The Elephant in the Room: Maurizio Cattelan Is Retiring … Sort Of

Role of <em>Toilet Paper</em> will not end

novecento The Elephant in the Room: Maurizio Cattelan Is Retiring … Sort Of

"Novecento" (1997) by Maurizio Cattelan. (Courtesy Guggenheim)

Interviewing the artist Maurizio Cattelan is like trying to extract a splinter with a spatula. The tools in your journalistic toolbox turn out to be blunt and absurd, but you proceed with them anyhow, quixotically. An hour into things, you’re smacking the splinter with the spatula, believing it will come out the other side.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Mr. Cattelan, 51, was born in Padua, Italy, and has lived in New York for almost 20 years. He has made funny art and is an intermittently somber man. Patches of moodiness cross the mountain range of his face, dark clouds on an otherwise sunny day.

This meteorological metaphor may have sprung to mind because the afternoon on which we met him at Trestle on Tenth restaurant in Chelsea, near his apartment, was overcast, a threat of rain hanging in the air. Leaning against the picture window, Mr. Cattelan made the observation that people walking by were having fun, and look at us, in here, doing this.

Mr. Cattelan detests interviews. He’s said as much, in interviews. Throughout his sit-down with The Observer he fidgeted, frowned, a child affronted by a plate of broccoli, desperate to flee the table; we took this personally until he revealed that his high-top sneakers were new and not yet broken in.

Our meeting began with his attempt to convince us not to use our recording device. Unsuccessful, he decided the best location for it was under his jacket. When we retrieved it, and placed it on the table between us, he tucked it, once again, under his jacket. The result of all of this motion, on the recording, is a series of shuffling sounds, interrupted by a baritone murmur, thickly accented and rich with suasion (his) and an anxious, high-pitched titter (ours).

The device’s final destination was on the seat next to us, as far away from Mr. Cattelan’s jacket as possible. Out of concern that it would, at this distance, not pick up his voice, we suggested that we might, in the manner of Occupy Wall Street, simply repeat everything he said.

“Then you said, blah blah,” we said, by way of demonstration.

“I didn’t say that,” he said.

He examined the paper on which we’d printed out our questions, and on which we’d scrawled a note: “Why is the Korean restaurant Do Hwa following my Twitter?”

Mr. Cattelan does not have a studio.

Where, then, does he work, we asked?

“I’m working now,” he replied. “If you say something that my mind turns into an idea, I will use it. Maybe I’ll make a show about Korean restaurants.”

Here are some artworks Mr. Cattelan has made: a horse with its head stuck in a wall; an elephant wearing a sheet as a ghost costume; a donkey toting a TV on its back; a set of tiny elevators. This week, the Guggenheim opens a retrospective in which most of his artworks will be suspended from the ceiling of the museum’s rotunda, an approach occasioned by Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. “If you don’t understand the building,” Mr. Cattelan said, “the building destroys you.” The show’s title, “All,” has a morbid edge: his 2007 piece of the same name is a life-size row of bodies draped with sheets.