Matthew Barney ’89 is dating Bjork, but he is famous for more than that. Three years ago, New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman named him “the most important American artist of his generation.”
Barney is best known for his “Cremaster Cycle,” a five-film series completed in 2002 that explores themes of identity and gender differences. This multi-media mixture of bizarre costumes, professional sports, and even the rodeo, is tied together by a string of sexual references: even the title itself refers to the muscle which controls the testes.
An epic eight-year project, “Cremaster Cycle” will open this February in the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Within a few years of graduation, Barney had already received wide acclaim for his innovative and unconventional film work. His is a rare success story in the fierce competition of the art world.
Christine Mehring, professor of art history, attributed Barney’s success to a combination of factors. Part of the reason he is so well known today, she said, is his long-term relationship with Bjork, the ex-lead singer of The Sugarcubes. The couple’s first child was due in September.
But Mehring said that while this relationship has added to Barney’s fame, his works alone merit recognition.
She said much of the success of “Cremaster” was due to its immense size — at the time it was unprecedented for an artist to devote eight years to a single project.
“He dared to think and work on an ambitious scale,” said Mehring. “It takes tremendous guts, determination and vision to undertake this kind of project — [He is] unprecedented in that he did it and was successful.”
While Barney’s artistic interest in personal identity was nothing new, Mehring said, his exploration of it was more subdued than his more brash contemporaries.
“[He addresses] themes of prowess and striving and excess — while always exposing this as hubris and false,” said Mehring.
Barney’s Yale experience was much like that of many other students. As a freshman in Branford, he planned to go pre-med and briefly played quarterback for the freshman football team.
“I knew him as well as you could get to know someone in two weeks,” said Mark Brubaker ’89, who played with him on the football team. “He was great guy. Kinda quiet, but a really nice guy — People loved hanging out with him.”
But even on the football field he still maintained his individuality.
“I hear he was sort of an off-the-wall type of guy,” said Carm Cozza, who was the varsity football coach when Barney played.
Brubaker said much the same thing.
“He always marched to the beat of his own drum — he wasn’t the prototypical anything here,” said Brubaker. “[One] thing that stood out as unusual, or indicative of where he is today, is that he had the very tips of his hair dyed a reddish-orange color.”
Though Barney had been a successful quarterback in high school, two weeks into his freshman season, he was forced to quit due to an NCAA regulation that prohibits football players from professional modeling. Brubaker said he believes that Barney was a model for either L.L.Bean or J.Crew.
Despite the brevity of his collegiate football career, the sport’s influence is evident throughout Barney’s work. In one of his films, Barney himself performs feats of incredible athleticism, such as scaling a rock wall. Often, his themes of prowess and striving are illustrated by scenes of football games or empty stadiums.
Cozza said he believes a background in football may have enhanced Barney’s organization, reaction to adversity, and self-discipline, which contributed to his success.
“The quarterback has got to earn [his teammates’] respect,” said Cozza. “If he puts himself on a pedestal, he’s not going to have that respect — He’s got to be fundamentally sound and have a good work ethic.”
Barney’s success seems to have been the result of a combination of talent, perseverance and good luck.
“I get the sense that it’s pretty difficult [to gain artistic recognition],” said Chris Au ’03, a film studies major. “But with perseverance and diligence and lucky breaks, those dreams can be realized.”