The Road to Art Fame

An examination of two artists, how they got where they got, and whether that’s a good thing.

A visitor to the Guggenheim Museum, who has just plunked down $15 to see the Matthew Barney exhibit, turns to her friend, and in an exasperated tone says, “That is truly disgusting.”

She is looking at one of the many framed photo stills of Barney’s five-part movie series, the Cremaster cycle.  The glossy print is of something that looks like a decrepit crotch without genitalia, framing a distant view of some oddly designed racecars. The entire exhibit is a collection of props and film stills from his multi-million-dollar celluloid extravaganza, begun in 1994 and completed this year, along with film screenings in the museums basement theater. The stills depict Barney in various exquisitely executed disguises, from a tap-dancing satyr to something that resembles a peach colored, Scottish-kilt-clad B-movie zombie. The props — some elegant and expensively crafted, some grotesque and slimy — are strewn along the corkscrew gallery of the Guggenheim, crowned at the apex by multiple screens that hover over the art patrons, displaying excerpts from Cremaster 3, which happened to have been filmed at the Guggenheim.

Thirty-six year-old Matthew Barney is the “it” artist of the moment. His appearances are recorded in gossip columns (as well as his romantic union with singer Bjork that has recently produced a daughter), and he is currently mentioned in almost every art magazine on the racks, from Artnews to the fly-by-night zines. Recently he was the subject of a lengthy profile in the New Yorker. Superstar artists, who take on a role as a popular culture celebrity, are nothing new. Before Andy Warhol, there was Salvador Dali. And before Matthew Barney there was Julian Schnabel and his Neo-Expressionist compadres, who rekindled the glamour of gallery-hopping and the prestige of being an art collector in the 1980’s. Between 1979 and 1982, unknown artists such as Schnabel, David Salle, and Robert Longo were able to hike up the price of their painting from $2000 to as much as $100,000, with celebrities clamoring to collect their art and hobnob with them. David Salle and Julian Schnabel had one-man shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art before they were 35 years old; Salle was a mere ten years out of art school.

But many of those glitzy careers fizzled by the 1990s. Now these artists are barely noticed for their paintings (Longo, Salle and Schnabel have all taken a whack at film — only Schnabel has been successful), and contemporary art museums won’t touch their stuff (the Museum of Modern Art in New York is especially critical of their works). Robert Longo and Jonathan Borofsky, both darlings of the eighties Soho and East Village scenes, are barely discussed in the context of high art. Such Neo-Pop stars as Kenny Scharf and Rodney Alan Greenblat induce wincing and eye-rolling in serious art connoisseurs.

Could this be the destiny of the goat-eared, shoe-shuffling Matthew Barney? Or will the multi-media art darling be spared this fate?

“Both Salle and Schnabel were part of the ‘Painting is Back’ movement of the early eighties,” says art critic, art theorist, and philosopher Arthur Danto. “But that tanked midway through the decade, and never fully recovered.”

But who or what made the movement soar and then tank is the tricky question. It could be the ultimate talent or talentlessness of the artists (but then, what puts them in the spotlight in the first place?), the art critics, and any influence they might have on curators and collectors, or the gallery owners who choose the hot shows and who have the art world connections to sell certain artists at a high price, raising their prestige (and then ignoring them and causing their careers to falter).

An illuminating case would be that of Julian Schnabel. Many consider him the most talked about artist of the 1980’s, and certainly, scanning the articles of that decade and comparing him with his peers, he was the most written about contemporary artist of his time, breaking through to such general interest publications as Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and the New Yorker. Schnabel was discovered by a new art dealer on the scene at that time, Mary Boone, who included him in her roster of artists when opening her Soho gallery. Many writers, even during the time of Schnabel’s popularity, give credit to Mary Boone as the “engineer” of his commercial success. According to Cathleen McGuigan in a 1982 issue of Artnews, “Boone’s style is high-profile, and she uses her considerable charm to persuade collectors and members of the press. Boone inundates the public with an artist’s work.” She hustled to sell the paintings early, so that his debut was a sell-out before it even opened, and when she held a joint show of his work with the Leo Castelli gallery, McGuigan writes, “the labels posted beside each of the 13 works gave not only a title, but the name of the collector who had bought it,” — and many of those buyers were prestigious patrons who were leaders of the art-buying pack. McGuigan added that “this unorthodox display was the target of much criticism.”

But Boone may not have been the only person working the crowd to inflate the value of a Schnabel painting. Schnabel himself, infamous for his Grand Canyon-sized ego — he once claimed that his artistic peers are “Duccio, Giotto, and van Gogh” — was doing his share of fancy footwork on his own. According to McGuigan, “Gregarious and direct, [Schnabel] worked parties like a political candidate at a Fourth of July picnic.” He boldly approached the most important collectors and tried to convince them to see his shows, and often promised important art-world figures that he would save them one of his paintings. While doing this, McGuigan writes, “he was heard to say, unblinkingly, that he and Jasper Johns were the two greatest American painters of the 20th century.”

Soon, Schnabel’s paintings were the most coveted prize of the contemporary art world, and his shows were the talk of the world. The critic Robert Hughes covered Julian Schnabel’s career at this particular time in history. In a 1987 essay for the New Republic, he wrote of the art collectors of the decade: “They all bought essentially the same paintings by the same artists — a herd instinct that explains the monotony to which one is condemned when passing from one new collection to the next in Beverly Hills.” He continued, hypothesizing about this phenomenon, that “in 1980 the uncertainty of new-market taste was such that if someone stood up to assert loudly and repeatedly that he was a genius, there was a chance he would be believed. This was the strategy of Schnabel and his art dealers, Mary Boone and Leo Castelli, and it worked brilliantly…Only a culture as sodden with hype as America’s in the early eighties could possibly have underwritten his success.”

At the beginning of his career, art critics took notice of his work, but no one pronounced him the new genius of his time. Artforum summed up one of his shows with the lukewarm kicker: “The deliberateness of [the works’] ambivalence, this carefully rationed aloofness, takes the bite out of the work.” Well-respected Newsweek critic Mark Stevens reserved his final judgment, saying only, “[Schnabel’s] drive is toward summary. His work is vulgar in the extreme…Yet these are some of the most important aspects of contemporary culture.” Hilton Kramer of the New York Times took something of a stand, writing that “His work is nothing if not busy…For eyes starved by the austere nourishment of Minimal Art, Mr. Schnabel’s work provides the pictorial equivalent of a junk-food binge.”

Much of what was written, including in reviews, was not about the significance or quality of the art, but about the hype and attention Schnabel was arousing in the art scene. Schnabel himself said at this time, “I think some people are more interested in my success than they are in my paintings,” and that “there’s very little critical writing about my work.”

This could point to the fact that art criticism did not influence the success of Julian Schnabel. But this could also point to the fact that, because critics did not put forth any opinion about his paintings, and the body of work did not become part of the critical dialogue that has been present through the 1970s in magazines, journals, and newspapers, he was more easily accepted as an artistic phenomenon. Nobody of any authority was saying that he was not.

“A lot of what goes for art criticism these days is not only non-judgmental and deliberately as neutral as it can get, but also avoids making statements,” says art philosopher and critic James Elkins. “You find you can’t paraphrase it, and you can’t summarize the arguments because there aren’t any.” In his forthcoming book, “What Happened to Art Criticism?”, Elkins writes, “There are few living art critics who have gone on the record with what they think of the twentieth century’s major movements.” He also quotes a 2002 survey conducted by the Columbia University National Arts Journalism Program that found that judging art is the least popular goal among American art critics, and simply describing art is the most popular. He writes, “It is an amazing reversal, as astonishing as if physicists had declared they would no longer try to understand the universe, but just appreciate it.”

Elkins believes the combination of the weak art criticism that began in the eighties and art gallery savvy fed the bloated reputations of many “hot” artists of the Neo-Expressionist movement, and says that this is the opinion of other art critics and professionals, such as Robert Storrs, Andrea Frazier, and Rosalind Krauss. “If you were to ask one of them, the rise and fall of artists, especially in the eighties, has to do with newfound independence of the market from criticism, and that whatever boosterism that critics in the eighties offered was basically irrelevant to the direct advertising and marketing on the part of the galleries.”

In 1989, when the dust had settled around the Neo-Expressionists, Hilton Kramer finally decided to voice an opinion about the once-golden Julian Schnabel and his gaggle of art wunderkinds. His headline read, “Ghastly Schnabel Show a Fit Ending to Ghastly Decade for Art World.” Today, Schnabel has redeemed himself somewhat, having directed two critically acclaimed movies, “Basquiat” and “Night Falls Fast.” But although he still paints regularly, his works do not fetch the prices they once had, and Schnabel is uncomfortably defensive about his newer position in the art scene. According to the New Yorker, when recently asked about his abandoning his old career for his new one, he barked, “I’ve made a thousand paintings and I’ve made two films. I’m a painter. Does that answer your question?”

But of course Matthew Barney is not a painter, he is a filmmaker, although he insists on being referred to as a sculptor, and does have a few pencil sketches tucked away as an afterthought in a side gallery at the Guggenheim. Although his medium is film and props — not paint and canvas — one cannot help but hear, in the din of his roaring superstardom, the echo of a former star like Schnabel.

Barney, whose good looks and youth are mentioned in most articles about him, was a former high school football star and his class president. He was educated as an artist at Yale, and upon graduation he hit the ground running. He became a regular in the art scene in New York City and garnered interest from high-profile art dealer Barbara Gladstone almost immediately. In September of 1991, two years after graduating college, Barney made the cover of Artforum. His show that November was the event of the season. The exhibit included two videos of Barney doing theatrics, such as climbing across the ceiling of the gallery and pushing at a football sled while dressed in drag, with props from the videos on display in the gallery.

Hilton Kramer wrote of the show in the Observer, “We all know that there is now almost nothing that someone won’t do in public in the name of art, no matter how stupid or nasty.” But most critics wrote positively in their neutral way. Roberta Smith of the New York Times wrote blandly, “He plays his roles with a self-effacing concentration that renders him almost invisible: the vehicle of his work, not the star.” More than a decade later the reviews of Barney’s current show are somewhat bolder. This time Michael Kimmelman goes up to bat for the New York Times, writing, “Hands down, he is…the most compelling, richly imaginative artist to emerge in years.” He then proceeds to breathlessly describe the show in its entirety (which is pretty much impossible). Village Voice art critic J. Hoberman called the Cremaster series “migraine-inducing” and said that it “gives ridiculous a bad name,” while the Voice’s Jerry Saltz called the show “terrific.” Although the reviews state an extreme position, they rarely, if ever, put Barney’s internationally celebrated work into a context of historical significance. They glow or whine, and then simply describe.

Barney is depicted in articles as a quiet, thoughtful, and guarded man. Where the millions of dollars to make his films came from is never explained (we only know that Barbara Gladstone fronted $5 million of it), although his work does fetch tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on its complexity, and he has been collected by many of the major museums internationally.

It is difficult to pinpoint the catalyst of Barney’s success, if there is one. Somehow he accumulated the attention, the money, and the press to achieve art world superstardom, but the role of any critical acclaim, influence from his art world patrons, or his personality and are not quite as clearcut as with an artist like Schnabel. But the two men do have one thing in common.

“Barney rode in on a number of interlocking trends in the culture,” says Danto. “The celebration of the athlete and of the body, gender ambiguity, as a consequence of late feminism, and a readiness to display oneself in performance.” He adds, “The world was also ready for an artist of great ambition.”

Elkins agrees with the ambition theory. “His films are not low budget experimental films,” he says. “They’ve always been as high budget as he could possibly make them. The other thing is that he markets things. When he first appeared on the scene, almost immediately I had students [at the Art Institute of Chicago] interested in him for that reason. They wanted to figure out how you make an object and then have spin-offs that you can market. The marketing is awesome.”

Perhaps it is this drive to sell oneself in the vacuum of any criticism of substance that produces an art superstar in today’s market. But if that is true, with or without real talent, how long can the phenomenon last?

“By now, I think the critics have begun to see Barney’s work as flawed,” says Danto. “A lot depends on what Barney does next, but that in turn depends on how the culture itself does, and to what degree he is in tune with it.”

“My prediction for Barney would be that he goes on for another, oh, ten years,” Elkins surmises, “making some enormous projects, and then either he’ll become someone like Christo, who is known around the world, but no one belabors the fact that his work doesn’t have any content at all, or it could be that after ten years people will become less interested, because when the hype wears off, you have to wonder what the subject is.”

Elkins, art scholar that he is, then paraphrases E.H. Gombrich, from an essay titled ‘The Logic of Vanity Fair.” “The art world is really like the fashion world,” he says, “and you shouldn’t look for rhyme or reason in it except the cult of newness.”