“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.