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.) Read the rest of this entry »

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