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Around the galleries

Maurizio Cattelan: Torno subito?

— January 2012

Associated media

Maurizio Cattelan
Novecento, 1997 
Taxidermied horse, leather saddle, rope, and pulley, 

Are the artist’s claims of retirement to be taken at face value?

Stephen Bury reports from the Guggenheim, New York

This exhibition supposedly marks Maurizio Cattelan’s retirement, aged 51, from the art world. The Three Stars Books special edition of the last volume of their trilogy on the artist includes an original hand-painted illustration of him carrying a tombstone inscribed ‘The End’. Whether this is temporary, a change of tack or a complete retirement nobody knows: but the retrospective ‘Maurizio Cattelan: All’ will be a hard act to follow.

Cattelan has previously explored the exhibition as an artistic medium. In 1989, for his show at the Galleria Neon, Bologna, Cattelan locked the gallery door and displayed a Plexiglas sign, ‘Torno subito’ (Back soon). For his Galleria Massimo De Carlo exhibition in 1993 he bricked up the entrance, allowing the public only a glimpse from the window of a mechanical bear on a tightrope – Cattelan’s first animal subject. He rented out his space at the 1993 Venice Biennale Aperto to an advertising firm publicizing a new brand of perfume, while in 1996 he literally appropriated a show at the Galerie Bloom for his show at de Appel, Amsterdam (‘Another Fucking Readymade’). Here at the Guggenheim he subverts the usual chronological format of a retrospective and even Nancy Spector’s exhibition catalogue mutates into a catalogue raisonné.

Suspended from the oculus in the famous Frank Lloyd Wright ‘ramp-well’ are 128 of Cattelan’s works (the owners of two works declined to lend). This is at once a gigantic mobile, an auto-da-fé or mass hanging of his works. The viewers winding up or down the ramps gets unusual perspectives of the same piece. The casualty of this is that you lose the impact of some pieces:  La Nona Ora (1999), the verist sculpture of Pope John Paul II, hit by a meteorite, seems less controversial suspended from a taxidermied donkey and cart (‘Untitled’ of 2002 hitched to ‘Untitled’ of  2003). Again it would have been possible to reposition Daddy, Daddy (2008), Pinocchio, in the ground floor fountain in the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, where it was shown as part of the group exhibition, ‘theanyspacewahtever’ (2008–9) but now it is suspended from a print of the perfume advertisement, Working is a Bad Job (1993). But a retrospective with 128 separate rooms with one work per room is probably never going to happen.

There are certain works and devices that provide structural coherence beyond Cattelan’s aesthetic, iconography and materials. The 26-feet-tall skeletal cat, Felix (2001) is not only based on cartoon character Felix the Cat, but also alludes to those monumental structures of dinosaurs in the front halls of many natural history museums. Through scale alone it provides an axis for the viewer to orientate himself or herself. Pigeons extend beyond the piece Tourists (1997), reprised in Others (2011), both for the Venice Biennale, and provide a sort of iconographic glue to the piece, which also reflects (if excrementally) on the status of art. Finally, audible (at least intermittently) but not visible immediately from the ground floor is the boy drummer, Untitled (2003), which references the The Tin Drum (1959) of Günter Grass. He seems to be forlornly marshalling the structure or barking at it.

The exhibition has proved immensely attractive to the public with daily attendance in excess of 4,000. But are they coming for its obvious theatricality or out of an interest in Cattelan’s work itself? Certainly, this is one of the most effective uses of the Guggenheim’s central ‘well’. There is also an interest in deciphering what the pieces are – there are no labels next to them, and in a sense the curator forgoes some control of her exhibition and its explanation. The public can discover a tiny ‘Torno Subito’ sign that now hangs around the neck of a taxidermied golden retriever, suggesting some irreversible trip to the underworld or an Et in Arcadia Ego trope. The Guggenheim provides a free two-sided diagram of the structure, with brief titles, drawn by Pierpaolo Ferrari and Matteo Nuti: no doubt this will soon be appearing framed on people’s walls.

But there is also an attractive humanistic streak to the work, interrogating death, whether it is a stuffed dog or donkey, empathy for the inanimate but potentially animate, or the reduction of war memorials to a grante slab of English football team defeats in Untitled (1999), first shown at Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London. And whether the roots of the work may be in neo-conceptual art, hyperrealism/verism, relational aesthetics or Surrealism, there is a humorous if sad quality to the work. It would be a huge loss to the art world if this retirement proved to be real.

Maurizio Cattelan: All, by Nancy Spector, New York, Guggenheim, 2011. 255 pp., fully illustrated in colour, $50.oo. ISBN 978 0 89207 416 7

Also advertised as available for $19.99 as an e-book edition

Maurizio Cattelan, 3 vols, Paris: Three Star Books, 2008-2011, each in an edition of 1000. Volume 3: Maurizio Cattelan: ‘The Taste of Others’ was published on the occasion of this exhibition and includes a plan of the installation.


Stephen Bury
Frick Art Reference Library, New York
Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian

Media credit: © Maurizio Cattelan
 Photo: Paolo Pellion di Persano, courtesy the artist

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