Barney has one sibling, an older sister named Tracy. When Barney was six, his father Robert got a job running the food services at Boise State University and the family moved to Idaho. When Barney was 12, his parents divorced and his mother Marsha Gibney (an abstract painter) moved to New York. Barney and his sister remained with his father in Boise, but he frequently visited his mother in New York, where he was exposed to contemporary art. Consequentially, Barney spent his youth partially in Idaho, where he played football at Capital High School, and partially in New York City with his mother Marsha, who introduced him to art and museums. This intermingling of sports and art would inspire his later work as an artist. Barney entered Yale University planning to study medicine, but became enamored with art and fashion. He received a B.A. from Yale in 1989. He also worked briefly as a model for Click Modeling Agency, and was in a J. Crew advertisement.
The film series The Cremaster Cycle is Barney's best-known work. The films had very high budgets by experimental art film standards, and featured such varied celebrities as Norman Mailer, Ursula Andress, and Richard Serra. Stylistically, his work is comparable to the large-scale, mythical films of Alexandro Jodorowsky.
In interviews, Barney has mentioned the phenomenon of hypertrophy as a metaphorical inspiration for much of his work; several of his performance pieces have involved Barney restrained or somehow encumbered while attempting to execute a drawing. The performance aspects of Barney's work have been described as predominant, while the resultant drawings have been called "[not] very interesting in their own right." Some have criticized Drawing Restraint 9 for what has been termed a superficial treatment of Japanese culture combined with an undesirable awkwardness in the actors/performers, including Barney. A gallery show accompanying the Drawing Restraint 9 project appeared at Gladstone Gallery in New York, April 7-May 13, 2006, featuring thermoplastic sculptures associated with the film and the remains of a private project performed at the gallery April 2, 2006, titled Drawing Restraint 13: The Instrument of Surrender, for which Barney emerged from a crate dressed as General Douglas MacArthur, walked across a platform, and fell into a vat of petroleum jelly. Barney reused his motif of dressing as MacArthur in a show later that year (June 23 through September 17, 2006) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. That performance involved Barney scaling the museum's atrium to execute a large sketch of his iconic pill-shaped symbol—another recurring motif in his work.
Barney's work has provoked strong critical reaction, both positive and negative. Calling his work a "snooze", The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl criticized Barney as being "a star for attaining stardom.Another critic in the same magazine characterizes elements in Drawing Restraint 9 as "an unabashed display of Oriental kitsch that makes Memoirs of a Geisha look like an ethnographic documentary. Jed Perl has described Barney's work as "phony-baloney mythopoetic movies, accompanied by Dumpster loads of junk from some godforsaken gymnasium of the imagination".
Others have defended his work, comparing Barney to such canonical performance artists as Chris Burden and Vito Acconci and arguing that his art is simultaneously a critique and a celebration of commercialism and blockbuster filmmaking. Commenting on the Cremaster series' enigmatic nature, Alexandra Keller and Frazer Ward write:
"Rather than reading Cremaster, we are encouraged to consume it as high-end eye candy, whose symbolic system is available to us but hardly necessary to our pleasure: meaning, that is, is no longer a necessary component to art production or reception. Left to its own devices-and it is all devices-Cremaster places us in a framework of mutually assured consumption, consuming us as we consume it."
The philosopher Arthur C. Danto, well known for his work on aesthetics, has praised the majority of Barney's work, noting the importance of Barney's use of sign systems such as Mason mythology (see Freemasonry).
Others have asserted Barney's works are contemporary expressions of surrealism. In the words of Chris Chang, Barney's Cremaster films, though "completely arcane, hermetic and solipsistic ... nevertheless periodically provide some of the most enigmatically beautiful experimental film imagery you'll ever see.
"Is Barney's work a new beginning for a new century?", asks Richard Lacayo, writing in Time. "It feels more like a very energetic longing for a beginning, in which all kinds of imagery have been put to the service of one man's intricate fantasy of return to the womb. Something lovely and exasperating is forever in formation there. Will he ever give birth?
Barney's work for the 2007 Manchester International Festival received mixed reviews.
"Barney is the real thing. When he brings his boundless imagination to a subject he goes down to its depths to create images and implant ideas that stay in your mind for ever" writes Richard Dorment in the Telegraph.
Barney, Matthew. Cremaster 3. Guggenheim, dist. by D.A.P. 2002. photogs. ISBN 0-89207-253-9. pap. $49.95. FINE ARTS
"Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle": at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Catalogue published by Harry N. Abrams; 544 pages;