Artists Exhibitions Fairs Switzerland

Neither shy nor retiring, Cattelan makes a comeback

Why (stuffed) wild horses couldn’t keep the Duchampian Italian from making art

Cattelan’s herd of horses is on display at the Beyeler Foundation

Two years ago, Maurizio Cattelan announced his retirement. Speaking to The Art Newspaper on the eve of the 2011 Venice Biennale, he said: “I have come to the end of a cycle of my art,” explaining that he would no longer make the hyperrealist sculptures for which he is known.

He added that he wanted to “get out of a system that seduces you into repeating yourself”.

Since then, he has produced the magazine Toilet Paper with the Italian photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari. Because the “system” clamours for new work, each edition has become a collector’s item, with copies of the first issue apparently changing hands for around €5,000.

And now he’s back. A major new installation, which opened at the Beyeler Foundation last week (until 6 October), takes over a central gallery, between the Max Ernst exhibition (until 8 September) and the permanent collection show. It consists of five stuffed horses with their heads stuck in the wall suspended together in a cluster, creating the impression that an entire herd has been startled and is attempting to escape. All of the animals are on loan from private collections but have been arranged here in a new installation specifically for the show.

So is Cattelan back in the business of making art? “He’s definitely not going to retire from being an artist,” says Sam Keller, the director of the Beyeler Foundation, “but I think that he [said he was] because he wanted to gain his freedom. If you are a successful artist, it comes with all forms of obligations… your galleries, all the museums, the press, all want something from you.”

The opening of Cattelan’s retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in November 2011 represented something of a crossroads for the artist, Keller says. “It’s very difficult for an artist to have a retrospective where everyone [scrutinises] your life’s work, especially when you’ve always been very careful to show it in a certain, site-specific context. For him, announcing his retirement was a way to give himself space to think about what he wanted to do next.” But even as he was telling the world’s press that the Guggenheim show would be his last, Cattelan was planning his Beyeler display with Keller.

The idea for the show first came to Keller when he was installing a Surrealist exhibition at the museum in October 2011. “I was thinking about how Surrealists like André Breton called on Marcel Duchamp twice to install their exhibitions, and what Duchamp did was to transform the experience of what an exhibition is and to surprise people, for example, by displaying bags of coal that you needed torches to see… so we were asking ourselves: ‘Who would Breton call today?’ And we thought: ‘He’d call Cattelan.’ Cattelan also has a practice as a curator and as a publisher—he is interested in so many things… he is a very Duchampian figure.”

So what will the critics make of Cattelan’s resurrection? Some consider him one of the greatest artists of our time; others say he is only capable of producing visual one-liners. Keller has no doubts. “Almost every work by Cattelan that you see is something you do not forget. For someone like me who sees a lot, it’s quite astonishing,” he says. “His works intrigue you and seduce you at first because [they’re funny], because they’re very well executed, because of the visual impact they have. But then they slowly seep into your ­consciousness and keep raising questions. Often, the same work that at first looks humorous or fun actually has a lot of despair in it.”

His herd of fleeing horses at the Beyeler is a case in point. Although the herd does not have a name, the exhibition itself is entitled “Kaputt”, after a 1944 novel by Curzio Malaparte, who served in the Italian army during the Second World War. “Malaparte writes about horses in a magical way, bringing to mind over and over again all the horses used by Cattelan in his work,” writes the curator Francesco Bonami in an essay for the Beyeler exhibition catalogue. “In particular… the horses trapped in the frozen waters of Lake Ladoga in Finland during [the war], with only their heads sticking out. Malaparte tells of the frozen heads being used by soldiers as benches on which to smoke their cigarettes... and of the horrible stench of the rotten corpses when spring arrived, the ice melted and the bloated, dead horses started to float on the surface of the lake.”

So don’t be fooled by Cattelan’s pranks or distracted by what he may or may not say (he declined to speak to us for this article). “Fear, despair, tragedy and allegory are combined in [his] sensitivity,” Bonami says. Whether he succeeds in conveying them through his newest work is up to you to decide.

Cattelan at the launch of Toilet Paper magazine in New York, May 2012
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