For most of his career, the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960) has been trying to escape the pressures of the art system, attacking it with a sarcastic humor that he often directs against himself as well. Now, he seems to have yielded to its temptations. “All,” his exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum opening Nov. 4, is the most comprehensive survey of his work to date, with the entirety of his oeuvre assembled for the very first time. There, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda, it forms a single, site-specific installation—although, with more than 120 works suspended from the ceiling, not, perhaps, in the conventional sense of the term. In late September, I took advantage of the opportunity to discuss with Cattelan his past, present and future, and to find out why the man who always loathed the idea of a retrospective finally decided to look back.
MICHELE ROBECCHI Your upcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim will be a retrospective covering 20 years of your work. I know you have always been skeptical about the idea of putting together a survey of this magnitude. What were your misgivings?
MAURIZIO CATTELAN There are many reasons, both of a professional and personal nature. Part of my refusal was certainly driven by the idea of resisting time. Even the simple word “retrospective” is something I associate with the old masters and the idea of being in a position to finally explore the different stages of a career. Influences are stated, developments are analyzed and works contextualized. It’s all very flattering, especially when you are a living artist, but the subtext of this kind of treatment is that your best days are over, your role has been established, and that any future project you might wish to undertake will never have the same relevance as whatever you have done so far—a concept that every middle-aged man, and I am no exception, finds very difficult to accept.
Another thing is that I have never been particularly impressed with retro-spectives anyway. There are a few exceptions of course, but most of the time the curators tend to adopt a very traditional line, and in their anxiety to scientifically discuss the work of an artist, they often forget that, unlike technological progress, art doesn’t follow a linear progression. There are so many elements to factor—unforeseen jumps, reflective moments, historical changes and site-specific interventions—which cannot be re-created anywhere else without losing the initial push that generated them. The best retrospectives for me are the ones that leave the door open to questions rather than just providing answers, those in which the original spirit of the artist is reflected and respected, to the point of prevailing over the venue and the comfort zone created by temporal distance.
ROBECCHI What made you finally capitulate?
CATTELAN There was no instant revelation. It was a gradual process that started with my exhibition at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in 2008. It was all brand-new work, but for the very first time, rather than having a single strong centerpiece, like the Hitler Mini-Me [Him, 2001] at the Färgfabriken in Stockholm in 2001, or the Pope crashed into by a meteorite in Basel [La nona ora, at the Kunsthalle Basel, 1999], I had different works in different parts of the space entertaining a dialogue with one another. It made me realize the potential of this opportunity—how the sum of three or four autonomous pieces can form a bigger picture while still preserving their intrinsic meaning. The next step was the exhibition at the Menil Collection in Texas [in 2010]. It’s a relatively small museum but extremely interesting, with an excellent collection and a very particular architecture. It was morale-boosting to find out that I could put together a project on that scale and interact with the existing tissue without compromising my own vision. Meanwhile, the Guggenheim approached me with the proposal of doing a mid-career survey. Although I have spent the last few years fending off similar invitations, I knew that sooner or later I would have to do it, and I figured that the Guggenheim was the right place to go.
ROBECCHI What was so appealing about the Guggenheim?
CATTELAN The Guggenheim is possibly the most strongly characterized museum ever built. It’s practically impossible to do a conventional exhibition there, with so many imponderables to take into account. It is by far the most difficult space in which to show sculpture. Frank Lloyd Wright liked the idea of the rotunda and just followed that, completely disregarding the basics that up until then were considered the foundations of any good museum. It’s no secret that he loathed New York and that his attitude toward modern art was lukewarm. When someone objected that the low ceilings weren’t suitable for the display of large paintings, he suggested that they be cut in half. You can only be impressed by the nerve of the Guggenheim family. Calling on someone like Wright to design a museum for their collection in New York was the equivalent of calling on Richard Nixon to talk about the importance of a free press! It was either the greatest act of confidence ever, or a display of total madness.
Another factor was that I was fairly familiar with the museum and how it operates. [The curator] Nancy Spector is a longtime supporter of my work. Mutual trust is a key factor in this kind of venture. Nancy knows how I work and I know how she works. My previous involvement with the Guggenheim was confined to group exhibitions, but even then, a part of your brain can’t help looking out of your little corner and focusing on the rest. I guess it’s a bit like pruning a tree: You inevitably end up thinking about how the rest of the garden would look if you were to prune them all.
ROBECCHI What triggered your decision to have all your previous work hanging at the center of the rotunda?
CATTELAN In a way, it was the same as it has always been with me: a question of turning restrictions into advantages. The point of the rotunda is to instill a democratic view of art. No area is more important than another. Everything is placed on the same level, with a structure that encourages the viewer to spend the same amount of time in front of every work. I had already concluded that it was infeasible to show my works in a way that would have preserved their primary intention.
ROBECCHI Do you think there’s a lot of disparity between your early and most recent works?
CATTELAN Yes, but it’s not so much about that. To a certain extent, the opposite is true—a vast majority of my recent sculptures are figurative. There are times where an association among them worked, like in Milan, where the Pope, the crucified woman and the kid banging the drum would compose this sort of dysfunctional family [“Contro le Ideologie” (Against Ideologies), Palazzo Reale, Milan, 2010]. But when you have more than 100 different pieces, it’s a different story. Duane Hanson once said that what ultimately prevented him from making very large groups was that the presence of too many of his characters together in the same room would end up undermining their credibility. Now look at what I’ve got—headless horses, cat skeletons, mini-dictators, cardinals, policemen, old ladies, trees, deceased presidents, hanged kids. . . . It would have looked like the craziest crèche, or a scene from a Federico Fellini film! [laughs] So what I decided to do instead was to follow the architecture’s logic. Everything is there, hanging out at the center. It doesn’t matter where you are, all the sculptures look equal, as they should. There’s no hierarchy anymore.
Every episode has been important for me. I don’t have any favorite child.
ROBECCHI But doesn’t this act of decontextualization somehow clash with what you just said about retrospectives?
CATTELAN No, this is the whole point. Given the impossibility of re-creating the original context in which the work was made, I’d rather take the concept head-on and push it to the limit.
ROBECCHI What interests me here is the relationship between your work and the exhibition of your work. The three kids hanging from a tree, for example, made a radical statement when they were first presented in a public square in Milan [organized by the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, 2004]. Don’t you think that after the Guggenheim they will acquire a farcical dimension that will stop people from taking them quite as seriously anymore?
CATTELAN Yes, but there is no way to avoid it. There is no way they could be what they were again. I’m not even sure if I’m interested in creating that situation for people. I am only interested in what I’m doing now. This is actually another thing that used to bother me about retrospectives—the resurrection part, the idea that people who missed the work the first time around think that the artist or the retrospective can re-create the original experience for them. From an intellectual perspective, in terms of what the work means, and what it really looks like, yes, you can do that. But the historical conditions are different.
I was totally perplexed when Marina Abramovic recently claimed that a performance is like a music score, it can be replayed all the time. I can accept this on a technical level, but having a bunch of actors standing naked in the doorway at MoMA today can’t possibly replace the experience of walking in between her and Ulay in Bologna at the end of the 1970s. The novelty, the urgency, of the original piece is lost forever. Don’t get me wrong, I was very moved to see Marina sitting at the end of the table redoing Nightsea Crossing, but I knew I could only imagine what it must have been like at Documenta in the 1980s.
It’s a bit like going to see a tribute band. You can shut your eyes and pretend, but it’s not it. And as for the kids hanging from the tree . . . Look, you were there, so you know what happened. They were vandalized, and from that moment the work turned into something else. But I can assure you that even if they hadn’t been, their presence at the Seville biennial only a few months later wouldn’t have been the same as in Milan. It’s just not possible. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing either, if the new installation is done with intelligence, because the work can acquire new, unexpected meanings. The Pope was exhibited in Basel, Warsaw, Venice and Milan, and each time there was a different but equally interesting response. So I’m not saying it’s better or worse. I’m just saying it’s different.
ROBECCHI Is this the reason why the retrospective won’t be traveling?
CATTELAN Yes, there was no other way I would have done it. There were talks about bringing the show to other institutions, but eventually we agreed that no other venue was capable of hosting the show in the same way as the Guggenheim. The exhibition will be a one-night stand. Which suits me just fine.
ROBECCHI Normally the surprise element is one of the key factors in your exhibitions. This time you didn’t refrain from giving sneak previews of what the show will be about.
CATTELAN You can take it as an indicator of how I treat this as something different from what I have done so far. But to be perfectly honest, there were practical reasons as well. My decision to not disclose the contents of an exhibition was never the result of a calculated strategy designed to create anticipation. Many times things were finalized only at the very last minute. It would have been dangerous to try to let people know about something I wasn’t even quite sure about myself. The Guggenheim exhibition is not about making new works; it’s about finding a way to display the existing ones. And because of the size of the installation and the technical effort it requires, once the course was settled there was very little room left for improvisation. From a logistical perspective, it’s the most demanding project I have ever made.
ROBECCHI Retrospectives represent a unique opportunity to look back and reconsider the present, if not the future. What conclusions would you draw from these first 20 years?
CATTELAN Surprisingly, in this respect I don’t think it’s that different from any other exhibition I have made. I just do it and carry on. This one is obviously a bit more important because of what it represents, but I’m not dwelling too much on it. It’s the end of a chapter.
ROBECCHI One hell of a chapter, I might add. [laughs]
CATTELAN [laughs] Yes. It’s been quite a ride.
ROBECCHI So what’s next? A rumor partially fueled by you says that after this exhibition you’re going to retire. Is it a publicity stunt to increase the value of the show, like those farewell tours, or are you serious?
CATTELAN Ha! No, I’m serious. I don’t mean that I’ll walk away and vanish in the sunset. I won’t retire completely. I have [the magazine] Toiletpaper and a lot of other ideas and projects I’m interested in. I hate to sound too philosophical about these things, but there always comes a time in life when you feel like it’s time to stop doing whatever you’re doing. I go back and forth. I don’t really know what the future holds, but as retirement will have to happen sooner or later, this might be the right time. It won’t stop me from being creative, however—from being interested in images and in their power, which is what a good side of my work has been about from day one.
ROBECCHI You have recently completed an autobiography with Catherine Grenier in which you are unusually open about your life and work in general.1 Francesco Bonami also wrote a book in similar fashion about you not too long ago,2 and in stark contrast to your notorious reluctance about being interviewed, published conversations with you over the past two years have been plentiful and candid. Where does this sudden necessity to talk come from? Is it a consequence of the Guggenheim exhibition?
CATTELAN I’m not sure. Maybe I was just trying to rectify some of the inaccuracies written about me, or to shake off the image of the guy who just comes up with a random idea, creates some havoc and runs. I always had the impression of being misrepresented in the past. There are some really serious aspects in my work that have been overlooked or ignored. Maybe the Guggenheim exhibition helped in the sense that for the first time in my life I found myself giving a hard look at my past. I had to select old works and track them down, and that process quite naturally brought up a lot of memories attached to them about who I was and what I was trying to say.
ROBECCHI And what did you want to say?
CATTELAN What did I want to say? I guess I just wanted to say to myself that I could take my future into my own hands. Which, good or bad, is what I’ve finally done.
Currently On View “Maurizio Cattelan: All,” at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, Nov. 4, 2011–Jan. 22, 2012.
1 The French edition is forthcoming from Editions de Seuil, October, 2012. There will also be an Italian edition, and possibly one in English.
2 Maurizio Cattelan: Autobiografia non autorizzata (Maurizio Cattelan: The Unauthorized Autobiography), Milan, Mondadori, 2011, is a book written by Francesco Bonami as if he were Cattelan, recounting his life and the different stages of his career.
Michele Robecchi is a writer and curator based in London.