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The Devil, Probably: On Maurizio Cattelan | The Nation

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The Devil, Probably: On Maurizio Cattelan

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“All,” the title of the Maurizio Cattelan exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, could be taken to mean that the entirety of the Italian artist’s oeuvre is on view. While that’s not true, it’s close enough: the 128 objects in the exhibition (which is up through January 22) constitute the greater part of the work Cattelan has made since his artistic career began in 1989. The title also calls attention to a single work, one of the artist’s recent pieces, likewise titled All (2007). It consists of a group of marble sculptures—like all of Cattelan’s sculptures, they were made by commissioned artisans—depicting recumbent figures, corpses presumably, covered by shrouds. All evokes mortality and mourning, surprising themes for an artist widely acclaimed or disdained, according to taste, as the art world’s court jester, a slinger of provocative but ultimately ephemeral visual one-liners. Cattelan has always been something more than that, but given his announced intention of retiring from art-making after this exhibition, the meaning of All could be something like Porky Pig’s “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!”

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Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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Cattelan wouldn’t be the first artist to stage a dubious disappearing act. Marcel Duchamp renounced art in favor of a more gentlemanly pursuit, chess, but it turned out that he spent the last two decades of his life tinkering with a single bizarre anti-masterpiece, Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage (1946–66). Looked at coolly, the exit strategy certainly worked for Duchamp. “The great artist of tomorrow will go underground,” he declared toward the end of his life, long after he had done just that. His absence from the scene having been a most noticeable one, reticence only added to his mystique, which the posthumous revelation of his hidden labors only deepened. “The silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated,” was the judgment of Joseph Beuys; in retrospect, Duchamp’s reserve seems more powerful than Beuys’s prolixity, which was always most effective when it revealed itself as just another, more actively dramatic form of muteness. Explaining pictures to a dead hare, as Beuys did in a renowned 1965 performance, is surely another way of speaking into the void, letting circumstance convert speech into silence.

As for Cattelan, some observers—among them Roberta Smith of the New York Times—think he is running out of ideas, but a close look at the exhibition’s checklist suggests otherwise. His production has not slowed down of late, and while his efforts have always been hit or miss, the misses have not become more noticeably numerous. Besides, a work like his 2010 public sculpture L.O.V.E.—a thirty-six-foot-tall marble hand giving the middle finger, originally installed facing Milan’s Stock Exchange—seems timely enough, if that’s what you’re after. Cattelan occupied the Piazza degli Affari before anyone had ever thought of occupying Wall Street. Besides, what could be more astute than the way Cattelan has installed his show at the Guggenheim? Instead of following convention and installing his sculptures along the museum’s ramp, he has hung them all from its ceiling, like a galaxy of marble mobiles. The potential metaphorical upshot of this gesture can be parsed in many ways, but notice what Cattelan has done: he has made literal, with simplicity and elegance, the everyday word—hang—for putting up an exhibition.

In doing so, Cattelan has also turned his life’s work into a single great sculptural group, showing in the most obvious way possible that his oeuvre is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a theatrical coup, of sorts, but even more, a truly sculptural one. To circle around the installation in the Guggenheim’s corkscrew interior is always to see it from a different height; the individual pieces as well as the totality present a diversity of angles, not only from many sides but from below and above as well as straight on. The arrangement constantly shows you unexpected aspects; you always see it differently.

* * *

A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Hey, why the long face?” That used to be one of my daughter’s favorite jokes. (She’s still too young to have ever walked into a bar.) The joke could be extended: The horse replies, “Because Cattelan wants me to hang out at the Guggenheim.” Novecento (1997), one of the few works at the museum that were always meant to be suspended from the ceiling, is a taxidermied horse hanging droopily in a leather harness, its long legs seemingly stretched toward the earth and its head bowed low in ultimate resignation. Like Beuys, Cattelan treats animals as important symbols—stand-ins not for the public he wishes to address but for himself. Like the work of Beuys, Cattelan’s is hardly comprehensible apart from his biographical tale, which can be as misleading as it is illuminating. Much of his effort has been expended on crafting a persona, and it’s the opposite of Beuys’s pretense to prophetic and shamanistic charisma or his claim to be a teacher above all. Nor is Cattelan’s myth rooted in sexual magnetism, like Lord Byron’s or Picasso’s, or in self-knowledge through suffering, like Antonin Artaud’s or Frida Kahlo’s. The models for his way of being an artist are silent film comedians. Even his long face—which you’ll see a lot at the Guggenheim, and which possibly also accounts for the artist’s recurrent use of horses and donkeys as alter egos, though you also won’t fail to notice an elephant, a squirrel and some Beuysian bunnies—recalls that of Buster Keaton.

His story, as it is recounted no more critically than necessary by the exhibition’s curator, Nancy Spector, in the oddly sober-looking catalog, is the heartwarming tale of a poor boy who made good—not in the manner of Horatio Alger, all sparkling conduct and good luck, but instead through his insecurity and aversion to work. As Spector notes, Cattelan’s father was a truck driver and his mother was a cleaner; she was in poor health and deeply religious. Leaving school at 17 to go to work, Cattelan continued his studies at night. He despised his jobs; at one point, so he claims, he bribed a doctor for diagnoses that would earn him six months of sick leave. Somehow, though, he found his way into industrial design, and while he was “a reluctant participant”—naturally, as enthusiasm is no part of his persona—in the Italian design scene, he found some success. Only at age 25—this would then be in late 1985 or early 1986—did he become interested in art, “after encountering a self-portrait on mirror by Arte Povera artist Michelangelo Pistoletto in a small gallery in Padua.” Spector doesn’t explain why this piece moved the young man so, but one can imagine that the idea of a work that could communicate a sense of its maker while also reflecting the world around it without mediation by the artist’s subjectivity would have a lasting impact on him. In any case, it would not be until a few years later, in 1989, that Cattelan would produce the earliest pieces included in this exhibition.

Among Cattelan’s first acknowledged artworks is one that makes an effective bookend to the “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!” spirit of “All.” It’s a tiny Plexiglas sign, just four by twelve centimeters, bearing the legend Torno subito—“I’ll be right back.” Like some of Cattelan’s other pieces, it’s the relic of a performance, so its meaning is incomplete without its backstory. For what was essentially his first one-man exhibition as an artist, Cattelan had the gallery locked, with the Plexiglas sign displayed on the outside. The hopeful gallery-goer could have had more success waiting for Godot than for the gallerist with a key. As Spector points out, the empty gallery has a by-now venerable history in the annals of art, from Yves Klein onward; the Centre Pompidou in Paris even devoted a substantial (but, naturally, vacant) exhibition to this history in 2009. Spector’s interpretation of Cattelan’s restatement of the gesture turns it into the expression of a personal quirk: “the artist’s discomfort with the critical attention and public judgment that his exhibition would garner.” This sense of dismay, another catalog contributor explains, plunged the artist into “paroxysms of indecision, self-doubt, and crippling performance anxiety.” Maybe. Self-doubt is an artist’s constant companion, and some artists have been known to panic when it’s time to deliver the promised work for a show. But stage fright is an unlikely spur to an action as coolly clever as this. Was Cattelan really “so disappointed with his production” that he had to resort to a ruse in order to avoid exposing it to the public eye? It’s more likely that the ruse was the debut Cattelan had planned all along; in order to be seen as a promising young artist, he had found a way to make a promise that could be fulfilled only in the breach.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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