Matthew Barney Retrospective At Morgan Library & Museum

Photo: Gladstone Gallery

Matthew Barney, “KHU: Djed,” 2011, brush and ink, gold leaf, iron, and lapis lazuli on black paper in polyethylene frame, 12¾ by 10¾ by 1¼ inches. Private collection, ©Matthew Barney.

NEW YORK CITY — The artist Matthew Barney (b 1967) is best known for his sculptures and films, but drawing also plays a critical role in his work. “Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney,” on view at the Morgan Library & Museum May 10–September 2, is the first exhibition devoted entirely to his drawings. The show ranges from Barney’s earliest drawings made while he was a student at Yale in the late 1980s to works related to his most recent project, “River Of Fundament.” They trace his investigation of drawing as an activity both independent from and linked to his sculptural and performative practice.

In addition to Barney’s drawings, the exhibition will also include a number of his storyboards — composed of sketches, photographs, clippings and books — that he assembles to map the narrative structure and imagery of his projects. Barney has selected books and manuscripts from the Morgan’s collections to display as part of his storyboards. These items — which include a more than 2,000-year-old Egyptian Book of the Dead, a medieval zodiac and poet Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” — demonstrate the breadth of Barney’s interests and underscore the importance of literature and mythology in the elaboration of his stories.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the artist will create a new “Drawing Restraint,” the 20th in this ongoing series that examines the relationship between self-imposed restraint and artistic creation.

The exhibition is co-curated by Isabelle Dervaux, Acquavella curator of Modern and contemporary drawings at the Morgan, and Klaus Kertess, an independent art historian, working collaboratively with the artist. The title “Subliming Vessel,” with its references to chemistry and psychology, conveys the idea of drawing as a process of distillation, transformation and metamorphosis.

The exhibition begins with the drawing “Condition 88” from the late 1980s, made while Barney was an undergraduate at Yale University. Like the other early drawings on view, “Condition 88,” which depicts abstract blotches and spontaneous eruptions of linearity, evidences the nascent forms that populate his later work. Among the other works on display will be drawings relating to Barney’s 1992 video installation Ottoshaft, involving the characters of Harry Houdini and the American football star Jim Otto, as well as a collection of works from Barney’s ongoing “Drawing Restraint” series.

Over time, Barney’s work has evolved into multicharacter productions that rely increasingly on storytelling related to the folklore and myth of a particular site. For instance, the fourth segment in his five-part Cremaster cycle (1994–2002), filmed on the Isle of Man, incorporates the island’s triskelion symbol of three bent legs joined at the thigh. Drawings based on this work show Barney turning the fairies of local lore into three hyperdeveloped figures of ambiguous gender.

This metaphorical mixing becomes increasingly visible in Barney’s work as he turns to the Egyptian mythology-themed action of his seven-part “River Of Fundament,” based on the first 100 pages of Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings. The drawings related to “River Of Fundament” — which comprise approximately one-third of the exhibition — explore possible narratives in connection with the performances and films that make up the work.

The Morgan Library & Museum is at 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street. For information, www.themorgan.org or 212-685-0008.

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