Five years ago, the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan held a highly unorthodox exhibition of his entire body of work at the Guggenheim Museum. Cattelan is a conceptual artist who became famous starting in the 1990s for irreverent, absurdist installations that have sold for millions of dollars and split critics into factions of fervent devotees and angry detractors.
For the Guggenheim show, the museum rounded up all of Cattelan’s existing work, designed a mount for each piece, and suspended the lot from a custom-engineered truss hanging off the rotunda ceiling. Dangling pell-mell like an unholy alliance between Calder and Hirst was Cattelan’s oeuvre, including Hitler kneeling in prayer, John F. Kennedy in a casket, the raised middle finger that was installed in front of the Milan stock exchange, the effigies and figurines, the naked bust of Stephanie Seymour, and the taxidermied mice, pigeons, squirrels, dogs, and horses, in assorted stances and stagings. Near the base of the assemblage was Cattelan’s most notorious sculpture, of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite. Reviews were all over the place, but the show drew huge crowds. Then, as he’d announced before the show, Cattelan retired.
Whatever else he is, Cattelan is a provocateur, a navigator of the art industry, a man with obsessions, and — at root — some kind of eccentric. The dealers, collectors, and intimates who appear in the documentary Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back, by American filmmaker Maura Axelrod, make no bones about his game. “He has not dedicated his life to art, he has dedicated his life to success in art, which is different,” says Milan gallerist Massimo De Carlo. “He is probably one of the greatest artists we have today, but could also be the worst,” says collector Adam Lindemann, who nonetheless splashed out a large sum for Daddy, Daddy, a Pinocchio figurine floating facedown in a pool of water.
“Not everybody likes his work, I know,” says Axelrod. She has filmed Cattelan off and on for fifteen years, and got him to cooperate with her venture. He takes part in the film, but because this is Cattelan, there is a level of obfuscation that gets clarified as the movie unfolds, with echoes of past high-art pranksters, particularly Warhol and Duchamp. “He created a situation that was like a problem that I had to solve,” Axelrod says. “But I think that’s what he does to everyone he encounters.”
The film has little space for detractors, save for the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center objecting to the Hitler piece, and archival footage of Italian conference panelists screaming outrage at Cattelan’s antics. The film also recounts a 2004 incident in which a man in Milan, horrified by Cattelan’s installation of three effigies of young boys hanging from nooses, climbed the tree and cut two of them down, before himself falling off the branch. (“I did it for the children,” the man says from his stretcher.)
But the visceral responses to Cattelan’s work also signify its power. While some of his objects feel trivial, others are assuredly not. Death, sorrow, social bleakness, and Catholic angst pervade the work. Cattelan once conjured a taxidermied squirrel that appears to have taken its own life; it slumps at a miniature table, with a revolver on the floor beside it. Giada Cattelan, the artist’s sister, connects the piece to conversations the two had about her depression. The squirrel helped her overcome her suicidal ideation, she says: “It freed me of that thought.” A raw and touching moment, it makes the case for Cattelan’s depth.
Cattelan grew up poor in Padua; upon arriving in Milan untrained, he infiltrated the art scene by dint of talent and chutzpah. One early show contained no work at all; supposedly gripped by creative block, he locked the premises and put a Torno subito (“Be Right Back”) sign on the door. Another time he broke into a neighboring gallery and stole its work; the police intervened before he could put it up. His first show in New York consisted of a live donkey and a chandelier. Later Cattelan would turn his gallerists into art objects: He once affixed De Carlo onto a wall with duct tape (until De Carlo fainted after a couple of hours). And in 1999, Cattelan organized the ultimate spoof of the biennial circuit: a fake biennial in the Caribbean, complete with all the publicity trappings, that was just a vacation for himself and a group of fellow highfliers including Pipilotti Rist and Olafur Eliasson.
In showing how Cattelan became one of the anointed, Be Right Back doubles as art-world ethnography, the interviews and auction footage tracing the upward spiral of connections, hype, and prices. An early break came when curator Francesco Bonami, who befriended Cattelan when both lived in New York, invited him to show at the Venice Biennale. Later, Cattelan showed at the upscale Marian Goodman Gallery, and husband-and-wife critics Calvin Tomkins and Dodie Kazanjian, of the New Yorker and Vogue respectively, invited him for dinner and became his friends. “We love him like family,” Kazanjian tells Axelrod. “I know that makes it seems strange, because if you’re a journalist you have to have some distance.” No matter; lavish profiles in both magazines followed.
The ultimate arbiter is money. Lindemann and fellow collectors Alberto Mugrabi and David Ganek (an executive producer of the film) are blunt in their assessments of art in general and Cattelan’s work in particular as investment items. “If people are willing to pay for it, it’s a market,” says Ganek, who sold the Hitler piece last year for $17.2 million at Christie’s. It takes Goodman, the gallerist, to sound a caution. “What’s here today may well be gone tomorrow,” she says.
Cattelan took his leave after the 2011 Guggenheim extravaganza, which closes Axelrod’s film. The movie’s release comes just as his un-retirement has begun. Last year, again at the Guggenheim, he installed a working toilet made of solid gold (titled America) in one of the museum’s exiguous restrooms. Recently Cattelan told the Corriere della Sera that the art world had “suffocated” him; he is now apparently breathing more freely, and new projects are brewing. In an email exchange for this article, Cattelan mostly offered sarcasm (“Is this fake news you are writing?”), but one line was revelatory: “I am always the little boy trying to get away from school, and so my roots never leave me.”