Cattelan at the Guggenheim? Are They Kidding?!

How the prankster artist won me over

In late 2008, not long after the fall of Lehman Brothers, Mr. Cattelan celebrated the financial crash by floating a face-down, dead Pinnochio in the reflecting pool at the bottom of the Guggenheim museum. This apparent suicide of the fabled character (not coincidentally a lying Italian with a long nose) was a clear metaphor for the death of art, the marionette come to life being the classic metaphor for art, while the artist is symbolized by Geppetto, his “father,” the woodcarver. (The piece is called Daddy-daddy.) What better symbol could there be for a moment when the financial crisis threatened to trigger an art-market crash? I didn’t bother to regret all my missed opportunities, because that was then and this was now. Even with my entire Bloomberg screen flashing blood red for days, I broke down and bought Daddy-daddy.

“All,” the retrospective of Mr. Cattelan’s work that is about to open at the Guggenheim, sounded to me like another flirtation with disaster. In a recent interview, he called Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece an “upside down Tower of Babel” whose goal was to make “artists who enter there become acquainted with Hell.” It just so happens that he’s also simultaneously decided to retire from art-making at the age of 51, much like Duchamp did in 1923 at age 36, the pretext for Mr. Cattelan being his feeling “tired” and his desire to “change occupations” as well as to focus on his new magazine, aptly called Toilet Paper, a series of photos from ads and pictures assembled under his art direction.

So what could he possibly do to avoid his disastrous Guggenheim grand finale? How would he deal with the museum’s gaping atrium, a vortex that has sucked in many an artist’s retrospective and wreaked havoc? He’s solved the problem in an entirely original way, by hanging every artwork he’s ever made in the center atrium of the building, like a giant chandelier. What’s displayed along the walkway that spirals up the building? Nothing. These ramps provide vantage points from which to view the massive new piece. I managed to get in and see it under construction, availing myself of a secret and private tour. I also took illicit pictures of the installation, pictures I promised Nancy Spector, chief curator of the museum and the exhibition’s curator, that I would not publish, so I’ll post them on my website on Thursday (

But what does it look like in person, you wonder? In typical Cattelan fashion, what sounds at first like a one-liner develops into something much more complex, something that involves the art, the architecture, the artist’s past, his present and everything in between. You’ll see from the images that the works are all strung up in this bizarre mobile, one that is at least five stories high. At the top is a large round metal frame from which each piece is suspended on its own individual platform, allowing the viewer to see the whole and also each piece individually.

I immediately said to Mr. Cattelan, “This is much better than I thought,” to which he responded: “That’s a good sign.” I remarked that to suspend all those pieces in midair creates a brand-new composition, a wonderful new work made of old works. He responded, “It’s the right way to see it! Something new made of something old.” Think of it as Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise—a briefcase-size collection of Duchamp’s entire oeuvre—but with the works in full size and the Guggenheim as the “boîte.” It’s a radical hanging, a new and crazy way to see Mr. Cattelan’s art. He’s broken all the rules again, but thankfully this museum and its curator have given him the platform and the freedom to do it. This is not just another show. It’s an instant piece of art history.

So, do you think I’ve come full circle on Mr. Cattelan? Not quite. It’s true that I no longer dislike him because he’s obnoxious and borderline obscene, or because he’s so dark and creative that he’s unbearable. I had to concede defeat because of the dark and depressing work’s redeeming factor: Mr. Cattelan’s is the kind of humor you don’t want to admit you find funny.

What of the show? Is it funny? Hilarious, unlike anything you’ve ever seen; clearly, it’s the work of someone teetering on the edge of either madness or creative genius. After this show, Mr. Cattelan plans to retire, which means, in theory, that he won’t be making any more work. That leaves him free to buy and sell art as well as to curate. Come to think of it, he did mention in an offhand way that artists’ estates often license images and can authorize posthumous casts and perhaps even create new versions of old work. Is this a way for Maurizio Cattelan the artist to die, while Mr. Cattelan the man still lives and runs his own archive for fun and profit? Who knows? It’s too early to tell, and most likely Mr. Cattelan himself hasn’t decided his next step, but come what may I’ll stay tuned, because it’s guaranteed to be original and exciting, and because I can’t afford not to.