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A New Show Restages Matthew Barney’s 1991 Breakthrough, and It’s Even Better the Second Time

By the time Matthew Barney’s debut solo show opened at Barbara Gladstone’s Greene Street gallery in 1991, the work of this 24-year-old artist had already rocked my world. The previous year, in an otherwise unremarkable large group show in the now-defunct Althea Viafora Gallery in Soho, I saw a TV monitor depicting a naked male — Barney — scaling a rope to the ceiling, then descending over a shape of cooled Vaseline. Hanging there, he’d finger dollops of jelly and methodically fill all the holes in his body — eyes, ears, mouth, penis, anus, nose, navel. (I’d never thought of the penis as a hole before.) I saw a self in transformation, and, thunderstruck, I said to my wife, “This is one of the futures of art.” She looked up and said, “Yeah, but it’s so male.” It was the first time I saw Barney’s intricate syntax of endurance art, video, post-minimal and process art, which delivered a picture of a strange masculinity: conflicted, involuting, ludicrous, neutered, Kafkaesque. A tree fell within me; here was the art of the 1990s beckoning.

Now I see Barney as a mystic bridge between the ambition, absurdity, first-person identity politics, and pseudo-autobiographical Arabian Nights fiction of 1980s artists like Cindy Sherman, Robert Gober, Anselm Kiefer, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Martin Kippenberger and the populism, love of beauty, craft, dexterity with scales large and small, unusual materials, and grand activism of 1990s artists like Kara Walker, Pipilotti Rist, Olafur Eliasson, Thomas Hirschhorn, later Robert Gober, and even Richard Serra — who actually appeared in one of Barney’s films...


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