Maurizio Cattelan at the Guggenheim

Eric Russ


In another great departure from convention, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has mounted the comprehensive retrospective of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, rewriting the playbook for how an exhibition of this kind ought to be done. 


Cattelan has become famous in the art world for his irreverent sense of humor and penchant for artistic high jinks.  He has made a career out of defying expectations.  It is not surprising then, that in agreeing to do a big museum retrospective, the artist should shock his audience once more.  Hanging from the oculus inside the iconic museum’s great rotunda, Cattelan’s entire body of work dangles freely, no longer working as separate pieces, but now functioning as one gigantic artistic statement.

With his first-ever solo show of this scale, Cattelan is now calling it quits.  The artist announced his retirement on November 4th in conjunction with the launch of the Guggenheim retrospective.  Many art-world insiders wonder if the declaration is just another in a long line of gags perpetrated by the artist However, for the moment, Cattelan is sticking to his guns.  Assuming that he is telling the truth, the retrospective is an appropriate send-off.  Never one to follow convention, Cattelan has shirked any notions of how an exhibition of this kind is presented.


The Guggenheim’s circular space is famously difficult for showing artworks.  The nontraditional layout winds museum-goers around the atrium as they climb six floors.  Cattelan’s decision to dangle his work in the center of the space is a successful marriage of museum space and exhibition design.  As viewers ascend through the building they are confronted with new works hanging at each level, amounting to a continuously fresh encounter with Cattelan’s imagination. 

For those who are familiar with many of the artist’s works, the exhibition offers a new experience of the objects.  The nature of Cattelan’s work is such that it is often viewed by itself, relying on an entire room to pull off the desired visual effect.  Perhaps his most famous piece, La Nona Ora, captures the moment that Pope John Paul II is getting struck by a meteor.  Or the startling Him, a miniature wax figure of a school boy praying, who is revealed to be Adolf Hitler when the viewer walks around to see it from the front.  These signature works have created a lot of fanfare for the artist over the years.  Putting together a retrospective of such recognizable objects, while being limited in space, would be a tricky endeavor.  A recontextualization of these old works brings renewed interest to objects that many have seen before and avoids the pitfall of telling his viewers the same joke twice.

With this show the Guggenheim has again proven that it is willing to take risks.  Those unfamiliar with Maurizio Cattelan’s work will have a chance to experience the artist’s career in totality and will not doubt be amused by what they see.  For those who have been following Cattelan over the last  20 years, a chance to revisit some old favorites while contemplating his choice to string up his life’s work will likely be well received. 


Maurizio Cattelan: All  can be viewed at the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York through January 2, 2012.

Author Bio:

Eric Russ attended New York University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in ‘The Sense of Self,’ an interdisciplinary investigation of human identity.  He holds a Master’s Degree in Art Business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art and is currently writing about the art world.

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