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Page 94

legendarily resilient center for the Oakland Raiders), an exercise mat, some
gynecological instruments, and a second video that showed Barney, looking very
much like Audrey Hepburn in high heels and a long black cocktail dress,
straining to push a football blocking sled. Plenty of viewers hated it, of course.
Hilton Kramer, in the wrote, “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.” A few feminists detected rampant machismo, and the gay contingent,
after checking and finding out that Barney was irredeemably straight (he was
dating Mary Farley at the time), dismissed it all as “faux gay.” Most of the
reviews were enthusiastic, however; searching for pre ce dents, critics mentioned
Joseph Beuys’s animal-fat sculptures, Bruce Nauman’s enigmatically ominous
videos, and Jeff Koons’s self-enchanted sexual icons. “Mr. Barney is the central
protagonist in his art,” ’s critic Roberta Smith wrote, “but he plays his
roles with a self-effacing concentration that renders him almost invisible: the
vehicle of the work, not its star.”

“The whole thing was surprising to me,” Barney recalled. “When I was in
school, finishing up and heading for New York, I didn’t think the commercial
galleries would be interested in what I was doing. I was quite content with the
idea of showing at the alternative spaces, like the Mattress Factory, in
Pittsburgh, or the Capp Street Project, in San Francisco, doing site-specific
pieces. But the climate in New York had changed.”

It had indeed. The collapse of the overhyped 1980s art market had left a lot of
insiders looking for something new and different, and Barney’s intense and
physically demanding per for mances and his weird mixture of sports meta
phors, medical instruments, and outlandish materials were all of that. “There was
a huge buzz immediately,” according to Barbara Gladstone. The San Francisco
Museum of Modern Art gave him a solo show that December; the following
year, he was invited to show at Documenta IX, in Kassel, Germany, the most
important of the big international art exhibitions; and in 1993 he was in both the
Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale, where he won the Europa 2000
prize. Not since Jasper Johns, in the late 1950s, had a young artist made such an
impact. Like Johns, moreover, Barney was able to resist the lure of celebrity,
which had seduced and eventually jilted a number of the 1980s art stars.
Ignoring the publicity machine that was all too ready to play up his exotic
credentials—football player, male model—he avoided art world parties and
interviews, lived austerely, and channeled his prodigious energy into new work.

7, his contribution to the Whitney Biennial, was a three-
channel video excursion into Greek mythology. The action here is colorful and
oddly disturbing but relatively uncomplicated, something that could not be said

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about , the video-and-installation work that Barney presented in an
underground parking garage at Documenta IX. In , the video action
centers on two main characters, Jim Otto and Harry Houdini (played by Barney),
who engage in a competition—nonverbal, of course—to steal the “Hubris Pill”
and subject it to what Barney describes as “metabolic changes related to the
digestive process, from glucose to sucrose, to petroleum jelly, tapioca, meringue,
and then poundcake, a complex carbohydrate. If it gets to poundcake, then, as a
bagpipe, it can play ‘Amazing Grace.’” (This is one of the explanations that
seem to make sense when Barney is talking.) There is a lot of vigorous physical
activity in , and many striking and largely inexplicable images, but,
as far as I can make out, the bagpipe never does get to play “Amazing Grace.”

Harry Houdini had taken hold of Barney’s imagination at Yale, when he was
just starting to make per for mance pieces. The famous escape artist, whose most
spectacular feats involved letting himself be manacled hand and foot, confined in
a strait-jacket and/or a locked safe, and dropped into freezing waters, from which
he would miraculously free himself within two or three minutes, became for
Barney the Character of Positive Restraint, the personification of self-discipline
as a catalyst to creativity. Jim Otto was Houdini’s antithesis. He had been the
Oakland Raiders’ iron man, the center who never missed a game, and who
absorbed so much punishment that he ended his fifteen-year career playing on
two prosthetic knees. Reached in California, where he is “still involved with the
Oakland Raiders” or ga ni za tion, Otto had never heard of Barney and was
surprised to learn of his role in Barney’s art. “I’m flattered, I guess,” he said. I
did not tell him that the 00 he wore on his jersey signifies to Barney a “roving
rectum,” a body subject to penetration and to the indiscriminate expenditure of
energy. In , his character is taught to sing “Amazing Grace” by
someone who is a dead ringer for the Raiders’ famously aggressive owner, Al
Davis, but who is in fact Marsha Gibney, transformed by makeup and her son’s
minimal, Zen-like direction.

Not many people saw at Documenta, because of its out-of-the-
way location. Those who did were impressed, or perplexed, or both. Nicholas
Serota, the director of the Tate Museum, in London, was so impressed that he
got his museum to buy it. The person it had the biggest impact on, however, was
Barney himself. Parts of the piece showed Barney climbing up and down four
different elevator shafts in four separate buildings. “I began to think about how
expansive that notion could be,” Barney told me. “You could take an idea and
expand it over four countries, and still understand it as a single thing.
was the transition.” Soon after this, he made his first drawing for what would
become the “Cremaster” cycle. It showed a rough, bagpipe-like form whose

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Turrell and, 111
Wind, Sand, and Stars
(Saint-Exupéry), 102
Winer, Helene, 22, 29, 30, 32, 36, 42
Wingate, Ealan, 69, 93
Women of Franklin Street, The, 214, 228–29, 235–37, 239
Working Is a Bad Job, 151
Wortz, Edward, 108–9
Wrong Gallery, 156–57, 161
Wurlitzer, Rudy, 82

Yale University, 76–77, 117, 119, 120–22, 223, 224
YBAs (young British artists), 1, 13–14
Young, Donald, 204
Yuskavage, Lisa, 224, 229

Zotti, Lucio, 141, 143, 145, 150, 156

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CALVIN TOMKINS has written more than a dozen books, including the bestseller

and the critically acclaimed biography .
He lives in New York City with his wife, Dodie Kazanjian.

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