Maurizio Cattelan – Italian sculptor and bad-boy of the art world – had refused numerous requests to mount a retrospective of his work on the basis, as he insisted, that his work was so disparate that it would defy a conventional, chronological solution. Finally, last year, Cattelan capitulated to a request for a “mid-career survey” from the Guggenheim museum in New York. He then claimed that this exhibition which, aptly, spanned the end of the old year and the beginning of the new, November 4 through January 22, was his swan-song to the art world; he announced his retirement from making art and his plans to return to Milan, Italy, to work on his magazine Toilet Paper, a bi-annual picture based publication. The sincerity of his resolve was underlined by one of the publicity images for the retrospective which is of Cattelan with a tombstone engraved with the epitaph “The End” tucked under his arm, running, presumably, from the art world.
The news of such an artist choosing to end his public career, indeed to stop making art altogether, while at the top of his game, created ripples of speculation in the art world that were followed by waves of questions on the very meaning of the word “end.” The Guggenheim attempted to answer these questions in a seven-hour conference or Grand Finale entitled The Last Word that was held on the penultimate day of the exhibition, January 21st, for which the organizers invited a plethora of luminaries from the art world and beyond, including singer Courtney Love, to speak. This event was co-organized by Nancy Spector, the Guggenheim’s chief curator, and Simon Critchley, New School for Social Research (New York) Professor.
Born poor in the city of Padua in 1960, Cattelan, the son of a truck driver, was largely raised by his deeply religious mother. Hardship at home, unhappiness at school and the drudgery of menial jobs that constituted his livelihood as a young man contributed to a dislike of manual labor and an outlaw distrust of authority that informed his early work as an artist; Cattelan earned his renegade reputation by spitting in the eye of the art establishment in the mode of a rebellious teenager against an authoritarian parent. Lacking ideas for his first solo exhibition in 1989, it is said, his solution was to close the gallery and hang a sign on the door with the legend: “Torno Subito” (Back soon). Another deliciously schoolboy solution to avoid making work for a group show at the Castello di Rivera near Turin was to put nothing in his allotted space but a rope of knotted bed sheets hanging from the second floor window to the ground – an escape route. But his most anarchic exploit was at the de Appel Arts Center in Amsterdam in 1996 where he attempted to exhibit as his own work the contents of another artist’s exhibition, stolen from a neighboring gallery, with the title “Another Fucking Readymade.”
When he agreed to the Guggenheim’s request for the retrospective: Maurizio Cattelan: All, he did so on the condition that the work would be hung together, literally — like laundry— from the oculus of the museum’s Rotunda. It would be a one-off exercise and, indeed, the unique design of the Guggenheim make the possibility of taking the retrospective on the road unlikely, in this form at least. Also, there can only be one “END,” can’t there? The 128 art works in this retrospective constituted almost everything Cattelan has done since 1989 and, despite his concerns about the disconnectedness of the pieces, it did hang together metaphorically as well as literally, five floors deep, and constituted a new and singular work of art in its own right. It is therefore appropriate to consider it a single entity whose individual parts had taken on new meanings by having been re-contextualized in their relationship to and juxtaposition with each other.
The piece, an assemblage much of which was hyperrealist in style, dealt with themes of politics, fear, power, greed, anxiety, religion and, the central motif, death, in ways that were both humorous and deadly serious. Every medium was represented including waxwork and taxidermy. Examples of some elements of the installation were a taxidermied group consisting of a donkey, dog, cat and rooster each on the back of another in order of size, posed with mouths open braying, barking, screeching and crowing with the title “Love Saves Life” – this group was repeated in skeleton form entitled “Love Lasts Forever.” Also included were a number of iconic figures from recent history: the figure of John F Kennedy’s body lying in state, bare-foot; a kneeling Adolph Hitler sculpted in the proportions of a child with a face whose authority has been replaced with uncertainty; the famously subversive “La Nona Ora” (The Ninth Hour) of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite and begging the question: what does it mean that God’s representative on earth could be smitten by a rock from the heavens?
A particularly touching piece was “Bidibidobidibo,” an anthropomorphic scene of a squirrel who has committed suicide with a miniature gun in its miniature kitchen – aspects of the kitchen are, apparently, based on Cattelan’s childhood home’s kitchen. That certain motifs are repeated — sleeping dogs and numerous sculptural figures and masks bearing Cattelan’s own features — and that some works are multiples, for instance, a set of nine stretchers of sheet-covered corpses carved from Carrara marble (the “All” of the title) and a series of painted canvases with the letter “Z” slashed into them Zorro-style (Untitled)– brought a sense of pattern and cohesion which contributed to the disparate parts of the installation working together as a whole. It was interesting to consider how the original intention of certain elements like the “Z” paintings might have changed in this new context. If the canvases were created to suggest an “art attack” of some kind, then in the context of this assemblage they suggested that Zorro, a cartoon hero if ever there was one, might be on hand to save us from an impending disaster of our own making, or, alternatively, that Zorro is responsible for the state of things, so we don’t have to be – like the little boy beating his drum oblivious to the plight of his donkey who has been upended by the grotesquely overladen cart he is pulling (Untitled, 2003). The drummer boy is actually a separate artwork but in the context of the retrospective these two pieces were fused and became one; this is another example of how the arrangement – carefully composed in advance using models — altered the way parts of the installation might be interpreted. Hanging above the fountain on the floor level of the museum is a piece entitled “Daddy, Daddy” that had previously, in 2008, been shown in the Guggenheim floating face down in that same fountain. It is a rendition of the puppet Pinocchio who shares at least three things with Cattelan: his nationality, a bad rep, and a large nose.
Cows may feature in Cattelan’s work but none are sacred – everything is fodder for his creative appetite including the art world itself and even publications to which he has contributed, like his house of cards made of Flash-Art magazines, “Strategies,” 1990. Yet despite Cattelan thumbing his nose at Marcel Duchamp in the title of the stolen exhibition, “Another Fucking Readymade,” he has been called “one of the great post-Duchampian artists” by Jonathan P. Binstock of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, who added, “and a smartass too.” Also, as noted by scholar and art curator, Francis Naumann, at the conference at the Guggenheim on January 21st, the very idea of suspending art is very Duchamp, a point he illustrated with a photo of Duchamp’s studio which featured many of his well-known readymades hanging from the ceiling.
The Last Word conference or, really, series of short lectures, ran from 6:00 pm to 1:00 am. It also comprised short films, video, musical interludes, live performance pieces and some theater. The latter included Brooklyn-based hybrid arts collective and non-profit Not An Alternative who, wearing Guy Fawkes masks, presented a breakdown of the Occupy Movement and its goals – an initiative many hope will result in the end of societal injustice, and from which a better way will emerge; their inclusion a nod to Cattelan’s own aspirations for the show, that no individual piece would be given a position of hierarchy over others. In deference to the title, the speakers were asked to write their own epitaphs, which were briefly projected onto a screen — white on black, silent film-like — as the speaker arrived at the podium. My personal favorite, although not sure it qualifies as an epitaph, was by New York based artist and former obituary writer for London’s Daily Telegraph, Adam McEwen, who wrote: “Show me a home where the buffalo roam, and I’ll show you a house full of shit.”
The speakers discussed all manner of endings including the ultimate ending: death. On the latter subject, Doryun Chong, an associate curator at MOMA, talked about those from history who, as a result of circumstances, left no epitaph at all, in some cases not even a name, for example: a cross in an old American west graveyard which simply said “Two Chinese.” No identification or even whether they were friends, brothers or sisters or, indeed, Christian. On the other hand Sarah Murray, author of Making an Exit: from the Magnificent to the Macabre, talked of the elaborate rituals different societies engage in to prepare their dead for the afterlife. In the light of the unnamed Chinese buried in the old west it was poignant to consider the care that might have gone into their dispatch in their native China where their bodies would have been cremated with all manner of objects that might come in useful at their next destination, and their remains saved in ornate urns to be honored by future generations. In Ghana, Murray discovered, one can order a coffin made in any shape one’s heart desires, but, despite having ordered a coffin in the shape of the Empire State Building, Murray has decided that, when her time comes, she will be cremated and have her ashes divided into a lot of little jars for her friends to scatter in diverse faraway places where she has traveled. As an atheist, she said, this could be a way of getting a bit of an afterlife – not by way of the ashes being left here and there but, through the friend or relative traveling to that place and experiencing, Murray hopes, what she found there. On a less fun but deeply fascinating note was Mark Etkind, author and editor of –Or Not To Be: a Collection of Suicide Notes, a book Maurizio Cattelan featured as an artist choice in his Phaidon monograph. Etkind read about a dozen suicide notes including the following by Jerzy Kosinsky “I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity.” Etkind had accessed many of the notes through a coroner’s archive, the most poetic being: “I am leaving this place forever, the snow will cover my footprints.” However, he was struck by how few were eloquent or even articulate. Most, he said, were “highly disorganized and, above all, sad.” Many consisted of lists of apologies, shopping lists, reminders for people to do mundane chores and bequests such as this one: “I’d like my sister Frances to have the piano that you have in your apartment. Do this or I will haunt you – be seeing you soon.” Seemingly not that many people do leave notes, one in five only, and Etkind offered the theory that “if you could think clearly enough to leave a cogent and coherent note, you probably wouldn’t kill yourself.” Or perhaps the act of writing the note itself dissipates the desire to extinguish one’s existence. One note read: “Dear Alice, I hate you, Love John” – a contradiction worthy of Maurizio Cattelan.
Other speakers spoke of other kinds of endings. Nancy Northup, President and CEO of The Center for Reproductive Rights, spoke about when women chose to not create – in this case, life. George Vecsey, a contributing sports columnist for the New York Times spoke about athletes “hanging it up” – that moment when, as an athlete, your body’s built-in obsolescence kicks in and tells you it’s time to hang it up, but you are still only thirty-five years old, or younger.
A number of speakers discussed the issue of changing horses in mid-stream or even, like Cattelan, quitting while one is ahead or quitting before one falls too far behind. Two who spoke to that were Arthur C Danto who stopped making art in 1964 and became an art critic for The Nation, and Tehching Hsieh, a Taiwanese artist known for long duration performances who gave up art in 2000. For Danto — who had been a printmaker — the decision to quit being an artist came to him literally in mid-print. It was a combination of finding the art he was interested in making was out of step with the times, the ‘60s, and the realization that he preferred philosophizing about art than making it. It is common knowledge that only a fraction of people who attend art schools go on to have careers as artists and that creative writing programs spew out writers who, within two or three years, no longer write – not even for their own amusement (a detail it might behoove art schools and writing programs to wonder about, or even investigate). So dropping off the back of the creative bus isn’t just usual, it is an everyday occurrence. And, indeed, most who quit were never ahead to begin with – possibly they didn’t have the grist to the mill, or the brass neck required; perhaps they had it all but never found themselves in the right place at the right time; maybe they lacked that one individual, teacher or mentor, who took the time to nurture their gift — you know, the one that is thanked at the award ceremony — and they lost heart, and decided it was time to dream another dream. Painters always say that one of the conundrums of making art is knowing when to lay down the brushes, when the particular work is finished – for some that surely is also one of the conundrums of the career too, as it is of any career that has run its course. The day after Danto had his eureka moment, he dismantled his studio and never made art again. “It was a great relief,” he said.
Then there are those who recognize that the dream has abandoned them, that it isn’t feeding their souls. One speaker who spoke eloquently on this subject was Michael Rush, Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum at Michigan State University. Rush spent fifteen years as a Jesuit Priest — and a boyhood dreaming of it — until one day he realized he no longer believed what he was preaching to his congregation. His route to Director of a Museum was a circuitous one via theater – he began to write for the stage and ended up starting his own theater company. “I still needed a pulpit” he said. Rush’s story was a fascinating tale of self-reinvention while yet holding on to aspects of his Jesuit training and bringing them forward into the new life and the new choices. He ended his talk by quoting the following passage from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/Cannot bear very much reality./Time past and time future/What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present.”
Eventually came the moment many in the audience had been waiting for, and doubted would materialize – bad girl Courtney Love walked to the lectern, notes in hand in proper academic fashion, albeit in a very short skirt and a run in her stockings. Her epitaph in block capitals “AND THIS IS WAR,” flashed on the screen. Love spoke of her youthful yearning for fame, and that she believed that “Fame will protect me from bad people.” She went on to speak of her subsequent disillusionment with that fame, and the ups and downs of life in the fast lane. She talked of Googling her name with the word “drunk” and being shocked to discover 2.5 million results versus only one when she Googled her name with the word “sexy.” Incidentally, the numbers I found by Googling likewise hugely contradicted hers. The basic premise of her talk was in her opening remarks: “Movie stars need to be alive. Artists need to be dead… ” – that we live in a culture where to want to be a living artist is an act of rebellion, a lifelong war against nonexistence. Her conclusion, “when we quit, we’re dead,” could be read as sticking it to Cattelan, the quitter, perhaps. This contradicted the message of many of the other speakers at the conference, which was predominantly an exhortation not be afraid of endings, of change, but to embrace them – to be a phoenix and rise from the ashes.
So what form can we imagine Maurizio Cattelan will take when he spreads his wings and rises from the ashes of his long career in art? Can we even believe that this is really the end of art-making for him? It would appear that there were many such potential endings in his career, moves that ought to have made the art cognoscenti leery of his seriousness, yet the exploits of his younger years merely served to fast-track his career to international art star. Perhaps Cattelan has never really been an anarchist but simply a very cunning mover and manipulator of a system that delights in having raspberries blown at it? As Francis Naumann (scholar, curator and art dealer) said during his fifteen minutes at The Last Word: “Deciding not to make any more works of art could constitute itself a work of art.” All endings are simultaneously new beginnings and yet it was difficult for Nancy Spector, the curator of Maurizio Cattelan: All to hide her chagrin at the discovery that this might not be, after all, all – that retiring to Italy to work on Toilet Paper may be the last thing that our bad boy intends as, on the eve of the closing event of his lauded and much publicized exodus from the art world, it was reported by Jerry Saltz in New York magazine that Maurizio Cattelan is about to open an art gallery in Chelsea. Back soon?
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. Claire and her family moved to New York City from Dublin in 1996, and to Woodstock in 2002. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company – as the company designer she is in charge of everything from the website to the set design.
Claire taught art and art history for many years at Dublin’s Deutsche Schule, her writing credits include contributing author for Teen Life In Europe.