“The greatest American artist of his generation.” That is how Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic of The New York Times, described the video and performance artist Matthew Barney. You have probably heard of Matthew Barney by now. He was recently the subject of a long and respectful profile in The New Yorker by Calvin Tompkins. The New York Times has been singing his praises for years. In one signature work called “Field Dressing (Orifill),” this great artist is depicted in a video “climbing”—we quote Mr. Kimmelman—“naked up a pole and cables and applying dollops of Vaseline to his orifices.”

If you remain skeptical about Mr. Barney’s achievement, you now have the opportunity to judge for yourself. A “major exhibition” of Mr. Barney’s work (why are all exhibitions these days prefaced by the adjective “major”?) will be on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through June 11. Fans of Mr. Barney’s work will be pleased to know that “Cremaster,” his five-part film cycle inspired by the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles, will be screened daily. The show hadn’t opened when we went to press, so we cannot comment on the particulars of the exhibition. Nevertheless, we thought readers might like to know something about the preparations the Guggenheim had to make for this celebration of “the most important American artist of his generation.” Genius, we know, can be demanding. The New York Times reminds us that it can be potentially messy as well. Among the logistical problems the Guggenheim faced in accommodating Mr. Barney’s work was storing one ton of Vaseline at the proper temperature. This is “the most important American artist of his generation” we are talking about, so the Landmarks Preservation Commission was quick to give the Guggenheim permission to build a temporary wooden enclosure on the roof of its Frank Lloyd Wright building to keep the goo at the required air-conditioned temperature. Vaseline, the Times explained,

will be seen running down the interior of the Guggenheim’s rotunda in specially designed troughs. Frozen Vaseline will cover the front of an Art Deco bar. … [A] hidden hose, fed from the roof enclosure through the museum’s lighting system, would keep the Vaseline on the bar at 17 degrees so it holds its shape.

The curator chiefly responsible for this homage to Mr. Barney described the exhibition as “among the most exhilarating” of all the “complex and eccentric exhibitions” the Guggenheim has mounted. Perhaps. It certainly threatens to be among the most oleaginous. Of course, visitors will be told not to touch the, ah, works of art. But it is reassuring to know that the Guggenheim promises to have “paper towels on hand” in case of accidents. It was Oscar Wilde who observed that life imitates art. The spectacle of Matthew Barney being hailed as “the most important American artist of his generation” and taking up valuable real estate in a premier New York museum for almost four months could have come straight from the acid satirical imaginings of Evelyn Waugh. What a swindle.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 7
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