It wasn’t Maurizio Cattelan’s fault that it was 38 degrees outside the night I stood in line to see his retrospective at the Guggenheim. It wasn’t the Guggenheim’s fault that the woman behind me kept walking into my back as I waited to pay what I wished at the ticket counter, after twenty minutes in the freezing weather. It was neither the artist’s nor the museum’s fault that I was so grumpy from two lines and countless elbows that I resisted checking my bag, for which another line was required, and instead stood brooding on the ground floor—the retrospective dangling above my head a very fitting thought bubble. Maurizio Cattelan, the 51-year-old Italian-born artist, has installed nearly his entire body of work created over 21 years in the hollow center of the Guggenheim—strung up, one piece above another, attached to the ceiling in a feat of engineering. The 128-piece show is titled All, and is in fact completely visible from the perspective of someone unwilling to check her bag and remain on Rotunda Level One, staring up.
If you’re not familiar, Cattelan is known for site-specific visual work that includes waxwork sculptures (of himself, the Pope, Hitler); taxidermy (horse, donkey, squirrel); and many pieces of an uncategorizable multimedia (a stretched shopping cart; floating, possibly dead Pinocchio). He uses whatever material it takes to answer the question presented by a space and a time. For example, there was Una Domenica a Rivara (1992), that consisted of bed sheets tied together. The sheets hung out of the top-floor window of the Castello di Rivara where Cattelan was exhibiting as part of a group show. His piece titled La Ballata di Trotsky (1996) is a taxidermy horse hanging in a harness. The original piece sold for 600,000 pounds in 2001. People like to say that Cattelan’s work comments on culture and death. People say he’s a prankster. The retrospective, All, seems to be about forcing art out of its context. Cattelan says he is retiring after this show.
Cattelan’s work has drawn plenty of criticism for having indiscernible intentions. People love to hate him because he might be thumbing his nose at the public, and the art world, while getting rich off of it—riding the line between a belief in the sacred (“well, it’s art”) and the profane (“well, it’s a model Pinocchio”). Having all of his site-specific pieces strung up like pianos headed for the thirtieth floor of a New York City apartment was a fitting fuck-you to interpretation and to retrospectives. But it was by no means a covert message. The pamphlet I picked up in the Rotunda (written by Nancy Spector, Deputy Director and Chief Curator; and Katherine Brinson, Associate Curator) reads, “The exhibition is an exercise in disrespect: the artist has hung up his work like laundry to dry. Another analogy, one cited by Cattelan, is the juvenile propensity for stringing up the family cat, an inherently cruel and decidedly naughty act.”
A friend once admitted she thought the Guggenheim’s walkway that spirals around the rotunda is a very annoying space to view art. Looking at work on the walls of the rotunda forces you to stare at it a few feet from your face. However, as another friend noted, filling the empty center of the rotunda though is a perfect use of the place. Cattelan’s pieces hang there, as Roberta Smith writes in the New York Times, like “one of the largest, most complicated, visually muddled mobiles in the history of art.” And it is, in my opinion, a fabulous study in the bottoms and backs of art; the chipped hooves of a taxidermy horse; of pulleys and knots. Of Cattelan’s body of work deadheaded and presented in one vase. I spent a lot of time thinking about the giant marble hand, middle finger raised. It’s a version of L.O.V.E. (2010) that is installed in Milan’s “Business Square;” a supposed riff on the Fascist salute. As part of All, the hand is swaddled in its hoist and adorned with pigeons.
The whole exhibit reads like a pantsing and a mooning at the same time. I didn’t really appreciate the gesture while I was there, but it grew on me as I thought about the possible metaphors back in the cold, on my way home.