Contemporary art USA

Maurizio Cattelan: genius or joker?

He is stepping down from the art world the day his Guggenheim show opens. But is it just another prank?

Cattelan launches Toilet Paper magazine with photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari in January this year

One of Italy’s most controversial and talked about contemporary artists is due to announce his retirement on 4 November to coincide with the launch of his retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York—the first (and last, according to the artist) to bring together his entire oeuvre (until 22 January 2012). But is Maurizio Cattelan actually going to retire or is it just another of his publicity stunts? And if it is true, does he deserve the attention that always seems to surround him?

The Art Newspaper: Is it true that...?

Maurizio Cattelan:
It’s completely true, I can confirm it.

Sorry, confirm what?

Oh, I don’t know. You tell me.

Is it true that the retrospective at the Guggenheim will conclude your career as an artist?

This will be my first and last retrospective, at least in the sense of an exhibition that I have personally had a hand in. The “Cattelan Archive” will be taking over after that. There are already more [projects] in the pipeline, but I won’t be directly involved. I will just pretend that I’m dead.

How is the exhibition organised?

There are about 130 works from museums and private collections. I believe the first one dates back to 1989-90, when I started out. There aren’t any earlier works. Or rather, there are a few design objects, but I don’t consider them works. The last one is a scaled-down version of the Piazza Affari installation in Milan [LOVE, 2010].

Be honest: do you have a brand new work waiting in the wings, one of your classic show stoppers?

No, there won’t be any new works. If anything, the works in the exhibition have been arranged without following a particular hierarchy, which means that works of greater or lesser importance can all be read on the same level and that viewers will be able to make their own connections. So what is actually new is the way the works have been installed.

Will you be concentrating on your new project, Toilet Paper magazine, which you launched in January with the photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari?

Yes, and on other things too, although I’m not quite sure what. I see this retrospective as an opportunity to pause and reflect [on my work], because until now I haven’t stopped for a second. I’ve always refused to show more than two or three works at a time. I’ve had other offers to do a retrospective, but the Guggenheim exhibition is the first one I’ve agreed to because I wanted to see all of my works together and reflect on them. I also wanted to understand some of my obsessions, things that might not seem important but that all come out in the end. And I thought that the time was right to close a chapter. I see my retirement as a way of reinventing myself. I don’t know how just yet, but there are lots of possibilities. Whatever I do, I’m not going to start writing.

Will you open a gallery? After all, you’ve done it once before when you ran the tiny Wrong Gallery in New York with Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick [2002-05].

No, I don’t think I’ll open a gallery, at least not a gallery in the traditional sense of the word. But I do want to keep track of what’s happening around the world, especially what the younger artists are doing and I might get involved with another biennial like the one I curated [in Berlin] in 2006 with Gioni and Subotnick. That said, I don’t see myself as a curator; I’d be a terrible curator. Whatever I’ve done, be it curate a biennial or open a gallery in Chelsea, it hasn’t been out of necessity, but to express my point of view, my position. When we opened the Wrong Gallery in Chelsea, we did it because we felt that a certain sense of light-heartedness had disappeared from the process of producing art. Professionalism is fine, but to us it somehow seemed that it was undermining spontaneity, and that everything had become serious and serial. So we thought: let’s try and approach this as if we were teenagers. I don’t think that we changed the course of history, but we definitely made people think.

Picasso painted Guernica, 1937, when he was 56, De Kooning made a number of masterpieces in his 50s, and Goya declared that “I am still learning” when he was an old man. Don’t you think that it’s a bit early to retire at 51?

In the art world, it’s not an easy decision to take. It suggests that you’ve understood and dealt with issues that, deep down, I don’t think I’ve understood or dealt with. Perhaps it was easier for me because I came to art via some rather unusual routes. But now my peers are continuously opening new studio spaces and producing art on an almost industrial level, I can’t compete. My space is elsewhere. My decision is a natural response to what is happening around me, and I’m referring to my specific circumstances here. For me, retirement is just another stage in my development: I know myself better, and I also know that I don’t want to follow certain practices that seem widespread nowadays. I don’t want a team of 40-odd assistants. I’ve never had one before and I don’t see why I should start now. I must admit that it’s quite a challenge, and I hope I’m up to it.

You have mentioned plans to create a “Cattelan Archive”. Who will run it?

That’s a good question. I’ll have to think about it, perhaps someone who is already an archivist, I haven’t got a clue. The archive concept is a fairly simple one, it’s a virtual place that houses all the works together in one spot. There are people who understand exactly how I work, who have followed me this far and who know how to display a good piece.

How many works have you produced in total?

They will all be on show at the Guggenheim. It’s easy to tally them up: two to three works per year. I’ve done a few limited editions, two or three, I think. Around 1989-90 I made the odd mistake, but I was still learning.

Given that it’s time to look back at your work…

It’s the moment of truth!

...who’s the culprit, the first gallery owner who spotted you and introduced you to the world as an artist?

Well, that’s not really how it works... If we’re talking about who offered me the chance to show my work, the first encounter—with the Neon Gallery in Bologna—was quite random.

Why random?

Because a brochure of mine, featuring a few objects that I had made and decorated my home with, ended up in their postbox. They got in touch with me and said: “We’re reopening with a group show. Lots of artists will be exhibiting. You should bring your work along too.” After I’d tested the water, they asked me to do something else with them, and I dived right in. The same rationale led me to move from Bologna to Milan. I tried out another gallery there, but the owner wasn’t sure about me, so I left. Then I met Massimo De Carlo, who told me: “I still haven’t figured out whether you really want to work or whether you’re just messing around. If you want to work, I’m here.” So we started working together.

Will you stay in New York?

I’m always travelling around and I’m very tied to Italy. But New York is still an important city, even though it’s having a hard time right now.

Surprise us: tell us that the catalogue for the Guggenheim exhibition will be completely different.

I’m afraid not. It’s going to be very traditional, with a long essay by [Guggenheim chief curator] Nancy Spector. The format is small, like an exercise book, and it will include images of all the works in the show, plus any that we don’t install. It’s disappointing I know, and I’m especially sorry because Il Giornale dell’Arte [The Art Newspaper’s sister paper in Italy] was one of the few that wrote about the 1988 exhibition at the Neon Gallery in Bologna, and I was really pleased because it was totally unexpected. In those days I just got by and did everything myself.

Sometimes we get excited too. So I’d like to finish with a bit of a corny question: what advice would you give to a young artist?

Work, work, work; I never stopped. And be patient. I waited ten years for the phone to start ringing.

The experts weigh in

“You have to be a bit of a masochist to buy his work”

Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, collector


I have been a Cattelan supporter from the outset. I am a member of the New York Guggenheim’s Cattelan club. He is the artist who influenced me the most, without a doubt. I bought my first work of his in 1994: Ninna Nanna, an installation made using debris from the Contemporary Arts Pavilion in Milan, which was destroyed in a terrorist bombing. Cattelan transforms suppressed emotions into images, plays with the symbols of our society and exposes the fragility of human life by illuminating the tragedy in comedy. What I love about his work is the way it grabs our attention and deals with burning, complex social issues. He stages scenarios with a sadistic edge, and you have to be a bit of a masochist to buy his work. The joke is on you because you become part of the game. Even his retirement announcement could be seen as a work of art, a performance piece, as well as a homage to the greatest artist of the 20th century, Marcel Duchamp, who at a certain point in his career declared that he no longer wished to continue making art, but wanted to focus on playing chess. Only after he died in 1968 was his final masterpiece, which he had secretly been working on for over 20 years, unveiled by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Perhaps Maurizio will reward us with his own Étant Donnés?

“The new Buster Keaton”

Massimo De Carlo, gallerist


I first met Cattelan in 1988-89, when he arrived at the gallery with a Christmas present for me. Back then he was working both as a designer and artist. I always felt that he didn’t know what he wanted to do in the beginning. He would visit the gallery regularly and I didn’t take him very seriously. Then, in 1991, I saw the “AnniNovanta” show in Bologna, which was curated by Renato Barilli and featured Maurizio’s Stadium, a piece that really impressed me. At the end of 1991, we started working together. Maurizio is like a big sponge that absorbs everything around him. The years we spent working together have been intense, and full of ups and downs like any long-term relationship. But I think that if we look carefully at Maurizio’s entire body of work, and the Guggenheim retrospective is clearly a golden opportunity, we’ll see that there is always something to learn and be astonished by. I like to think of Maurizio as the new Buster Keaton, a funny man with a keen sense of tragedy.

“He channels contemporary life with a devastating sense of humour”

François Pinault, collector and director of Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana


I consider Cattelan to be one of the best artists of our time. He has a rare talent for channelling contemporary life, often with a devastating sense of humour, but always with skill and intelligence. He has long held a prominent position in my own collection, and we have presented his work in almost all of our exhibitions in Venice. I am pleased to have enjoyed such a deep and lasting relationship with him. As for his “curtain call”, I can’t ignore the fact that he announced his retirement in the catalogue of the exhibition currently running at Punta della Dogana, which is called “Elogio del Dubbio” [“In Praise of Doubt”, until 31 December 2012]. Is this merely a coincidence?

“He speaks to everyone”

Francesco Bonami, curator and critic


Nowadays we celebrate the arte povera movement, without which Cattelan might not exist. But his success proves that freedom from ideology is fundamental for the diffusion of art. The arte povera artists were preaching to the converted. Cattelan speaks to everyone.

“His work exposes our own angst and fear of dying”

Emmanuel Perrotin, gallerist


Cattelan is an artistic genius and a skilled revisionist of dadaist and conceptual ideas. He is perfectly aware of the history of modern art and enjoys playing around with it. He also creates images that have never been seen before, and always make a big impression. Although humour permeates his work, it shouldn’t be regarded as the main idea. His work exposes our own angst and fear of dying. It is not trying to demolish anything; it belongs to the history of art and I am sure that it will influence younger artists. He might be serious about bowing out of the art scene. Whatever the case, he will remain within the “family” of the artistic community. At least, I hope he will.

To see a slideshow of Cattelan's best known works, see our online picture gallery.

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