The Devil, Probably: On Maurizio Cattelan
“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!”
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.
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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.
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