Maurizio Cattelan's got a gun show

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Maurizio Cattelan's got a gun show
The artist Maurizio Cattelan at Gagosian in New York with a wall of his new work, “Sunday,” its gold-plated steel panels riddled with bullets from pistols, rifles and semiautomatic weapons at a New York firing range, April 23, 2024. One of today’s foremost artists, with a reputation that pervades well beyond the art world, Cattelan, 63, has a new bullet-riddled exhibition in New York that is bound to raise even more questions — and some eyebrows. (Vincent Tullo/The New York Times)

by Laura Rysman

MILAN.- “You should never ask an artist about their art,” Maurizio Cattelan said, immediately on arrival. “The best art raises lots and lots of questions,” he added. “Not answers.”

One of today’s foremost artists, with a reputation that pervades well beyond the art world, Cattelan, 63, has a new bullet-riddled exhibition in New York that is bound to raise even more questions — and some eyebrows.

He grants vanishingly few in-person interviews, he prefers image-making to explaining his images in words, and he’s skittish about journalists mischaracterizing him. Yet he arrived early for our appointed meeting, parking his bicycle by the bench where, on the first hot spring day in Milan, we sat in the shade of a monastery. With his trademark swoosh of silver hair and his feet up on the bench like a schoolchild, he spoke eagerly in Italian about his first major New York exhibition since his pivotal retrospective, “All,” at the Guggenheim in 2011, in which nearly his entire oeuvre was suspended like a mobile.

“I hate,” he declared, “when they call me a joker.” The artist, who notoriously created an effigy of a pope toppled by a meteorite, made a fully functioning solid gold toilet that he named “America,” and blew the world’s collective mind when he taped a banana to the wall and sold it as art, has continually garnered variations of the joker title — jester, prankster, trickster — but his is the cosmic joke, the joke of the Stoic philosophers: death, and our illusions of self-importance before oblivion comes for us, and for him.

If Cattelan’s work is no laughing matter, it is undeniably button-pushing, and for his Gagosian show opening April 30, he turns his sardonic gaze on the unsettling subject of gun violence. His new works are pierced by bullets — steel panels plated in 24-karat gold to a mirrorlike reflection, their ammunition wounds warping the metal surfaces.

“Beauty, luxury, and violence,” as Cattelan described them — monuments to murder, though not his first effort. The artist previously collected sacks of detritus from a deadly 1993 Mafia bombing in Milan as a memorial, presented marble statues portraying sheet-covered corpses, and depicted 9/11 with a monolithic tower pierced by a plane, watched over by thousands of taxidermied pigeons haunting the site.

The shot-up panels, 64 in all and titled “Sunday,” weigh about 80 pounds each and stretch almost 54 inches high — about the size of a 10-year-old child. Cattelan compared the assemblage, mounted together on a single wall, to the execution wall of a firing squad.

“When I read the front page of the newspapers, all they talk about is violence,” he said. “I’m completely immersed in violence.”

“We,” he went on, pointing a finger at himself, at me, at everyone sunning themselves in the monastery’s park, “we, we, we are completely immersed in violence every day, and we’ve gotten used to it. The repetition has made us accept violence as inevitable.”

Suddenly, a dense flock of pigeons whooshed threateningly close to his head — retaliation for their taxidermied brethren? — as Cattelan paused to deflect their path with his hands in the air.

He recounted an impossibly risky work he had long wished to make: a bulletproof glass wall with a gallery audience on one side, and a shooter firing a gun at them from the opposite side — a bit too terrifying even for an art world familiar with Chris Burden’s 1971 performance, in which he had himself shot (non-lethally) in a gallery — a work Cattelan cited as an influence.

With the “Sunday” panels, the audience participates instead in the aftermath of a shooting, seeing their own reflections riddled with bullet holes, with the seductive beauty of gold’s glimmer — and with competing implications of both an indictment and a glorification of violence.

“Gold and guns,” Cattelan said, “are the American dream.” The message: Violence — not fictional movie violence but the all-too-real barbarity of mass shootings, murders and wars — is now part of pop culture.

Cattelan has experimented with gunshots before, shooting up American and British flags, or rather, having them shot. The artist, who is based in Milan and New York, maintains no studio, much less a shooting range, and his works are almost always fabricated by others. With “Sunday,” Cattelan sought to universalize the symbol of violence, dropping the nationalistic imagery of flags and leaving “just the shootings.”

He has created what he calls his first abstract works — with overtones of Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases from the postwar era. The pistols, shotguns and semiautomatic weapons, he said, were “used like chisels” to carve through metal. He hired shooters at a New York City range to fire upon the panels with weapons that were easily and legally sourced thanks to America’s lax gun restrictions. “Where else in the world could you do that?” he asked with a wry laugh. (Milan, by contrast, would not even allow a poster by Cattelan depicting a gun to appear on city streets, saying it violated decency laws.)

At Gagosian, in front of the golden execution wall, Cattelan is installing another work, his first-ever fountain. Carved in marble, it depicts a supine, down-and-out man holding his exposed phallus, which spurts water. “There’s a dialogue between these two works, in their opposition and their proximity,” the artist said. The figure, modeled on a close friend and collaborator who died, evokes “the swaths of people who are invisible in society,” Cattelan added. The man is the type of discarded figure that visitors to the New York show will likely pass, and avoid, on their way to Gagosian.

“They’re works that take on a different weight being shown in New York,” the show’s curator, Francesco Bonami, commented by phone. “Maurizio is a political artist — not political in the sense that he’s presenting a position, but political in that he deals with society’s problems and current events, and he always touches a raw nerve.” He added, “We’ll see how Americans take to this show.”

The opening comes after Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill that would permit some school staff to carry concealed handguns, but as Cattelan commented, “Every moment seems like the right moment to talk about violence, because every day there’s more news about violence in the papers.”

In the monastery park, Cattelan critiqued modern materialism: “Today, sacrament has been replaced by shopping,” he said, contending that there’s greater happiness to be found in a spartan life. (He rides his bike everywhere, and takes his near-daily swims in a municipal pool.) But he isn’t afraid to play both sides. This show represents the first time he’s agreed to collaborate with the mega-gallery owned by Larry Gagosian — the dealer who has referred to art as “money on the walls,” and is probably the man most responsible for transforming the art world into the art market. But, as Bonami pointed out, who else could sponsor the production of a colossal wall of gold shootings?

Cattelan, saying the moment had arrived for a collaboration he had long evaded, noted: “I’m doing a project with Larry Gagosian but I haven’t signed anything,” and “I’m a free agent.” His previous New York gallery show, in 2000, was at the influential but less blue-chip Marian Goodman Gallery.

Gagosian gallery declined requests for information about the works’ fabrication cost or their selling price, but every piece in the show will be available for purchase. The gallery said prices will be made available upon the show’s opening.

Cattelan’s work hit its auction high price in May 2016 when “Him,” an infamous wax and resin sculpture of Hitler on his knees, sold at Sotheby’s for $17.2 million, or about $22 million today.

Gazing at the park’s Judas trees and their April magenta blossoms, Cattelan mused about his role in the Vatican pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale, at the Giudecca women’s prison, where an outer wall is completely covered by his giant image of cadaverous-looking feet.

His formative childhood in the small northern city of Padua was steeped in Catholicism and provincial working-class culture, and despite his international acclaim, he still sees himself as the guy who worked as a hospital janitor and a morgue assistant.

“I grew up within working-class culture, and I’m not ashamed to be a part of it,” Cattelan said, adding “although someone pointed out that I may be dissociating from my status today.” He explained that his instantly recognizable references — from pigeons to Pinocchio, from toilets to Hitler — make works intelligible “to nonexperts as much as to experts.”

“My main audience is not the art world,” he continued. “It’s people who might not be educated in what art is supposed to be, but who relate to the work.”

Roberta Tenconi, who curated the artist’s 2021-22 exhibition at Hangar Bicocca, in Milan, with Vicente Todolí, said that “the power of Maurizio’s work is in layering familiar images to create something that resonates in a multitude of ways.” She added, “Nothing is ever singular or simple. And Maurizio loves to make people uncomfortable.”

Cattelan remarked, “The more you’re able to synthesize contrasting elements and to strip away any frills, the closer you get to something that functions like a symbol” — to create, essentially, indelible images that offer endless interpretations.

To wit: the banana, titled “Comedian,” from 2019, a phenomenon that was featured in seven articles in The New York Times alone, and on the cover of The New York Post. The banana prompted fascination and outrage, post-Duchamp discourse and art-world-gone-mad furor, as well as a head-spinning cycle of memes. At the time, Cattelan told me: “Try to think about Napoleon without his horse — it’s impossible! Now try to think about pop culture without the banana” — the banana of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, the banana peel of slapstick, the proverbial banana in your pocket, as he said.

But today he brushes off the craze as “just a viral moment,” he said. “Even if people know the banana, nobody knows who I am as an artist.”

Or so he would like to believe. Only a few minutes later, a ponytailed young man walking through the park interrupted us to request a selfie with him.

“People know you,” I pointed out. Had he imagined becoming an artist while growing up in Padua? A forlorn headshake. “The only thing I ever really dreamed of was independence,” he said, pushing his shirt sleeves to his elbows as he stood up. “The rest is fuffa” — in other words, baloney. And he rode away on his bicycle, leaving me there with a lot more questions.


Maurizio Cattelan: Sunday

Opening April 30 through June 15, Gagosian gallery, 522 West 21st Street, (212) 741 1717;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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