“Maurizio Cattelan: All” at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Installation of Maurizio Cattelan: All at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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“One of the most audacious exhibitions in the Guggenheim’s half-century”—so reads the subway advertisement for Maurizio Cattelan: All, an exhibition organized by Nancy Spector, the museum’s Deputy Director and Chief Curator, along with the Associate Curator Katherine Brinson. The quote is from a New York Times profile of the artist by Randy Kennedy. We shouldn’t necessarily expect critical insights from a puff piece, but even an arts journalist like Kennedy must know the bad faith he’s peddling. The most striking thing about the Cattelan exhibition is, after all, its lack of audacity. Nothing daring can be generated by an artist whose sole and defining impetus is playing to the audience.

By “audience” I don’t refer only to that vexing creature known as the “art world”—the denizens of which are schooled, to one degree or another, in its vagaries. I also include men and women who don’t rely on the latest edition of Artforum for intellectual enlightenment—curiosity seekers whose range of interests are broader, or different, than any one subculture will allow. (Some of them may not even care about art.) Even so, Cattelan will likely strike people as par for the course. We’ve reached a stage in world culture where artists are expected to be, you know, out there. When one or another doesn’t occasion a splash, it can be kind of disappointing. Art, as the sage Andy Warhol reputedly had it, is what you can get away with.

Mauricio Cattelan

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The artist as con-man and provocateur—it’s a cliché (and a profitable one, at that). The marketplace thrives on the type, however received or cynical his machinations, as do our tastemakers. The collective willingness to be suckered by the cheapest of impulses says much about the failings of contemporary art culture. But what about the theory-benighted folks filing up and down the Guggenheim’s ramp and taking in the oeuvre of this (or so the Guggenheim tells it) “provocateur, prankster, and tragic poet”? From all appearances, they’re approaching Cattelan’s willfully deadpan transgressions with good will. And why not? The exhibition is, as these things go, pretty clever, and, in the end, nothing to get riled about. Maurizio Cattelan: All is a non-event posing as a spectacle.

The primary thing to know about the show is that the galleries lining the museum’s rotunda are empty. No traditional chronology or accounting of output for the puckish Italian: the corpus is hung with cables suspended from an armature toward the top of the Guggenheim’s roof. Imagine a gigantic mobile whose constituent parts have been contrived by Madame Tussaud and the staff of Mad Magazine—with a Duchampian flourish, of course. As a feat of engineering, the installation—comprised, as it is, of 128 disparate pieces—is a marvel and, given the adroit sense of placement and interval, rather artful. Traverse Frank Lloyd Wright’s ramp and you’ll see how the work has been choreographed. The effect is elegant, measured, and sculptural.

Just don’t mistake Cattelan for a sculptor. Though the work is, by and large, three-dimensional, it hasn’t been crafted with an eye toward mass, void, material, or space. Instead, each piece is a cartoon made concrete. The majority iterate tropes lifted from Dadaism, Surrealism, and Pop. Taking off from Miró’s Object (1936) and Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram (1955–59), with a pinch of Un Chien Andalou thrown in for good measure, Cattelan utilizes the remains of horses, donkeys, dogs, cats, elephants, and ostriches to mild comic effect. That’s not all. Here you’ll find an over-sized Picasso marionette; there, a distended shopping cart. The unifying element is a series of draped bodies, all presumably dead. There are effigies of religious figures, shapely babes, a dead JFK, a boyish Adolph Hitler, and, repeatedly, the artist himself. Say this much: Cattelan provides gainful employment for a raft of carpenters, taxidermists, and wax-workers.

Installation of Maurizio Cattelan: All at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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The fifty-one-year old Cattelan recently announced his retirement from art-making, citing the decision as an “extra project that will complete the retrospective.” I have a suggestion for how he should while away his remaining days. A few years back, Pope Benedict XVI asked contemporary artists to enter a “dialogue between aesthetics and ethics, between beauty, truth and goodness . . . and daily reality.” The Holy See’s invitation—his challenge, really—was made in response to the Catholic-bashing that is a regular fixture of the contemporary scene. Cattelan established his own anti-Catholic cred with La Nona Oralso (1999), a life-size depiction of Pope John Paul II struck by a meteor. (It’s included at the Guggenheim.) Here’s my thought: What if Cattelan forsook funhouse self-aggrandizement and spent his golden years making art that embodied all that is true and noble about the church and, not least, “daily reality”? It’s a stretch, but imagine if he went ahead and did it. Now that would be audacious.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Originally published in the January 2012 edition of The New Criterion.

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