via NY TIMES
THE artist Maurizio Cattelan, like Andy Warhol before him, has always loved a good doppelgänger, someone to send in his stead for lectures and appearances while he finds something more interesting to do. For several years, in a stunt that became something of an artwork in its own right, the curator Massimiliano Gioni presented himself at public events as Mr. Cattelan, thoroughly confusing everybody.
At a Chinese restaurant in Chelsea the other day a reporter showed up to an interview with Mr. Cattelan to find, even more disconcertingly, that a doppelgänger for the reporter was already there, a middle-age man perusing the menu and chatting up his subject. Mr. Cattelan described it as an honest mistake: Waiting outside the restaurant, he ran into the man, Danny, who had a business appointment there. Danny mistook Mr. Cattelan for his contact, and the artist mistook Danny for the reporter. (“Danny, Randy, sounds the same to me,” Mr. Cattelan said. “I’m Italian.”) He invited Danny to stay anyway; Danny, oddly, accepted, and the interview proceeded with all three men at the table over a platter of chicken and hot peppers, Mr. Cattelan grinning and winking like Groucho Marx.
Keeping this scene in mind, it will probably come as no surprise that Mr. Cattelan — whose wildly inventive and irreverent career is approaching the quarter-century mark — has long viewed the idea of a conventional museum retrospective of his work with something akin to horror.
For an artist whose best-known pieces have included eerily lifelike sculptures of Pope John Paul II felled by a large (errant or perhaps divinely directed) meteorite, of Hitler as a boyish supplicant, of a post-suicide squirrel with its tiny head down on a tiny kitchen table, and of a shoeless, oddly poignant John F. Kennedy lying in a coffin, a standard chronological survey would, he was certain, disarm the pieces and neutralize their wickedly effective humor. It would be like watching Lenny Bruce try to do stand-up during a church service.
So when Nancy Spector, the chief curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and a longtime champion of Mr. Cattelan’s, kept broaching the subject of a retrospective, “it put me in so much despair, truly,” he said. He ducked her and changed the subject when she persisted. And then he had an idea, one he intended partly as a way to keep putting her off: take all his works and dangle them from ropes in the middle of the Guggenheim’s elegantly winding rotunda, like so many fat salamis in a butcher’s window. Art world expectations and curatorial hierarchies be damned! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright!
Perhaps as punishment for such a proposal, Ms. Spector told him that she wanted to try it. (“Can you believe it?” he stage-whispered.) And so it happens that beginning on Nov. 4 the Guggenheim will mount one of the strangest, most audacious exhibitions in its half-century history, suspending several thousand pounds’ — and many tens of millions of dollars’ — worth of high-end, internationally collected art from cables attached to a heavy-duty aluminum truss installed almost 90 feet in the air under the museum’s glass dome.
From the perspective of the completely empty ramps, or straight up from the ground floor, museumgoers will stare into a kind of motionless tableau-vivant tornado that seems intent on taking the Surrealist trope of the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table and turning it up way past 11. The flying Hitler and pope and 35th president of the United States will be joined in the air by a fake skeleton of a dinosaur-size housecat and a taxidermied donkey hitched to a cart and a 21-foot-long foosball table and a Carrara marble sculpture of a hand giving a middle-finger salute, amid more than 100 other works.
At a time when the art world seems fueled by expensive, outsize spectacle, the exhibition could be seen either as an apotheosis of the phenomenon or a tremendously elaborate parody designed to try to demolish it. As if in a nod toward the latter, Mr. Cattelan, 51, insists that the show will be his last, and that he will officially retire from making art as soon as it is over, though exactly what that means in the Cattelan lexicon is anyone’s guess.
“I understand if people think it’s just a joke or another trick of mine,” he said during the lunch interview, in a thick Italian accent that almost two decades of living in New York have done little to diminish. But he added that he is serious when he says he simply no longer feels compelled to produce objects, the kind that have made him a solid critical success and also one of the most sought-after artists in the world at auction over the last decade. (A wax sculpture of Mr. Cattelan appearing to tunnel up through the floor of an art museum sold last year at Sotheby’s for almost $8 million.) His success has been all the more remarkable considering his background: the son of a truck driver and a cleaning woman from Padua who never went to art school and more or less stumbled into making art as a way to try to avoid a regular job.
Of his decision to quit, he said: “I wasn’t happy, and over all I started to feel such a distance from the things I was doing, as if I was under some kind of anesthetic. And then came the solution, then I saw the light at the end of the tunnel: retire.” He laughed a high-pitched laugh and added, smiling broadly: “Retirement is going to be a kind of extra project that will complete the retrospective.”
He describes the retrospective itself as a “really democratic hanging,” one that will represent a last, ephemeral, new work fashioned from almost all of the ones he has ever made and also “a way for me to finally make peace with my mistakes.”
“If Nancy had decided for whatever reason that she didn’t want to do it,” he said, “I was prepared to walk away, because as crazy as it is, it started to seem to me like the only way that it would work. I like to think of it as an inside job between me and Nancy.”
Mr. Cattelan presented the idea to Ms. Spector by bringing her a kind of jumbled collage with tiny cutout pictures of many of his pieces. “It was a eureka moment,” Ms. Spector recalled, presenting maybe the only way to do justice to a body of work that “refuses to be seen in a coherent narrative.”
For an inside job the show has involved an extraordinarily large number of accomplices. Over the last several months — in Milan, where Mr. Cattelan employs a group of assistants and fabricators who make his work; and in New York, at two staging facilities used by the Guggenheim — a small factory of engineers, conservators, art handlers and riggers has grown up around the project.
At Mr. Cattelan’s urging, to intensify the element of surprise, the whole thing has been cloaked in the kind of secrecy usually reserved for experimental military aircraft, though because it is nearly impossible to keep a secret in the art world, word of some kind of monumental Guggenheim hoist-up began to seep out.
Planning began in earnest last spring with the creation by Mr. Cattelan’s assistants of a small maquette of the show, using dollhouse-size models of every piece, dangled by strings from a piece of metal that looked like a mesh pan for cooking vegetables on a grill. The model was kept at a storage building on the West Side of Manhattan, where the artist and Ms. Spector and others spent weeks arranging and rearranging to get just the right appearance of what Ms. Spector called “an overall sense of randomness.” (The model has the strange power of a work itself, one that evokes “Boîte-en-Valise,” the miniature retrospective in a suitcase made by Marcel Duchamp, the jester dandy to whom Mr. Cattelan is most often compared.)
“This show is completely antithetical to the practice of curating a retrospective,” said Ms. Spector, who had batted around other ideas with Mr. Cattelan for making a nonretrospective retrospective, like staging some kind of group show instead of displaying his own work, or leaving the Guggenheim empty and instead installing pieces at other places around the city that visitors would have to find. That approach, which the curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist has called the “truffle pig” method of exhibition, was quickly dismissed.
Ms. Spector said she hopes the idea she and Mr. Cattelan chose will work in part because it oddly emphasizes how serious he has been despite comedic appearances. Hung so close together like “cats strung up by the tails,” the work reveals itself to be extraordinarily death haunted, a kind of surrealist editorial cartoonist’s take on a world of suffering and political hypocrisy. “You can also look at it as a kind of gallows,” she added, “especially in light of the fact that he’s ending his career.”
One of the biggest logistical challenges for the show was simply persuading Mr. Cattelan’s collectors, a wealthy and rather powerful group, to lend their expensive prizes to be strung up perilously in the air for almost three months.
“The first letters I sent out were very vague, something to the effect that it was going to be an ‘unorthodox exhibition,’ ” Ms. Spector said. “But then ,as it got closer, I had to level with people.” She added that in the end only one collector turned her down. Over the last few months pieces have been arriving in New York as if for a family reunion from as far away as Taiwan, Greece and Monaco; and engineers, riggers and anxious conservators have been testing suspensions in a hangarlike studio at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. (A couple of pieces, like a real broken safe from which 74 million lira was once stolen, will be re-creations, Ms. Spector said, but only because of their immense weight.)
One afternoon in May at the Manhattan warehouse Mr. Cattelan received an impromptu visit from Dakis Joannou, the Greek industrialist and collector who owns one of the largest collections of Cattelan works and stands to lose the most if the whole display comes tumbling down. If he was nervous on that score, Mr. Joannou did not betray it, hurrying in from a waiting car to see the maquette, clapping Mr. Cattelan on the back like a proud father and at one point getting down on his hands and knees to peer up through the tiny models. “I didn’t expect it to be so extreme,” he said.
Mr. Cattelan, wearing a tailored jacket over a T-shirt that said “Leave Britney Alone,” leered down at him: “I’ve never seen Dakis Joannou in this position before. Too bad nobody has a camera.”
Despite his easy Italian panache, however, Mr. Cattelan is the one who seems the most anxious about the retrospective, wondering aloud whether it will be seen simply as a big, silly gag, a worry of being found out that he has voiced frequently and fairly sincerely throughout a career that has only seemed to flourish at every turn.
“It’s like jumping out of an airplane and never quite knowing if the parachute is going to open,” he said during the lunch interview. “The time you jump out and think you can fly, that’s when you die. Maybe that’s this time.” But then he quickly brightened. “This time I have an excuse: It’s not my fault. I’m retired!”
Sitting on the other side of the table, Danny, the businessman, agreed. The reporter, still a little confused about his presence, decided to direct a question to him, asking if he knew that Mr. Cattelan was an internationally known artist.
“I do now,” he said.