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Matthew Barney

American Sculptor, Photographer, Film Director, and Performance Artist

Born: March 25, 1967 - San Francisco, California
"My addiction has to do with performance, with creating a very real situation and then dealing with all the physical problems surrounding it."
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Matthew Barney
"Right from the start I wanted to put my body into my work."
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Matthew Barney
"Art needs to be defended. It's fragile. If a work is shown too many times, something gets stolen from it. You come to it with preconceptions, or you get tired of it. And it's the same with an artist. So I try to protect myself and my work. I want there to be a fraction of the art that even I don't understand."
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Matthew Barney
"Being in fashion was useful to me because I know how people can be used up, how they're hot and then they become yesterday's news. I find this curious, the way energy dissipates from a source through that kind of exploitation -- and I want to figure out how to make it into art."
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Matthew Barney
"The way that I deal with narrative isn't exactly linear. Sometimes it involves feeling something, sometimes it involves presence - in the way that sculpture has presence."
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Matthew Barney
"I find meaning for myself in surrender, in artistic surrender. I find it very attractive to have to surrender to something. I guess I am attracted to things I cannot understand intellectually but only viscerally. I can't make work any other way. It's the only way I can do it."
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Matthew Barney
"I'm an obsessive. For sure. But there is part of it that is therapeutic, too. I might be in trouble if I could not exercise that level of obsession. It kind of keeps me stable."
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Matthew Barney
"I think my habit as an artist is something like a hunter gatherer, going out to places and gathering the narratives and materials that I need to bring back to the studio to distill down into the work."
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Matthew Barney

Summary of Matthew Barney

One of the most important figures in the contemporary art world, and known primarily for large-scale film projects, including his career-defining Cremaster Cycle, Barney has proved one of the most daring and ambitious (and divisive) American artists to gain fame from the late-twentieth century onward. His works, which blend Video Art, Performance Art, and sculptural installations, are concerned with physical movement (sport and choreographed dance) and they carry deep thematic undercurrents of sexual and bodily excess. Barney's work, which provokes psychological fantasies that many (indeed, most) find deeply challenging, is dense with references to training camps and medical apparatus, allusions to anatomical movement, the history of art, and the iconography, history, and mythology of ancient cultures. Barney is a strong advocate of collaboration (which he attributes to his early success in team sports), but the fact that he avoids self-publicity and unnecessary media attention (unlike Damien Hirst to whom he is sometimes compared) has added to his substantial cult following.


  • By unanimous consensus, Barney's most important work is his five-film, seven-hour, Cremaster Cycle. Presented on a sweeping, operatic-like scale, and produced over a period of some eight years, many cite the Cremaster Cycle as one of the greatest achievements in American art. Combining sculpture, drawing and installation the films create an expansive self-contained world that art critic Johnathan Jones suggests blend elements of T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland with the Star Wars cycle. Variety backed up the Cycle's postmodern credentials when it summed up Cremaster 3 as "Hieronymus Bosch by way of Busby Berkeley".
  • Barney's Drawing Restraints series drew on his early years as an athlete. Adopting the metaphor "athlete as artist", his series brought a unique biological perspective to the crowded ideological sphere of gender and body politics in contemporary art. Applying the principle that to achieve its maximum capacity the muscle must first be stretched to near breaking point, Barney tied himself down to a fixed point in a hybridized space (such as a gymnasium) before climbing and reaching over or around physical obstructions and props to draw and write on surfaces such as walls and ceilings.
  • Barney has spoken of the concept of "situation" - a raw, non-gendered, sexual energy "without discipline or direction". Through his art, he has related this to his desire to obliterate the cultural tensions between the male and female sexes. Though gender determination is a dominant theme in contemporary art, Barney's work has allowed his viewer to search beyond the fixed parameters of liberal politics and to allow for a mediation on the relationship between sexual desire, self-discipline, and artistic productivity.
  • In an extension of his interest in "situation", Barney has explored the extremes of rebirth and regeneration in a way that tested even the liberal tastes of the contemporary art world. In his infamous River of Fundament, Barney pushed his viewers' mental (rather than muscular) endurance by asking them to confront human waste, not, as he says, as a shock tactic, but rather as a legitimate subject for philosophical meditation. Indeed, in Barney's vision, "bodily functions are interchangeable with the primordial ooze of the earth".

Biography of Matthew Barney

Matthew Barney Life and Legacy

Posters for the Barney exhibition at San Francisco MOMA in 2016. Barney is now a world-renowned artist - this level of popularity took many years to achieve.

Important Art by Matthew Barney

Drawing Restraint 2 (1988)

The Drawing Restraint series was a long-term project that Barney began in 1987 while still an undergraduate at Yale. The earliest in the series (Drawing Restraint 1-6, produced between 1987-89) brought together drawing, photography and video performance in a way that reflected Barney's preoccupation with hypertrophy; that being the idea that athletic physicality and strength is built up through muscle resistance.

Drawing Restraint 2 was a gymnasium-based performance in which the artist made artistic "marks" on walls and ceiling while tethered to a ramp with bungee cords. Through this experiment, Barney had effectively confronted the time-honoured maxim that the best art is a spontaneous, reflexive, activity. By applying the idea of hypertrophy to artistic growth - be that physical, cultural or spiritual - he explored the concept that the "strongest" artists (like the strongest athletes) should have to overcome self-imposed obstacles in order to create something "higher"; something more "powerful". The resultant video recording, drawings and "set" (featuring various items of gym apparatus) exist as an archive of the performance. Fellow artist Sophie Arkette observed that "These works do not refer to something static, a composed form, but reveal the way one action precipitates another in the course of making a work [...] What is crucial in the life of a work is the attempt at doing something regardless of outcome. In this sense, [Barney's] ethos is akin to that of experimental work of the 60s and 70s".

Drawing Restraint 7 (1993)

Having begun (with Drawing Restraint 1-6) to experiment with video installation, Drawing Restraint 7 marked a transitional moment in a series Barney and through video installation he was able to make "stories rather than documenting real actions". Despite its formal differences, however, Drawing Restraint 7 continued to explore the concept of creative growth by overcoming external and self-imposed restrictions. Drawing Restraint 7 also deals with one of Barney's other preoccupations, namely Western culture's obsession with the idea of masculinity as performance that sates from ancient Greece to the present. In the video, actors wearing heavy make-up, cumbersome prosthetics, and costumes, play the roles of satyrs engaged in seemingly futile physical activities, such as chasing their own tails, or attempting to draw while wrestling in the confined space of the backseat of a limousine.

As Barney moved forward with the series (reaching Drawing Restraint 19 in 2013), he continued to place the body in a central role. Describing the series as a whole as "an endless loop between desire and discipline", the work explores the ritualistic processes of creation through a range of materials, settings, and characters. Art critic Quinn Latimer said of the Drawing Restraint series that by "delineating evermore elaborate contests of physical strength and psychological willpower against resistance at turns physical, sexual, architectural, cultural, oceanic or spiritual, the series resembles the endless tragicomic trials of a Greek demigod, or its most contemporary incarnation, the athlete [...] the body and its tribulations are central to his practice [and] his thoroughly Postmodern work furthers one of the oldest art-historical traditions: figuration".

The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002)

Barney's magnum opus, The Cremaster Cycle, is comprised of five high-budget, films. Here he employs the narrative modes of mythology, history, and (auto) biography to explore complex biological, artistic, geological, and geographical themes. The films make use of dense, surrealistic and highly-sexualized imagery, married with vividly-colored and elaborate props, make-up, prosthetics, and costumes. They are filmed in locations ranging from a palace in Budapest, the Isle of Man, and the salt flats of Utah - meanwhile actors in the series include Ursula Andress, the sculptor Richard Serra, the athlete Aimee Mullins and the writer Norman Mailer. The film's also star chorus girls, tap dancers, Canadian Mounties, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, helicopter pilots, bee trainers, and heavy metal bands.

Viewed in order, the films follow the embryonic process of sexual differentiation, beginning in Cremaster 1 with the "ascended" or undifferentiated state, and ending in Cremaster 5 at the most "descended" or differentiated state, about nine weeks after conception, when the male sex is fully realized. For Barney, the films simultaneously allude to the process of creative development. He explains that Cremaster 1 represents the spark of an idea; Cremaster 2 is the rejection of the idea; Cremaster 3 is the artist falling in love with the idea; Cremaster 4 is panic at the knowledge that the idea is about to come to fruition; and Cremaster 5 is the final resolution.

Barney, however, produced and released the five films non-chronologically, beginning with Cremaster 4 (1994), followed by Cremaster 1 (1995), Cremaster 5 (1997), Cremaster 2 (1999), and ending with Cremaster 3 (2002). This discontinuity would seem to underscore Barney's view that these processes (the biological process of becoming, and the artistic process of creating) are complex and non-linear. Even though each film follows a different set of mythological and historical characters, they continually cross-reference (they are "inter-textual" in other words). The production designer Matthew D. Ryle asserts that "anyone can access [the films] from any point; from fashion, horror movies, architecture, drawing, photography, football, plastics - or just story-telling". But not everyone was won-over by Barney's extravagant vision, with arts journalist Matt Turner describing the series as "an exhausting experience, demonstrating a weirdness that is wearying, a dedication to provocation that comes to feel laborious, and much material that feels like baggage".

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Matthew Barney
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Ashley Bickerton
    Ashley Bickerton
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    Kanye West
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Matthew Barney

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd

"Matthew Barney Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd
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First published on 04 May 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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