“All”, an exhibition of Maurizio Cattelan’s art at the Guggenheim in New York, is an audacious anti-retrospective …
From THE ECONOMIST online
Maurizo Cattelan’s solo retrospective is a “mass execution” according to Nancy Spector, the deputy director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The “abject” installation, she added when introducing it to the press, treats individual artworks like they are “laundry hung out to dry”. This is no ordinary retrospective. Survey shows tend to offer a respectful chronological look at an artist’s oeuvre, accompanied by a hagiographic catalogue, as a means of inserting the artist into the canon of art history. But Cattelan, a high-concept Italian artist once described as “half saint, half dog”, is resistant to this rite of passage.
Titled “All”, his show is an anti-retrospective. It doesn’t look back as much as throw everything up in the air, or rather hang it, gallows-style, in the atrium of the museum. Important works are deprived of their majesty whilst minor works—or ones that the artist “had forgotten [he] had fathered”—are elevated. With the exception of a disturbing sculpture consisting of three boys with nooses around their necks (“Untitled” 2004), the individual works have looked better when installed elsewhere. But this curmudgeonly criticism misses the point. Treating artworks this way is an audacious transgression, and suspending the works in mid-air affords some drastic re-interpretations.
The Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is an exemplar of the age-old competition between architects and artists. It is notoriously inhospitable to art, particularly because its central atrium offers a more engaging spectacle than the official exhibition spaces that are aligned along the winding ramp. But Cattelan effectively upstages the building by placing all his work in the light-filled centre. When “All” is seen from the top of the museum’s rotunda, viewers are struck with vertigo. When regarded from below, they imagine being crushed. The show, intended as a single meta-work, is admirably visceral.
Cattelan, a 51-year-old bachelor who admits to an unhappy childhood, sees his oeuvre as his family. Populated by hyperrealist waxwork humans, including a bevy of self-portraits, as well as sculptures made from taxidermy animals, many of his pieces are enlivened by animism. “I am happy as long as they don’t live near me,” he once told this correspondent. “When they are conceived, I cuddle them but the moment they are released, they become orphans. Mostly I hate them.”
The opening of the exhibition has coincided with the announcement of the artist’s retirement. It may be an astute move on Cattelan’s part to absent himself from a phase the art world calls “mid-career”, which is often characterised by the doldrums. But it is unlikely the artist will actually give up work, even if he is disinclined to produce saleable high-end art objects. At the moment, he is passionate about Toilet Paper, a magazine of surreal images that he makes with the help of Pierpaolo Ferrari, a photographer. The magazine has a print run of 6,000 and retails for $12. It is basically a non-profit enterprise underwritten by the Deste Foundation of Dakis Joannou, a collector.
Cattelan’s persona is engulfed in myths, including one that he is an undisciplined slacker who became an artist to avoid real work. But he is actually a workaholic with an obsessive-compulsive streak. When in New York, he works in his spacious one-bedroom condo on the 9th floor of a renovated pre-war building in Chelsea. His Mac sits on a large Swedish rosewood table in the middle of an art deco rug at one end of his bedroom. Behind his desk is a fake fireplace, the mantle of which hosts works by other artists, and a golden candelabra in the shape of a stag’s head. On weekdays the artist doesn’t drink. He rises early, swims laps for over an hour, and is back at his desk by 8am.
Cattelan spends a lot of time researching his projects via Google and realising them via Skype. He lives in New York less than half the year, so has other “workstations” in Milan, Costa Rica and Filicudi, an Italian island north-east of Sicily. He says that he needs to retire because his life has become too driven by routine. “Sometimes going from A to B is too straightforward. You miss the unexpected Z or W,” he explains. “I need to take a long break and get some distance.”
Indeed, staying creative over a lifetime is not easy. Perhaps more artists should quit for a while in order to avoid the ruts of repetition. “Being an artist is a role game. You can play whatever role you want because you are the one writing the rules,” says Cattelan. “Retirement opens the game again. It can mean anything these days. It is a magic word that gives you freedom.”
“Maurizio Cattelan: All” is on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York until January 22nd 2012
Picture credit: Sarah Thornton