Cattelan at the Guggenheim? Are They Kidding?!

How the prankster artist won me over

Maurizio Cattelan. (Photo by Daniele Venturelli / WireImage)

I don’t get Maurizio Cattelan’s work. It’s not that I don’t have a sense of humor. I just have never found him funny. His art, which comprises Madame Tussaud’s-style wax figures (like a barefoot J.F.K. in a coffin) and stuffed animals (pigeons or golden retrievers), has always made me feel like the joke’s on me, or on the chump of a collector duped into buying one of these things for an exorbitant price. Granted his “pope struck by a meteor” (la Nona Ora) and his “praying Hitler” (Him) provided some striking imagery, but what of his tasteless figures of homeless people or that ridiculous squirrel that committed suicide with a mini pistol? That stuff is in poor taste. Why would anyone ever want to own one of those goofy jokes?

I’ve followed the work for a decade, because as a client and friend of Emmanuel Perrotin’s, Mr. Cattelan’s dealer in Paris, I was often offered stuff that nobody would ever want, or so it seemed. First there was the broken bank safe, one that was left over from a robbery. The joke was that since the safe had been broken into, it was worthless, but if I spent my money on it, it became an artwork, and therefore valuable again, perhaps even more valuable than all the money that had been in it in the first place. It seemed like a dumb joke to me, and I watched the gallery try to sell it for years.

After that one failed, the gallery tried to get me interested in a wax figure of a little old lady crouching inside a working refrigerator. I asked Mr. Perrotin what it was supposed to mean, and he told me, “It’s your mother inside a refrigerator. Just imagine you go to the kitchen and open the refrigerator and there’s your mother, inside! Cha-ha-cha.” The look of incredulity on my face must have been apparent, because the dealer then added, “Perhaps if I ask him as a special favor to personalize it for you by making one with a figure of your own mother inside … ?” Little did Emmanuel know that this would be a nightmare for me; he was laughing, but I didn’t find it funny. Then there was the Wrong Gallery, a glass door to a Chelsea gallery that didn’t open and that, in any event, was really no more than a glass door. Between the door and a wall could be seen a single artwork, usually something edgy and fresh. I was once asked if I’d like to help finance this worthy art-world project, to which I thoughtfully responded: “Why?”

The fact that Mr. Cattelan operates in the style of a modern-day Marcel Duchamp has never been lost on me. He traffics in art that is made up of simple ideas, and pranks, created within a specific set of rules. He’s even perpetuated the Duchampian legacy with his pseudo-monastic existence, living in a small, unfurnished, one-bedroom apartment, with no wife or girlfriend or children or anything other than his wacky ideas, a.k.a. his work. You can often spot him riding his bicycle elegantly around the Chelsea galleries, with an oversize bicycle chain wrapped around his narrow waist. Look for the tall wiry Italian with a big nose, eyeing everything going on in the New York art world, as well as everywhere else.

He is not without talents, one of which is his strengths as a curator; the Berlin biennial that he curated in 2006 was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. There’s also the little-known fact that he is a sizeable collector of art, mainly that of his contemporaries. He is well aware of prices and is as market-savvy as a person can be. Duchamp in turn also acted as an art adviser/dealer in his day, curating shows and advising his favored collectors, the Arensbergs, to buy the work of Constantin Brancusi when no one else was interested. Today you can see those Brancusis in the Philadelphia Museum of Art along with Duchamp’s amazing masterpiece Étant donnés. Mr. Cattelan’s parallel activities are similarly complementary to his overall position in the art world: he makes, he curates, he buys, he sells and he also advises, in his case Greek mega-collector Dakis Joannou.

But why would I care to know so much about this man whose artwork I dismiss? He is the subject of a major career retrospective that opens tomorrow at the Guggenheim, but this wouldn’t be the first time I don’t care for a museum show. And shouldn’t I have better things to do?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Something disturbing happened a few years after Mr. Perrotin showed me the unfunny woman in the fridge. The dealer remarked to me, in an offhand manner, “You know, it’s conceivable that Maurizio could be the greatest artist of our time. Perhaps we don’t see it now.” Sure, Mr. Perrotin may have been making the hard sell for his artist, but his words had an effect on me. I wondered if it was possible that after 10 years of collecting and studying I could miss out on the best art of my time. Was this a risk I could afford to take?

Cattelan at the Guggenheim? Are They Kidding?!