BOYS: Emperors With, or Without, their clothes

11/17/2011 08:02 am ET

While Arianna has been thinking about what makes girls fearless and Nora's been thinking about her neck, I've been thinking about boys.


The latest wavelet of what I call "No Boy Left Behind" washed over a few months ago in the wake of new studies, books and educational analyses that was the only the most recent backlash against supposed gender biases against young males, either classroom-made (female teachers), cooked up in the gene soup (smarter, more focused girls) or at home (alas, mothers once again).

Some boys, though, obviously haven't been stressing about being overlooked or shortchanged or necessary: artists Matthew Barney and Wolfgang Tillmans, for two.

You may have seen the Matthew Barney Cremaster cycle which took over the Guggenheim Museum/NY in 2003. Though art world aficionados had been onto Barney for a while, the rest of us trooped through the vast exhibit as neophytes, greedily taking in the video, sculpture, drawing and constructions that were touted as the work of a real, bona fide, contemporary creative genius. Born in 1967, Barney was only 36 at the time, (the work had begun to be exhibited a number of years before that) and he had already crashed through the divide that often separates art from younger viewers. Besides his own prodigious output, he was already involved with another four-ply artist, Bjork,: just for hooking up with each other and their audacious genre boundary-busting, they certainly deserve their place alongside the decade's trophy culture couples.

Barney hasn't been idle since then. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this summer, DRAWING RESTRAINT, his most recent retrospective contained work that bookended the Cremaster series, plus debuted a new feature film (145 min.) by Barney, two documentaries about Barney and a "Learning Lounge" , a "casual environment" which showcased his text and video and functioned like a giant, didactic wall label. Barney has been busy pouring resinous constructions which undulate over the floors, studying whales, posing Bjork on beautiful islands and ship prows, photographing nature and making refined erotica and installing it in bottle green waist high vitrines that you have to hang over voyeur-style since the lines are so faint and fine.

Yet in spite of restraining himself (imagine if he didn't!) he has been able to fill two floors of the museum with his musings on art and life. The curators have helpfully reduced the themes of the show to: athleticism (Barney was a football player before he was an art student), transformation, release, destruction and renewal, ritual, and consumption and his own self-curating distillation, The Path (a digestive system analogy of his work) and The Field (the pill shape that symbolizes it). This just about covers most thematic structure in the entire canon of Western and non-Western art so no worries.

Barney's feng shui-ish thesis, (which is something I actually do subscribe to), is that creativity is inspired by restraint, by fetters, by the NOT being able to do, by precision of placement, whether that means he's shackled or tied up or hanging precariously from ropes ( a site-specific drawing for SFMOMA was high on the wall facing the stairs). Even in the sixties, I complained mightily to my journals that the problem with my generation, as audacious as it was, was that there weren't enough boundaries, and that as a result, we had all eventually lost our way because of, rather than in spite of, the very things that were supposed to make us free (sex, drugs, rock and roll).

Just in time, (DRAWING RESTRAINT closed on Sunday) Barney has passed the torch to another late sixties baby, Wolfgang Tillmans (b.1968) (at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, opened on Sunday). Tillmans, who believes half his artistic expression is in the installation of his work, doesn't censor himself either: the galleries are filled with photographs, some framed, but mostly just stuck on the wall with paper clips or scotch tape. Interspersed with luscious images of open doorways and statues are series of friends (dressed and undressed), the Concorde, musicians ( an almost unrecognizable short-haired guitar-playing Chloe Sevigny), punctuated by the odd money shot of a penis or a vagina, urination, or provocative sexual positioning. His world, his interests, his life, his thoughts, his every impulse and notion is offered up to us and recorded for posterity. Naturally, I fretted about the scotch tape (a classic bourgeois mother's nightmare: how to get the pile of stuff that comes home from school up on the walls and then down again without ruining the paint or the precious art itself) until I realized (and read) that the tape is just part of it--look, ma, no hands, there's plenty more where that came from, I'm indestructible, endlessly fecund, just like Picasso.

Duchamp, and Warhol are other names that come to mind. Last night, Part I of the Ric Burns documentary (Part II is airing tonight) on Warhol showed how a boy who never got over feeling left behind his whole life managed to make it work for him.

Barney and Tillmans have most decidedly not been left behind. And after almost 165 linear years on the front lines of watching men and growing boys (four), I learned the hard way that they march to their own drums, maybe slip slide for a while, but then catch up and easily overtake. (They always said athletics was what made the ceiling glass-y once women arrived in the business world and Barney has even channeled it into the art world.)

But when I left these exhibitions I felt empty, un-emotional and not filled up the way I like to be after seeing art. I thought (with not a little prickly I'm-so-out-of-it guilt), Emperors New Clothes. (I'm not alone: SF MOMA's website has an interactive page to encourage you to vent about Barney). I thought of the recent David Hockney exhibit at LACMA that takes up some of the same themes (friends lying around undressed, explicit documentation of one's own world) and does manage to make you see things with a fresh eye because he took so much time studying them himself.

But mostly, I thought of some of the women artists working today. Cindy Sherman's work, much exhibited, also depends on painstaking preparation -- but her photographs are as much about the person she inhabits as herself and she has an exquisite sense of humor. Marlene Dumas made news this year for record breaking auction prices for work which is sexually explicit-- but also very feminine and pleasing. Even Bjork is endlessly ambitious, investigating obscure music to invent new genres, acting in films. But her work has an almost academic, component with a good-girl student veneer despite her proclivity for dressing like a swan.

Though these women artists are sought after, how many have had entire museums devoted to their work? (I'm not talking about historical, career retrospectives, I'm talking about the Barney/Tillmans contemporaries). One reason might be that they're not getting the budgets that the guys are. But another one might be the penchant for introspective self-censorship and housekeeping that many girls and women come by naturally, the scrupulous vetting of ideas and images, the reflection and sorting that mitigates letting it all hang out, the persistent need for approval that we thought we had dispensed with but is still a residual feminine trait in the 21st century.

There's another, non-gender specific reason: like with so much creative output today, the editors have all but disappeared. From film directors who insist on final cut and deliver three and a half hours to writers who turn in four or five hundred page novels with footnotes and bibliographies (that are almost indistinguishable from the six or seven hundred page biographies), to actors who act out even when they're not in front of camera, to reality shows that show us the bathroom, the bedroom and the board room, to starchitects building massive, sculpture-as-buildings that don't take the user into account, people have fallen in love with their "stuff", the process of their stuff, and editors and curators and network and studio executives and boards of trustees, those with mandates to judiciously prune and separate have come a cropper.

Finally, there's the cult of self, of making celebrated what used to be journal musings and sketchbooks and after-school pranks but which is now the stuff of Sotheby's or Jackass.

In the end though, I'm jealous. I want some of what Barney and Tillmans (and my boys and men) have and what Arianna's talking about but doesn't always come in soothing flavors like vanilla: hubris, arrogance, ego, and yes, oversized ambition and talent. The old joke used to be that we could have all turned into Picassos if only our mothers had encouraged all our childhood scribbling and napkin doodling. Maybe the late sixties moms (Barney and Tillmans born within a year of each other), less driven by the current competitive, over-the-top pressure told them they were wonderful whether they brought home A's or not. I bet their mothers saved their stuff without worrying about the scotch tape or whether it would get their kids into the Ivy League (though Barney did go to Yale). Maybe my boys will be left behind because I gave them time outs when they repeatedly landed up in the principal's office, when they got three concussions and I made them quit the football team, or when I tried to get them to start their college essays over summer vacation. Or maybe, as the recent studies have it, it will be because I didn't breast feed nearly long enough.

Meanwhile, though, perhaps it's not too late. I'm going back to the closets where I have saved an unconscionable amount of their stuff: art projects and homework but also football, baseball, soccer, lacrosse and basketball uniforms. Who knows? Maybe the emperor does have new clothes and they are all from Nike.

Stay tuned to this space for more on Boys ( and their corollary beings, Men) in the weeks and months ahead.