Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Roundtable on Cattelan’s ALL at the Guggenheim

Maurizio Cattelan: ALL at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

November 4, 2011–January 22, 2012
1071 Fifth Avenue, at 88th Street
New York City, 212 423 3500

This Roundtable of artcritical regulars and guests took place via email over the weekend of November 19/20, 2011. David Cohen moderated.

DAVID COHEN Maurizio Cattelan announced ahead of his Guggenheim retrospective that after it he intends to retire. Do we believe him? And if so, are we heartbroken or relieved?

CARLA GANNIS I’m neither heartbroken nor relieved, because I know we haven’t heard the last from him. In interview he claims his retirement is another stage in his development, and that basically he doesn’t want to follow the widespread practices of “art stars” (40+ assistants, etc.) Maybe he’ll pull a David Lynch move and start making art on the web, i.e. web”site” specific.

Visual art culture today feels very akin to the pop/rock music scene. Staying young and pithy — and edgy and countercultural — is hard to maintain post 40 when you’re bankrolled by every major art institution and your works sell for $2 million+.

Bruce Nauman moved to New Mexico and “retired” in a sense. Cattelan’s retreat (especially when he supports it with his not wanting to play the “art star” game) gives him more cred with younger artists.


Installation shot of Maurizio Cattelan: ALL at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2011/12.  Photo: Robin Siegel
Installation shot of Maurizio Cattelan: ALL at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2011/12. Photo: Robin Siegel

DAVID CARRIER The pop music comparison is interesting. I don’t think that any of the classic groups (The Who, The Rolling Stones) were interesting beyond a certain point because that’s basically young boy music – my baby’s left me and I’m sad – and it’s hard for millionaire grandfathers to do. One might think, visual art’s different, but maybe today it isn’t.

Pop music involves selling lots of tickets or lots of music to individuals, visual art’s still tied to objects, even if here the museum plays into the game. My view: pop music is truly accessible, there are no experts; while visual art’s inherently different, there one has critics. That’s a very basic difference that hasn’t done away.

DAVID COHEN Hmm, lots to ponder here David. (Everyone else, we’re gonna have to put friendliness aside and call David and me Carrier and Cohen henceforth). Years ago I interviewed David Bowie and his agent sent me a heap of reading materials so I could do my homework. Boy is there pop music criticism! The book deconstructing Bowie made Artforum seem like Hello Magazine by way of intellectual comparison.

DAVID CARRIER Ok, there is pop music criticism, but “Let’s spend the night together” doesn’t really demand commentary, whereas much here does: it’s this difference in attitude that interests me. It would be interesting to have figures- how many visit this show? I bet, any even C+ rock star would find the numbers pathetic. Artforum vs. Rolling Stone, very different.

ROBIN SIEGEL Funny that Cohen should mention Bowie. I could not help but think of him as I think of Cattelan re-inventing himself in the near to distant future, much as Bowie did, way before there was a Madonna or Gaga.

DAVID COHEN I suggest that formally Cattelan might be the equivalent of “lets spend the night” because there is not much aesthetic life independent of the message they are fabricated to convey, whereas, say, a sculpture by Medardo Rosso, or Brancusi, or Henry Moore is almost entirely such independence.

CARLA GANNIS “aesthetic life independent of the message they are fabricated to convey?” I’m sorry what does that mean? You seem to be implying that a Cattelan is a one-liner. A lot of more “formal” art (serious and earnest art) feels like one-liners to me. Elevated by our “faith” in it, more than what the object really gives to us. I’m sure to get hell for this response but really, Giacometti at times has felt like a one-liner to me (in form) and remove the “sublime” and “existential” from certain AbEx works, put a “layman” in front of them and there is very little but the surface!

DAVID CARRIER Everyone repeats, but Giacometti did not in 1939 envisage a large museum show, whereas Cattelan plays to this situation. A large difference.

ROBIN SIEGEL By comparing Brancusi to Cattelan we invoke the proverbial apples to oranges.


Installation shot of Maurizio Cattelan: ALL at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2011/12.  Photo: Robin Siegel
Installation shot of Maurizio Cattelan: ALL at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2011/12. Photo: Robin Siegel

DAVID CARRIER The Guggenheim has an impossible space, by the way. I can think of only two artists who have used it (as opposed to using it as a place to awkwardly show): Daniel Buren, who emptied it out and Maurizio Cattelan. I admire Cattelan for doing that, I admire him for reaffirming what we all sort of know: in this noisy art world you have to speak with a VERY LOUD VOICE to be heard. I always resist moralizing about art. (Not, of course about politics.) So I refuse to complain since after exiting from the elevator at the top floor, I very much enjoyed my rather brisk walk, interrupted only to purchase the app. This is a circus, it’s the anti-Buren show, the opposite of empty. But I can’t imagine going back, unless one of us tells me something I don’t expect to hear. Seeing this show is like going to a carnival, it’s a fun moment that doesn’t inspire contemplation, it makes Times Square look, by comparison, like the NY Public Library.

MADDIE PHINNEY I agree with you that he used the gallery masterfully. I too find it a totally bizarre and ineffective space in which to exhibit art and the installation was a really brilliant side-step. Back to the question about Cattelan retiring, I don’t think we have any reason not to believe that Cattelan will indeed retire, but I’ve been a bit confused by this collective sigh of relief. I feel like the reception of his work as merely a series of one-liners is a bit unfair, though I don’t quite know why I’m feeling so protective. There is of course a degree, a large degree, of intended “shock” in his work, but I find he has some interesting things to say about art as an industry. His piece “Torno Subito,” just a sign that reads “Be Right Back” which hung on the door handle of an Italian art gallery in the 80s and left the gallery closed for the duration of his “exhibition” — brilliant! It goes to show that his most resonant pieces rely on their site specificity, and it seemed a bizarre choice to see his oeuvre represented as a series of art-objects in the show — almost an attempt to undermine his contributions.

BESSIE ZHU I think that Cattelan’s impending retirement is even a talking point says much about the pop sensibilities of Cattelan as an artist. Whether or not he actually retires seems largely irrelevant – the announcement reminds me of a Rolling Stones Farewell Tour. It encourages us to stop and consider Cattelan’s oeuvre, helps with the market value of his work and is also a way for Cattelan to poke fun at the celebrity status artists like him enjoy. But it also points out the problem of being the art world’s token jokester — one never quite knows when to take him seriously. That said Cattelan’s humor comes from an informed point-of-view that’s much lacking in contemporary art. He makes work that relies on and engages in political/cultural discourse, and it remains accessible enough to stay relevant.

I totally agree with Maddie about the site-specificity of his works — can a work even be specific to a site anymore what with the internet and apps constantly displacing it? Cattelan seems to acknowledge the post-specific moment and as such his retirement seems aptly timed.

ROBIN SIEGEL It’s hard to imagine that Cattelan would retire from the art world, in the purest sense of the word. Most probably he will focus his efforts more on his curatorial and publishing interests. Given his invaluable backing from and ties to the fiscally potent collector Dakis Joannou, who is in bed with the New Museum, to just name one institution, I would not be the least bit surprised to see future Cattelan exhibitions in venues where Joannou has such connections.

Artists don’t retire. They renounce, recharge, repose, and ultimately come back with renewed vim and vigor. This is Cattelan’s life, and his art is inseparable from it and intrinsically linked to it. As Cattelan would state: Is There Life Before Death?

DAVID CARRIER Perhaps there is a relationship between his retirement and site-specificity. We might discuss Duchamp as a model and precedent, both for the suitcase containing all of his art and also, of course, for retirement.

DAVID COHEN His retirement is like so much else he does, totally Duchamp derivative.

CARLA GANNIS So he’s like Lady Gaga to Madonna? (smile)

DAVID COHEN I guess if he going gaga he has to retire.

BESSIE ZHU In response to Carrier’s query about retirement and site-specificity: There is something which certain modes of viewing preclude (such as a retrospective or an iPhone app or disambiguated images on the web) and if Cattelan’s works have to rally against that impetus towards universal viewing, what’s the point of making work if it is weakened through that decontextualization? Not to suggest that’s his thinking entirely but I think the connection exists.


Installation shot of Maurizio Cattelan: ALL at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2011/12.  Photo: Robin Siegel
Installation shot of Maurizio Cattelan: ALL at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2011/12. Photo: Robin Siegel

MADDIE PHINNEY That’s an interesting relationship. I was only bringing up his emphasis on site to speak to the validity of his practice and political motivations. I think Bessie’s comment about the displacement of his pieces through the app is really interesting, though I don’t know that his retirement has anything to do with the obsolescence of his practice, that is to say I don’t think that technology that displaces artwork makes pieces that rely on site entirely obsolete.

Going back to the show’s installation. I was walking by a tour group when I saw the exhibition and the guide was saying something about how the installation wasn’t visually designed to be pouring downwards bit instead it was supposed to evoke an ascension up. I didn’t quite buy it.

DAVID COHEN Totally don’t buy into that either Maddie. There are so many hanging corpses: ascension and lynching don’t mix. Whether the viewer is going up or down, the spectacle has a pronounced downward gravity. What I’d say about the installation is that even when they are bending over backwards to be anti-artists, Italians can’t help being brilliant designers. It is one of several recent interventions that makes sense of an exquisite, art unfriendly exhibition space: Jenny Holzer and Tino Seghal also come to mind, and Holzer falls into a tradition of Guggenheim installation already established by Dan Flavin. But the massed mobile makes as much sense of the professed retirement as of the space: “This was it, one statement, done” it says to me. Maddie, you objected to the characterization of Cattelan pieces as one-liners, but Cattelan is surely acknowledging that about his pieces by eschewing (or pointedly limiting) the possibility of seeing each piece on its own terms again and finding something new in each. It is only by aggregation that a new statement has been possible with these ingredients. Ezra Pound’s distinction that symbols age whereas signs renew themselves comes to mind: his pieces are one dimensional and get flatter and flatter with each reviewing. Their facture is fairly irrelevant to their power of communication and therefore can’t convey possible new meanings.

CARLA GANNIS Ascending. Descending. (The ropes, instead of invisible wire, take away aspects of levitation or falling honestly). It feels more like a cacophony, and he is purposefully trying to deflate the notion of any individual work having an “aura” or autonomous significance. I think the “pouring down of his works” seems to speak of the way we access images and information today. It feels matrix-like.

BESSIE ZHU I think the installation is more “suspension” than a movement towards any direction.

MADDIE PHINNEY Oh, I like that. There was something on the wall text about how the works were deliberately “disrespected” by their mode of presentation. It’s interesting I think this sort of goes back to Carla’s comment about staying young — and maybe hip — in the art world. I never read Cattelan’s work as so “punk rock” or even subversive. I think it’s operating within a dialogue on the art industry IN the art industry, how much “cred” are we willing to offer him.

CARLA GANNIS Yes, I never really saw Cattelan as punk rock. Subversive though. He’s stirred up a bit of trouble with the crucified woman and Pope piece…

MADDIE PHINNEY I read an article a year ago — of course I can’t find the source now — and the whole thing was about art in bad taste. I don’t have any moral objections to Cattelan’s work but I’m fascinated by this question of artistic responsibility. Have we just moved past that moment when political correctness was paramount? I think this is a big part of what I appreciate about the work — yes, there’s “shock” but there’s also naughtiness and cheekiness and fun. Incidentally when I was looking up the article I found this fabulous Diana Vreeland quote, that “We all need a splash of bad taste; no taste is what I am against.

CARLA GANNIS Love that Cattelan’s work flies in the face of political correctness with its after scent of over-earnestness and didacticism.


Installation shot of Maurizio Cattelan: ALL at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2011/12.  Photo: Robin Siegel
Installation shot of Maurizio Cattelan: ALL at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2011/12. Photo: Robin Siegel

DAVID CARRIER In a gallery, one normally sees works in sequence. So there’s some implied narrative or, at least, a sense of focus on individual pieces. Even Damien Hirst at Gagosian, which had to my mind a similar ‘circus’ effect, did involve such an order. Whereas here, one walks down the ramp, sees some familiar pieces, ok, but this isn’t a situation to inspire focus. It’s the extreme opposite of another Italian show long ago at the Guggenheim: Morandi. Imagine Morandis floating in this way!

I think that there are two audiences: those who know Cattelan’s art, and so recognize some pieces; and the larger public, I am guessing the larger group, who see the ensemble of works. It’s hard to make distinctions, and again, the app doesn’t encourage that. This is a total work of art, for better or worse.

MADDIE PHINNEY I think this is really well put. I hadn’t thought much about the general public who may be wholly unfamiliar with Cattelan’s work. I love the idea of the installation as the work in itself, with the cacophony as the intended effect — perhaps then the installation was more artful than we give him credit?

Does Cohen feel like Cattelan’s work is ineffective, or just unoriginal?

DAVID COHEN Originality is certainly not his forte. His first piece, the “back soon” placard, is lock stock and barrel within the tradition of Cage’s 4’33”. Like Cage’s gesture, Cattelan’s generates meanings and observations beyond itself that constitute its originality; in this sense, originality is gifted to the viewer to gauge through personal experience rather than a chronicler to determine in relation to precedents. I wasn’t there in Italy to experience it in person, nor have I heard a live or recorded version of 4’33” but I’m willing to court the accusation of philistinism and say that I think I “get” enough from both pieces through the reporting of it, or seeing a souvenir of it, to savor its implications in my mind. As to effective, they work very nicely as one-line jokes. Sometimes they are very clever one-line jokes that make different people laugh for different reasons and maybe on a repeat visit you can have a different kind of experience from your first visit. You might therefore be able to retool the joke. If you have an alarm clock that goes off every ten minutes the first time you walk by it you will get a jolt. The second time you will simply know that ten minutes has elapsed, so you could use the clock as a ten minute warning. That’s what I mean by retooling. But regarding Cattelan’s being original or effective, I’d say that you won’t get more from looking harder. (Though I’d love to hear experiences from you all that contradict that.) And you are unlikely to cry by the way, unless you really like squirrels.

BESSIE ZHU I don’t know that originality is necessary for a work to be effective. What’s original with Cattelan is that he is in a really privileged position as an artist–people pay attention to him, he’s widely collected, exhibited and discussed. His works are provocative because they are so audaciously derivative. I think we are taking for granted that a work like “Him” (2001) (the child-sized Hitler) is not an easy piece to persuade your museum’s board of directors/major patrons to be supportive of; it’s a subject not many institutions like to make a joke of. For us rather open-minded individuals it may be an easy target but in the history of art and in the short span of contemporary art it’s a remarkably effective, well-made one-liner. It’s difficult to make an easy idea look easy and few artists can manage irreverence and effectiveness as well as Cattelan does.

ROBIN SIEGEL How is his “one liner” work any different from any other artist who consistently researches or investigates recurrent themes such as Duchamp, Rodin, or de Kooning, for that matter?

Regarding the app, it is intended as a supplement to the show, not as a substitute. For anyone unable to attend the exhibition, or for those too lazy to attend, it’s better than nothing. Just like the news has become infotainment, this is art-o-tainment. Talking heads. John Waters as narrator? It’s a match made in heaven. Cohen, if Cattelan’s oeuvre was truly simply a series of one liners, he would have enjoyed neither the longevity nor critical attention his work has thus far received. His decision to clump all his work together and suspend it from the rotunda was brilliant and subversive, and consistent with his flipping the bird to the art establishment, as a whole. Also, I do not perceive his work as strictly comical: there is a pervasive undertone of tragedy throughout; it’s funny, but not really, alas.

DAVID COHEN His view of life is tragicomic: he has a sense of humor in his nihilism than a nihilistic sense of humor, if that distinction helps. As to the one liner/originality debate: a brilliant one liner that isn’t too original is certainly welcome to the mix that is art. You could even say that being a one liner is a philosophical service in that it makes us think about why art shouldn’t indeed be a one liner. But Rodin and de Kooning are not one-liners: their work constantly renews itself and generates multiple emotional responses. A Cattelan has a singular meaning, or sometimes a binary one where the tragicomic element sets in and we can laugh while also resigning ourselves to the meaninglessness of existence. But the meaninglessness doesn’t get deeper on repeated or extended viewings, and the laugh doesn’t get louder.

ROBIN SIEGEL Cattelan is original and unique. I did not find myself laughing at this show. Perverse, sad, subversive, tragic visually amusing, but not funny at all. His subjects all seem to lose at the game of life. Hung, trophi-fied (Stephanie Seymour as the “trophy” wife mounted on the wall), suspended in time, as well as space. Death. Not funny.

One might ask if he is embracing his European roots with this over-the-top borderline Rococo installation. He is simply using the Guggenheim’s space to show his work in a new and unexpected way, as we would expect him to do the unexpected. Is this a case of Dada meeting the Baroque?

DAVID CARRIER Robin, may I steal Dada meeting the Baroque? I love that, it’s very apt.

ROBIN SIEGEL Thanks, David. Feel free.

DAVID CARRIER I do admit, this discussion makes me want to see the show again, to my surprise. And that’s one reason I value artcritical: this is like The Review Panel.


Installation shot of Maurizio Cattelan: ALL at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2011/12.  Photo: Robin Siegel
Installation shot of Maurizio Cattelan: ALL at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2011/12. Photo: Robin Siegel

ROBIN SIEGEL I’m intrigued by the fact that you started at the top of the installation, and viewed it with the app. I started at the “base” and initially was completely put off by the show, feeling extreme dislike and resistance, despite my appreciation for Cattelan and his work. It was such a visual mumbo jumbo and I thought to myself: How on earth will I ever be able to make sense of this tangled mess? As I advanced up the ramp it became more and more intriguing to me, and it began to feel like a Cattelan treasure hunt.

CARLA GANNIS Cattelan, playing the jester again, seems to want to de-historicize himself. Oh but not really, he knows he already got a foot in the canon.

ROBIN SIEGEL Time will tell regarding Cattelan’s place in the history of art. Certainly he has left an indelible mark thus far. Regarding the recontextualization of his work, of course ALL is not the first time his work has been installed in a different way. In 2010 there was an exhibition called Is There Life Before Death at the Menil Collection in Houston, curated by Franklin Sirmans, whereby Cattelan’s work was juxtaposed against work from wildly diverse time periods, ranging from the Oceanic to Pop art.

DAVID CARRIER With an historical show, at the Met say, one would want details of the individual paintings, what do they mean, what’s the subject. Here what we get are not just the celebrities, the dealer, the critical champions, but the conservator, the conservator’s assistant and so on. All fine, but that doesn’t take us to the art. To continue Cohen’s parallel, it would be as if we got Nirvana’s recording technician.

DAVID COHEN I think there is a basic absence of curatorial integrity in not even offering, at reasonable intervals, a schematic of the “hang” which identifies the title, year, medium etc of pieces viewable at that point in the display.

CARLA GANNIS I agree that it was frustrating, given that this was a retrospective, to not have more wall texts and descriptions of the work provided to give us context but maybe the “jangle,” the “chaos,” is really just part of Cattelan’s critique. The man is smart, and I think his one liners, like any really good comic will resonate and reverberate in the future in ways we cannot predict.

MADDIE PHINNEY I agree with Carla here. Forgive me if I’m totally off but it seems that Cattelan is uninterested in participating in a debate on his work or even adding to the dialogue. He seems happy enough that viewers take away what they will – that the one liner part, right? The immediate punch of the visual impact? I too wish there was more info on the individual works in the show, but I think that was part of the point. It almost seemed more like a gallery exhibition than a major-museum retrospective.

ROBIN SIEGEL The work should speak for itself and you should not feel the need to read a bunch of gobbledygook in order to experience art. If you want to be more informed about the art, we can read the numerous books and catalogues surrounding Cattelan’s work.

BESSIE ZHU I disagree that the “work should speak for itself” Robin. It speaks to the cultural climate we inhabit, and like much art that isn’t decorative, it is in dialogue with current social/political discourse. That said the brilliance of Cattelan is that it speaks to everyone, albeit on different levels. I think anyone can appreciate a Cattelan, it may dig up uncomfortable subject matter but it isn’t alienating as more conceptual work would be. In that way I don’t read him as sardonic as much as I read him as democratic–he recognizes the importance of entertainment value and he delivers. Why should art do more than make us chuckle, even though it has the potential to? I love that a Cattelan could never move you to tears, the work plays to your intellect (which I think sense of humor is tied to) rather than to your emotions or any grand romanticism. I love that.

DAVID COHEN Cattelan’s decision to hang in such a way that militated against individual consideration was brilliant on two counts: the works, in aggregate, took on a new meaning- possibly the last they can; they do not bear individual consideration as crafted objects, as we’d get bored by them very quickly, and there isn’t progress in any traditional sense. But I don’t buy the idea of the museum being a passive medium for the artist to do his thing. Museums have obligations to viewers and lenders. The presentation was obviously the artist’s decision, and was the best thing about the show, but the label documentation was the responsibility of the museum. What if the artist didn’t want red exit signs or lavatories for males as part of his artistic intervention?

ROBIN SIEGEL Actually, David, the idea of no exit or lavatories for males as artistic intervention is swell. Are you embracing your inner Cattelan? I would be curious, meanwhile, to learn how we compare/contrast Cattelan’s career trajectory to that of Urs Fischer, yet another European artist who crossed the Atlantic to make his name on our hallowed shores.

DAVID CARRIER Fischer is another artist who worked well in a problematic museum, an even worse one than the Guggenheim: the New Museum. But he is another artist who specializes in making a sensation effect. And that makes me think of Greenberg on Surrealism: shock value quickly wears off. Stepping back, it is super obvious that any “mere painter” doesn’t have a chance in this kind of museum environment. Merlin James, forget it!

MADDIE PHINNEY I keep going back to the installation and the way in which the works themselves seemed deliberately disrespected. I can’t imagine that they were presented merely as objects in order for the viewer to appreciate the craft — it was impossible to approach the pieces themselves. Maybe this is the punk rock self-effacing Cattelan giving the finger to the Guggenheim and the viewer once more.

CARLA GANNIS I think the two Davids are asking if, once we get the joke and any other conceptual underpinnings (ie their being Duchamp mash ups), does the object really matter? I admit my relationship with Cattelan’s work is more about the ideas and the dark humor (in his best works) than desiring (or loving) any of his objects. I have cried in front of a de Kooning. Cattelan’s work has never elicited that from me. That said, I hold within my heart and mind a place for both kinds of work.

ROBIN SIEGEL Quite frankly, I am more a fan of Cattelan’s conceptual/performance acts, or gestures, than I am of his static installations: creating The Wrong Gallery, or actually taping his Milanese gallerist to the wall, to just name a choice two, or even his Permanent Food magazines, in the print milieu. While I have felt compelled to defend Cattelan’s oeuvre from harsh and dismissive criticism in our roundtable, I must concede that many of his taxidermied creatures and embalmed bodies are downright kitsch. One my favorite work in ALL is the two pigeons waiting in front of a set of elevator doors as they open and close. This is one of the few genuinely whimsical and funny works in show where flagrant morbidity is often palpable.

DAVID COHEN is publisher and editor of artcritical; DAVID CARRIER, contributing editor, is author of numerous books on art, philosophy and museum studies; artist CARLA GANNIS, represented by Pablo’s Birthday, New York, and other galleries, is assistant chair in the department of digital arts at Pratt Institute ; MADDIE PHINNEY, Assistant Editor at artcritical, is co-founder and editor at large of Continuum Magazine and exhibition assistant at the American Institute of Architects; ROBIN SIEGEL’s photograpahy is widely published in magazines including Trace, Vogue UK.com and artcritical; she teaches at Pratt Institute as well as at NYU’s Center for Advanced Digital Applications, and she recently launched cupcakeluxe.tumblr.com ; BESSIE ZHU is an independent arts writers based in Brooklyn.