Maurizio Cattelan: All
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum - New York
By Anne Swartz
I went to this exhibition expecting to hate it, jaded as I was by past visits to see Cattelan’s work. Imagine my surprise when I found myself amused and engaged by the installation of 132 of his works from the central rotunda ceiling in the museum. The work on view included the majority of pieces the artist has created (a few private collectors wouldn’t loan), functioning as a mid-career retrospective, or as a complete one, if the artist is to be believed that this exhibition announces the end of his art-making career.
The exhibition was viewed by walking up or down a ramp. A free audio tour consisted of only a single sentence about the exhibition. There were docents/guards staffing the space throughout the exhibition, available to answer questions. There were no wall labels, no didactic panel at the start, but there were an exhibition catalogue and an app available for sale with mostly video interviews of the actor John Waters as a stand-in for the artist. The space of the Guggenheim is famously difficult for viewing art; any use of the rotunda area is always a welcome departure from trying to look at a conventionally-installed show with traditional rectangular paintings crammed in or blocked into the trapezoidal viewing spaces available on the walls.
Cattelan’s work is all site-specific, intended for viewing in relation to a particular moment in time or situation. Seeing all of his art in a retrospective sounded like an absurd idea, which the artist and curator countered by creating this vertically exaggerated situation for viewing it. And it is a tour-de-force, because what this installation of everything hanging centrally in the museum from the ceiling accomplishes is a critique of comprehensiveness. Some of his works were originally installed hanging from the ceiling in their original contexts and, therefore, it isn’t completely foreign to his oeuvre. You can’t really see the craft involved in the individual works, which one might like to admire or condemn, so the focus becomes truly about the artist and the impressiveness of suspending everything from the ceiling. If Cattelan wanted to emphasize, really highlight, a cult of personality, this system was the smartest way to do just that.
The installation de-contextualized all the works. The exhibition catalogue and postcards on sale in the museum gift shop recalled some of the original sites for the works. This show is a critique of comprehensiveness. What should hang in a museum? Well, Cattelan has literally strung up the family dog (actually there were several taxidermied dogs), some with evocative titles like 13.3.81 my last kiss of 1997, and several simply have the designation Untitled. As example, Daddy, Daddy of 2008, the Pinocchio sculpture originally exhibited in the small pool on the ground floor of the Guggenheim, is now strung up. In that original installation, the work seemed to be a critique of Disney and capitalism, generally; that is, it needed drowning or should be drowned to be stopped. Now strung up, the Pinocchio doll looks back at the viewer startled, like a crazed toy disconnected from its intended use, and the original content has disappeared. The double self-portrait in We is at a distance, so I realized I was seeing Tony Blair and George W. Bush getting in bed together as a critique of the war, rather than the artist alongside his resin doppelgänger. It is a chance to make the art new.
Cattelan quotes or reconfigures art history. Seeing this show recalled for me the humor of Marcel Duchamp and the grimness of Andy Warhol. Cattelan, like Duchamp, pokes fun at the grandeur of life, making visual and verbal puns about life and art history, as in two untitled works on view here of canvases ripped by the letter Z, a mocking tribute to the gashes of Italian artist Lucio Fontana, who famously slit and cut his canvases, coupled with the flamboyant gesture of Zorro. He overemphasizes death in his view of the world (at least half the works on view are wax “corpses,” taxidermied animals, fossils or figures being executed by gallows or suicide), cue Warhol. The exacting approach Cattelan takes is humorous and glamorous and, most significantly, the reason why this show is such a crowd-pleaser and recognizable. Like Warhol, Cattelan has made the spectacle accessible. But mostly, the exhibition recalled the experience of watching Un Chien Andalou of 1929, the classic Surrealist silent film by Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí (thankfully, available for free on YouTube). Those two wanted to break all boundaries in their 16-minute film by “shocking the bourgeoisie,” taking the grand institutions of life-church, school, government, family, love-and mocking, assaulting and confounding them. Cattelan does almost the same thing.
The artist has thought of everything to make the viewer laugh, even when presented with grim realities. One doesn’t reflect so much on one’s life by looking at this work. Instead one laughs at the silliness of it all, bringing the grandeur and pomposity of culture and society down to size.
(November 4, 2011 - January 22, 2012)
Anne Swartz is a professor of art history at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her writing has been published in Brooklyn Rail, NY Arts, n.paradoxa, Symploke, and The Cleveland Museum of Art Bulletin.
Filed Under: Reviews