December 11, 2011

A Column of (and On) Contemporary Art

A Review of Maurizio Cattelan: All at the Guggenheim

Chang W. Lee for the New York Times

Chang W. Lee for the New York Times

At risk of tritely introducing an artist by claiming that he or she needs no introduction, it so happens that Guggenheim Chief Curator Nancy Spector’s expository statement provides an excellent survey of his career, a worthy complement to her institution’s current Maurizio Cattelan retrospective.

In a sense, a major museum exhibition, even (or perhaps especially) at the Guggenheim, represents a kind of demise, Cattelan’s often-noted obsession, an expression of Heidegger’s Being-unto-Death in which the artist is ‘looking back,’ per the parlance, at an oeuvre that has ossified into something cohesive on the premise of comprehensiveness, a body of work that is consummate—immortalized—in a way that can be only defined in terms of mortality.

Nevertheless the work is not collectively bereft of the myriad meaning that it had in 1989, 1990, 1991, etc., though many of the specimens are indeed taxidermied. If there is an overall sensation that Cattelan has turned the museum into a mausoleum, it’s worth noting that it’s impossible (and futile) to determine whether the artist has done utmost respect or disrespect for the dead.

In any case, I was immediately struck by the sheer presence—i.e., the physicality—of the elaborately-suspended spectacle. The radically vertical arrangement attenuates the otherwise vertiginous nature of the atrium, allowing the viewer to see each piece from virtually every angle, a veritable infinity of perspectives and, likewise, juxtapositions that simply could never be achieved in a regular gallery space.

Indeed, the overarching sense of discovery is refreshingly more like a curio shop than the partitioned tabula rasa of, say, MoMA’s sixth floor: one encounters the smitten pope thrice over (La Nona Ora, 1999); a readymade bicycle; a particularly long-eared leporid; anti-authoritarian sentiments abound; sleeping dogs; banality revisited time and again; and, of course, the artist himself at varying levels.

The five-story spiral of Wright’s sometimes-frustrating interior imparts an anthropomorphic scale to the mass of artwork to brilliant effect, the undeniable totality made manageable as it unravels in the viewer’s two-dimensional orbit. By presenting the work as a kind of anti-architecture, Cattelan transcends—or at least annuls—the antagonism between artist and architect to realize a near-perfect stasis between figure and ground, each fulfilling the destiny of the other.

It’s not so much that Cattelan has exploited the space as an ideal (as Matthew Barney did rather callously, or at least cartoonishly, in his magnum opus), but that he has masterfully harnessed its potential as a venue. Gravity and tension cancel out as pure inertia—physically, if not quite figuratively—to incorporate the disparate objects as a self-contained system that can be circumnavigated as a world. (As in Sartrean phenomenology, Cattelan’s world is subject only to ontological inquiry; one gets the sense that not even Spector herself could convincingly justify the existence of these artworks.)

Thus, the array invites countless stillborn analogies: the car-sized cat skeleton (Felix, 2001) evokes natural history, the museum a tar pit magically purged of its preservative pitch—a subtle indication that Cattelan might wish for his work to be preserved and, one day, exhumed as such. Or, alternately, the retrospective could be willfully circus-like if the lofty truss (from which all 128 works hang) slowly rotated; perhaps each work could also move up and down, as in a merry-go-round, pretty horses and all.

On one hand, the arrangement of the 128 works seems constellation-like if not altogether ad hoc, best symbolized by the pigeons—an order of magnitude fewer than his Biennale flock—which are inconspicuous for their ubiquity. Yet the relatively (or at least perceptually) uniform density of the space also suggests painstaking deliberation or some arcane rigor worthy of Fibonacci himself, a sense that there might be some hint of order to their articulation.

Moreover, taken as a single entity—in the context of the museum to complete the Gestalt—the Pillar of Cattelan(s) is an easy metaphor for a phallus, thrust into the mute Yin of the iconic atrium. Ever the contrarian, it’s not difficult to imagine Cattelan as an aggressor, the protagonist in a tale of conquest, erecting an inverted victory column to spite ivory tower-bound critics.

Volume, then, is the primary, if not sole, constraint: one gets the sense that the work could expand or contract relative to the space, the allusion more properly atmospheric as opposed to anatomical: “It’s a gas.”

Naturally, this is a gratuitously coarse approximation of the exhibition: there is something fundamentally fantastical—short of the sublime—about the levitating works of art, a visceral grasp of greatness despite (or perhaps because of) the patent artifice. It appears that Cattelan’s catalog is somehow frozen mid-Rapture—a pun on “meeting one’s maker,” perhaps—a moribund Dadaist riff on eschatology, the artist’s own final judgment notwithstanding.

All of which is to say that the collective effect of Maurizio Cattelan: All is that of an entirely new artwork, the Retrospective writ large. The viewer need not offer the proverbial penny for the artist’s thoughts: the plebeian dictum of e pluribus unum is in plain sight at the Guggenheim (…which, of course, charges $18.00 for admission).

Nevertheless, Maurizio Cattelan: All is not so much a critique as it is a rhetorical riddle or an ambiguously obscene gesture, in keeping with the artist’s distaste (if not outright disregard) for the trappings of the contemporary art world. Hence, my favorite oversimplified interpretation of the retrospective: a grotesque chandelier for arguably the most iconic museum space in the world as a shorthand for the contemporary art world. Taken as an attraction, the inverted monolith is a worthy answer to its seasonal, rightside-up counterpart at Rockefeller Center. Maurizio Cattelan: All is curiously illuminating for its opaqueness, the individual works ornament-like, parts of a whole, at once subject to scrutiny from nearly every angle and forever removed from the context of time and place, made accessible for both reasons.

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