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

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

Mr. Cattelan had just announced, in a New York Times article, that after his Guggenheim retrospective, he will retire. Reading this, we’d pictured the slim, refined Italian in tennis whites, sunglasses and a visor, sitting in a deck chair overlooking a golf course in Tampa, clutching a gin and tonic. The image was laughably discordant.

He’s not exactly retiring. “I call it retirement, but it’s about ending a period of work, and a certain type of practice. I’m not saying I won’t do anything else. I’m just reinventing myself.”

Preparing for “All” was a reckoning. “It was painful to work on it. I thought, maybe it’s time to close a gate and open another one. Retiring, so to speak, was a good way to have freedom.”

He handed us copies of his pictures-only magazine, Toilet Paper, which he will continue to produce, in retirement. “Whatever we do is going to end down there,” he said of its title.

Toilet Paper is loaded with surreal images sprung from Mr. Cattelan’s seemingly inexhaustible imagination. Some are touching: a young man holding the hand of a woman lost in an alcoholic stupor; others, tangily threatening: a rubber band, taut, aimed at a nipple. Its title reads as a self-deprecatory paean to print: we may sing to the high heavens the praises of the Internet, but nothing consumed online will ever be handy in the face of an empty roll.

“There is no story” to the display at the Guggenheim, Mr. Cattelan said, as there is no story to Toilet Paper. The nonhierarchical installation “has been fantastic to make peace with my mistakes, because works I don’t want to see anymore are as important as the ones that are most sought after.”

Along with iconic figures—the pope felled by a meteorite, a miniature, kneeling Hitler, a mini J.F.K. in a coffin—a persistent image in his oeuvre is himself. He’s placed a pair of mini Cattelans in a bed; hung himself from a coat hook; emerged from the floor of a museum. “I’ve always used the classic formats. Popes—there are hundreds of years of portraits of them. Animals, horses—a super extra classic subject. Evil—a super extra classic subject. The self-portrait is another classic format. Maybe I abuse it a little bit.”

He’s initiated his art dealers, taping Massimo de Carlo to a wall, outfitting Emmanuel Perrotin as a giant pink penis/bunny rabbit. Market savvy—“My position is extremely independent”—he is unapologetic. “In the end, I’m the one producing. You can be the greatest dealer in the world but if you don’t have the thing to sell, you’re just an empty case.”

In the ’90s, having had no academic training, he used his art to teach himself “the rules of the art world.” His ideas of it were “completely naïve.”

From the vaults: 11 years ago, the author of this article ran the U.S. office of the London-based Art Newspaper. Next door was the office of the Milan-based magazine Flash Art, run by Massimiliano Gioni, now curator at the New Museum. The floor was populated by therapists of various kinds; the purring of their noise machines and the soporific odor of their aromatherapeutic oils drifted into our offices. The building once housed the studio of Marcel Duchamp. All of this is worth mentioning because it was the setting into which, occasionally, a tall, angular fellow Italian would enter to confer with Mr. Gioni, who was then, as is now well-known, doing public appearances as “Maurizio Cattelan.”

Mr. Cattelan and Mr. Gioni, along with Ali Subotnick, now curator at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum, would go on to open their subversive “Wrong Gallery” in Chelsea, which was no more than a glass door. In 2006, they curated the Berlin Biennial, and opened a fake Berlin branch of Gagosian Gallery, merely a storefront embellished with a burnished plaque—knocks to the funny bone of the art market, then at its peak.

Mr. Cattelan once worked odd jobs, like custodian, postal worker, cook. For him, art was the triumph of imagination over tedium. “Becoming an artist for me was a way to save myself,” he said. “It was a tool to emancipate myself, to escape a previous life of just surviving.

“I thought, in one or two years I could find myself without a penny. I thought, ‘Are you willing to go to the lowest degree of life on the street?’ and I thought, ‘Yes, rather than have another day at this factory.’” His pieces have recently sold for millions of dollars.