The ironic thing about blasphemy is that, in order for there to be any cathartic meaning for the blasphemer, he must first believe in the subject or object he is debasing. Like, really believe in it. De Sade’s endless accounts of nun rapes and shooting loads into the Eucharist would hold little interest, in their own right, if we were not so intrigued by how devout a believer he truly was. Maurizio Cattelan intrigues us for similar reasons, but to lesser effect. For all his posturing, à la Marcel Duchamp, he constantly returns to themes of a religious nature that belie his crueler intentions. His draped, marble figures suggest both Lazarus and Beuys’s I Like America and America Likes Me (1974). A horse hangs below a hand-lettered sign that reads “INRI” (Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm), a donkey carries a TV set, and Pope John Paul II is felled by a giant meteorite (The Ninth Hour, 1999). His recurring use of taxidermy gives us animals resurrected, and a small, penitent Adolph Hitler (Him, 2001) depicts the dictator seeking redemption.
Cattelan has, for most of his career, worked against having a career. His first solo show, in 1989, consisted of a closed gallery with a sign hanging in front that read “Be Back Soon.” Early contributions to group shows held gems like a rope of knotted bed sheets dangling Rapunzel-like from a window (A Sunday in Rivara, 1992) or a billboard presented at the Venice Biennial promoting a new perfume (Working is a Bad Job, 1993). His working-class background and “born this way” bad-boy attitude pretty much marked out the path that his works eventually took: delinquent, schoolboy antics that tried hard to be anti-authoritarian and somewhat perversely blasphemous, while managing to be ingratiating enough to appear in major museum shows and exhibitions. His retrospective, All, at the Guggenheim, proves no exception.
The entire exhibition, meant to be an exercise in juvenile hilarity, is hung from the museum’s oculus, “strung up,” Cattelan explains, “like the family cat.” Maybe. However, as we trudge upward, winding our way on Frank Lloyd Wright’s ramp, we experience Cattelan’s history as a sad Golgotha. Possibly despairing at his own productions, Cattelan has announced that this retrospective marks his retirement from the worldly creation of art making. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, wrote, “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Cattelan’s best efforts, and indeed this is a major visual spectacle, have left the audience mere gleaners. We might hope, after burying this work in the ash yard of art history, that Cattelan might resurrect himself, or his career at least, and atone somehow for these minor transgressions of art. - Bradley Rubenstein
The Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum is at 1071 Fifth Avenue in New York, New York.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.