeswax, and an unusually luminous new material called self-lubricating plastic.

To my surprise, worse outweighs better at the Guggenheim’s exhibition of all things CREMASTER. Barney’s long-anticipated victory lap up Wright’s spiral ramp was supposed to crown the magical CREMASTER tour (previous stops: Cologne and Paris). That it doesn’t is a pity, especially given that the centerpiece of the New York version is an apotheosis of site-specificity: The Guggenheim’s vaulting rotunda is one of the interiors Barney scales—to be precise, in the grand finale (called “The Order”) of CREMASTER 3, 2002. Now playing continuously on a giant five-screen Jumbotron suspended above the rotunda, “The Order” shows Barney, wearing a peach-colored tartan kilt and matching busby, clambering from ring to ring, interacting with a line of tapdancing chorines, a pair of battling hardcore bands, a leopard woman straight out of Moreau, and, finally, Serra, re-creating his early molten-lead Process piece, but using Barney’s own melted Vaseline.

Yet Barney’s Bayreuth seems more like his Waterloo. Despite some great moments, all on video, “The CREMASTER Cycle” simply takes up too much time, space, and expensive materials not to make more sense. It throws around too many different styles and too many kinds of meaning not to provide more sustained pleasure or lasting wisdom.

The Guggenheim Barneyrama reveals a young artist who has put his development as a sculptor of objects on hold to make five of the most lavish, intermittently beautiful but generally tedious art films in the history of tedious art films and some titillating posterlike photographs distinguished by sharp colors and extreme styling. If it weren’t for Jonathan Bepler’s music, few people would make it through the longest films. Barney has simply been wildly successful at making his first, rather inchoate dreams of artistic power, domination, and ascendancy come true. He has created a Gesamtkunstwerk for one, enacting a fledgling artist’s search for himself in stupendously extravagant, implicitly oppressive yet weirdly vacant terms.

The Barney experience, if not the Barney art, was more intense and accessible at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne last summer. The floors were carpeted wall to wall in vivid shades of Astroturf, and the films were sequestered with their sculptures in separate galleries—featured like the densely worked, fussed-over Fabergé eggs that they are.

At the Guggenheim, the rococo lightness and color of Cologne have given way to a pale, distended ponderousness. The eye-thrilling Astroturf is scarce. The films look washed out on the monitors. The sculptures mostly straggle up the ramp single file, not always in tandem with their respective films. The cosseted focus of the Ludwig installation accrues only in the show’s final, uppermost gallery, where CREMASTER 5, 1997, and its related sculptures are surrounded by luminous matte black plastic walls accented with artificial lilies.

The Guggenheim show makes it clear that the sculptures fail without the spectacular settings, bodily cleavings, physical movement, and the sealed-off illusion of the films. In the flesh, all but a few seem finicky, embalmed, and familiarly Victorian or Surrealist—a custom-finished grand piano filled with cement, for example. The buildings, landscapes, and people that Barney selects, adorns, and films are the best CREMASTER sculptures. The most interesting sculpture in the exhibition itself is the elaborate Maypole-like braid dangling from the bottom of the Jumbotron. Everything else is more or less leftovers.

Some of the objects on display are actual relics, like the bright yellow gymnast pad set for the flame-haired Manx Faeries’ tea party—one of the best moments in CREMASTER 4, 1994. Others are more contrived, like the ghastly wedges of cement and steel that commemorate the long-winded, orgiastically self-referential demolition derby in CREMASTER 3: Five mint Chrysler Imperials from 1967 (the year of Barney’s birth) destroy a customized Chrysler Imperial New Yorker from 1938 (the year of his father’s birth and only one year off Serra’s).

Notwithstanding certain scenes, such as the Faeries’ tea party, that remain etched in my memory like marvelous paintings, the films offer little in the way of emotional logic, nor even much emotion. You wait to be enchanted, but the artist’s endless oscillation among the obscure, the beautiful, and the unresolved starts to wear you down. In CREMASTER 5, Barney’s climb across the garlanded proscenium arch at the Hungarian State Opera House—which he executes in a pink satin doublet—has a breathtaking Watteauean charm, whatever it may mean. But it ends in Daliesque obviousness, with the artist fallen to the stage, his head melted into a big scrotum-shaped pool of pink goo.

Lots of young artists create closed-off, self-aggrandizing cosmologies centering on themselves. Lucas Samaras’s early pastels and auto-Polaroids are one example. And some young artists sublimate so successfully that their later work suddenly fills with hermetic references to their childhoods, as seems to be the case with Jasper Johns. Barney seems to bring a lot into the open, indulging his every whim, yet he keeps his meanings, and himself, strangely cloaked. The narrative might be more compelling if Barney himself seemed to have more fun or gave off more heat, if he didn’t conduct himself with a kind of imploded puritanical narcissism. Most of the time he exhibits the somewhat shut-down stoicism of an early-’70s performance artist.

Barney is hardly unique among his contemporaries or near-contemporaries for combining material overstatement, fetishized craft, and obscure narrative in varying ways; Jason Rhoades, Jason Dodge, and Toland Grinnell (who worked as a production assistant on CREMASTER 4) are similar. And he has lots of company in the interminable-video department. He’s also indebted to the decade everyone is still embarrassed about, the ’80s, as superficially suggested by his reliance on gender stereotypes and the frequent appearance of scantily clad women.

Julian Schnabel’s grandiosity, David Salle’s stylishness, Cindy Sherman’s set-up photographs, Jeff Koons’s delicious color and artisanal bravura are all part of Barney’s appropriational stew, as are Barbara Bloom’s period rooms, Joel-Peter Witkin’s freaks, even Robert Morris’s fussy, mannered realism. Barney’s Morrisiana includes the clear plastic prosthetic feet used by the beautiful amputee Aimee Mullins in “The Order,” displayed here filled with dirt.

Like many “’80s” artists, Barney’s main tactic has been to corrupt and complicate the post-Minimal and Conceptual strategies of the late ’60s and ’70s with multiple, disjunctive references to history, life, and culture. But he does so with a reverential competitiveness that results in a daisy chain of one-upmanship. Demolition derby instead of Barry Le Va running into a wall. Aerial views of the Columbia Icefield instead of a Robert Smithson rundown or Michael Snow’s 360-degree pan in La Région centrale, 1971. And of course there’s Serra, whom Barney smites dead with a silver maul at the end of CREMASTER 3. This is after he has evoked Serra’s cube of solid cast iron by filling a replicant elevator cab from the Chrysler Building with cement.

The CREMASTER cycle is a quest for originality more than originality itself. It’s a flailing, unending struggle in which, like most young artists, Barney never gets it all right at the same time. CREMASTER 5 is the most emotionally and narratively coherent of the five films, due in part to Barney’s vaguely romantic interactions with Andress, but it has the least compelling score. In the emphasis on bodies, buildings, and landscapes as sculpture both extant and in formation, CREMASTER 2, 1999, and CREMASTER 3 make most credible Barney’s claim to being a kind of ur-sculptor, regardless of medium. But they are ultimately hard to take as films, despite being moved along, like silent movies, by some of Bepler’s best music.

Most of the impact of Barney’s CREMASTER derives from ’80s collage accelerated into a form of perpetual distraction, of sudden cuts, incomplete tales, side trips, close-ups, inexplicable juxtapositions, and delectable morsels that draw the eye from one element to another before the mind starts asking too many questions. Which is to say that Barney compensates for the immature, unresolved nature of his individual activities by presenting them all together. This tactic worked in the compressed, jewel-box presentation in Cologne. At the Guggenheim it is stretched to the breaking point and all the more visible for not working.

But perhaps Barney has redefined the visual artist as movie director/rock star/stuntman/set designer and become a middlebrow emblem of artistic difficulty, seriousness, and ego whose popularity renders critical opinion mostly moot. The arbitrariness of his juxtapositions, costumes, and settings seems not to bother young off-art-world admirers raised on music video (which Barney has already influenced), video games, horror movies, kinky fashion ads, and, now, The Lord of the Rings—all narratives that don’t always make much sense themselves. Still it will be too bad if this spectacular playing out of youthful talent, ambition, and self-absorption is as good as it gets—most of all for the artist himself. Not that this is likely. Now that Barney has gotten CREMASTER out of his system, anything could happen.

Roberta Smith is an art critic for the New York Times.