The Devil, Probably: On Maurizio Cattelan
Cattelan’s career is rife with such smooth tricks, with scrapes and shenanigans that somehow turn out to the artist’s advantage, at the same time giving inventive twists to gestures familiar from the history of conceptual art, which includes just as many invisible objects as empty galleries. Cattelan once advertised a fake biennial that was nothing more than a Caribbean vacation for himself and some artist pals, and it’s said that he once burgled a gallery in order to show the work of another as his own. In 1991, Spector writes, “unable or unwilling to produce a new work for Briefing, a group show at Galleria Luciano Inga-Pin, Milan”—again, the unnecessary and probably unverifiable ascription of psychological motivation emphasizes the artist as a Sad Sack—Cattelan reported the theft (from his girlfriend’s unlocked parked car) of the invisible artwork he’d planned to exhibit. The multiply signed and sealed police report of the incident was duly framed and exhibited. The following year, Cattelan established the Oblomov Foundation, canvassing for donations to endow a fellowship that would pay an artist not to exhibit his or her work. The donors’ names were engraved on a glass plaque that the artist had affixed (without permission) to the facade of Milan’s art academy, the Accademia di belle arti di Brera. But because no one accepted the fellowship—was it ever offered?—Cattelan used the money to finance his move to New York in 1993, the same year he sublet his place in the Venice Biennale to an ad agency that erected a billboard advertising perfume. I suggest ignoring the catalog’s opinion that Cattelan had “sidestepped the anxiety he felt about having to fill the space with his work for a year.” The Venice stunt is Cattelan at his worst, no longer the trickster who dodges the possibly illusory nature of art itself but the cynic who flatly reiterates a routine denunciation of the compromised scene while also profiting from it.
Cattelan the stuntman, who could make you despair of an art world that seems determined to reward those who would reflect it at its worst, perhaps in the misapprehension that this absolves it of any need to aspire to something better, is certainly present at the Guggenheim. Sometimes his works are just bad jokes, like mine about the horse walking into the bar. But Cattelan keeps repeating them. In the “Zorro Paintings” he remade his versions of Lucio Fontana’s slashed monochrome paintings, only in his renditions there are three slashes—horizontal, diagonal and horizontal—forming a letter Z. Each is as silly as the others. Less Than Ten Items (1997) is a supermarket shopping cart more than seven feet long; installed in a normal exhibition it would suggest that the viewer should be a buyer, and of the biggest works available. How humdrum an insight into the consumerism of the world’s big-money collectors—many of whose names (Dakis Joannou, François Pinault, et al.) can be found on the list of the lenders to this exhibition—is that?
At the Guggenheim, to a great extent, the low points in Cattelan’s oeuvre are, if not redeemed, at least underplayed by being integrated into a larger exhibition. Even so, it’s easy to see that as a critic of the art world, Cattelan shows how difficult it is to bite the hand that feeds you when the bite is almost inevitably transformed into a kiss. Stephanie (2003), for instance, is rather successful considered simply as a sculpture: a life-size wax model of a nude woman cupping her hands over her breasts, with her body cut off just below the waist and bent upward like the figurehead of a sailing ship, but also echoing the silhouette of a hunter’s trophy. The woman’s hard stare makes the piece creepier than the typical waxworks figure. Stephanie, the catalog notes, is a portrait of model Stephanie Seymour commissioned by her husband, publisher and art collector Peter Brant. “In an obvious visual pun,” the catalog goes on, “Seymour becomes a literal trophy and the culminating piece of Brant’s collection.” Is this satire with a feminist edge, or something Brant (and perhaps Seymour too) simply accepts as the way of the world—their world, anyway? Take your pick, but if “the portrait is most remarkable as a monument to Seymour’s and Brant’s good humor,” as we are told, I don’t want to share in that humor; it sounds too much like another name for repressive tolerance. And so I hereby withdraw the joke about the horse.
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The timing of the Guggenheim exhibition, and of Cattelan’s purported retirement, could not have been better. Over the past couple of decades, with so much art devoted to the critique of authorship, it seemed as if art had finally been demystified. It was no longer a special calling but simply a kind of job, though not necessarily one just like the others, because the artist is still a peculiar kind of worker, what Jasper Johns once called “the elite of the servant class”—a courtier. Cattelan has been one of the most brilliant and successful artist-courtiers. His success has been the measure of his ambivalence, to be sure. How could it be otherwise? His work seemed to fit the new class structures that were being patiently put into place just around the time he was opening his eyes to art. But with rebellions against those structures sweeping the world, this manner of having it both ways, of being the critical insider, may not look so smart anymore.
Yet I don’t think “All” closes the book on Cattelan, whether he makes any more art or not. Certainly parts of his oeuvre can be accused of flattering the plutocrats by playing on their desire to show their capacity for assimilating criticism, but that’s not all he does. There are issues that divide the 1 percent from the 99 percent, and art can handle those issues—nota bene, from the viewpoint of either side of the divide—but it also addresses issues that concern everyone equally. Among them are death and suffering, through which we may feel our kinship not only with other people but with animals.
At times, while looking at this exhibition, I couldn’t help thinking of Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, a strange film in which a long-suffering donkey is finally shown to be a kind of saint through its endurance of work and pain. I know this allusion will seem absurd to those who revere Bresson as a saint of cinema, a paragon of formal and spiritual purity, whereas Cattelan seems to be a mocker, a wiseguy. But when I look at that Novecento hanging in the Guggenheim—it was once the hide of a living thing named Tiramisu—I can’t persuade myself to believe that Cattelan is kidding, no matter how sophisticated I might be if I could. The same goes for Not Afraid of Love (2000), the sculpture of a baby elephant trying to hide under a white sheet with tiny eyeholes and one great big hole for its trunk. Its alarmed little eyes—do artificial eyes really have expression, or is this my illusion?—can only, I imagine, be those of a certain Cattelan in the moment when it occurs to him that his art of evasion, his eternal Torno subito, can never disguise him for long. For Spector, the white sheet with the holes conjures up visions of the Ku Klux Klan and their robes. I see her point, but I can’t quite see it like that. I think of the similar-looking robes worn by Catholic penitents, most notably by the Nazarenos of the Holy Week processions in Seville. Cattelan’s art is full of the imagery of Catholicism, just as Bresson’s was. His mother’s piety must have left its mark on him.
In another Bresson film, the main character, a self-righteously rebellious young man, gets into a political conversation with someone on the bus, and passengers nearby chime in with opinions. “It’s the masses who determine events,” says one. Another asks, “So who is it that makes a mockery of humanity? Who’s leading us by the nose?” A third passenger responds, “The devil, probably,” as the bus crashes. Cattelan may have stepped off the bus just in time.