Maurizio Cattelan, perhaps the art world’s most notorious prankster, announced his retirement in 2011, when he had his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, but he has not exactly gone quiet. While he has not staged gallery shows of new work since then, he’s offered to loan his sculpture America, a toilet made of 18-karat gold to the White House, published several issues of the cheeky-to-the-point-of-disturbing photo magazine Toilet Paper, and created a winking ad campaign for the online dating site OkCupid.
Cattelan’s most recent statement is a new group exhibition at Marlborough gallery in London titled “The Smiths,” which displays art only by artists with the most common surname in the United States. On display through August 2 are works by David Smith, Joshua Smith, Patti Smith, Emily Mae Smith, Kiki Smith, and Sable Elyse Smith, alongside many others. ARTnews reached out to the artist via email to find out more about the show, and what’s new in his world.
ARTnews: How did the idea for the Smiths show come about?
Call it short-circuit or serendipity, it is all my inbox’s fault: in the very same moment I received three different invites for openings from different venues with artists named Smith showing in it. I took it as a divine sign; someone needed to grab it and make something good out of it. Obviously, it was not me.
So are you officially un-retired now?
I especially research a condition that in Italian we define as “to keep your foot in two shoes”: I don’t want to decide between the A or B option, I love to stay in between. On one hand, I am aware I’m not able to work with the turnover an artist is forced to nowadays: doing dozen of shows per month, producing works for the hundreds of fairs around the world… that’s not my style, and I can’t help it. On the other, I feel I can still produce artworks with a value that is not solely economic, and I wish I still will be able to do so in the future.
That’s honorable. It’s cool that the concept allows for up-and-coming artists to be exhibited alongside some prestigious names. Very democratic! Is that a goal of the show?
In that same Smiths day, during a tour in Chelsea, I met Pascal [Spengemann, of Marlborough] at the gallery and mentioned the idea. So, I’d say it’s the result of the combination of three mini-accidents: the inbox had the idea, the accidental encounter makes it possible, and then the gallery made it happen. I’m not sure about the concept of the show, but its conception was based on a democratic principle, indeed.
Did you reach out to any Smiths that felt insulted by the concept?
All the opposite: after the show came out, someone that has not been invited felt excluded… but for privacy reasons I can only reveal that their surname is Smith.
Obviously these 35 artists have incredibly different practices, and their last name is pretty much the only thing they have in common. But once you saw the show up for the first time, fully completed, did any other through-lines strike you?
When I saw the show I thought that it worked so well that we should continue the series with the Browns!
You’re a big art collector. How many Smith works do you own?
For now, I kept the three beautiful invitations from which the show was born: Josh Smith, Sable Elyse Smith, and Emily Mae Smith.
What other artists, regardless of surname, have been inspiring you as of late? Have you seen any exhibitions or shows recently that you really liked?
I was struck by the history of the collector Sergei Shchukin at the Pushkin museum [in Moscow], it’s terrific: besides the inspiring exhibition, I discovered a series of anecdotes about the relationship between this crazily passionate patron and the artists (and what artists! to name a few: Matisse, Gaugin, Picasso) he was supporting without reserve.
Have you ever grown weary of being called the jokester?
As an artist, nuance is your duty. As an artist, you should avoid making things easy. As an artist, you should aim at suggesting contradictions—don’t erase it or deny it, but let it in and embrace it. Otherwise, you’re making propaganda and product distribution, and that’s equal to the death of the art.
What I’m saying is that to be a provocateur is not directly my aim in doing art: but when you do avoid making things easy, and you do pay attention to nuances, then you happen to say something that people would prefer not to hear. But sometimes it’s the only way to get the job effectively done.
I have to ask—where’s the golden toilet today?
America is being installed at the Blenheim house, where Churchill was born, celebrating the visceral and centenary alliance between the States and the United Kingdom.
And lastly, what’s your favorite song by the Smiths?
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” It’s my life’s motto. [Ed. note: Obviously Cattelan is joking here, however it’s worth noting that in 2012 former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr told the Telegraph it’s his favorite Rolling Stones song.]