I was in New York last weekend, to see friends but also to see the Maurizio Cattelan retrospective the day before it closed. It has gotten quite a bit of attention for its unusual installation. The work was hung entirely from the ceiling, down the central atrium, with absolutely nothing on the walls of the notoriously difficult gallery. It transformed Frank Lloyd Wright’s museum into a theatre, which made strangely perfect sense.
The viewer/audience on the ramp, looking into the atrium. All images: VoCA. Click images to enlarge.
The atrium, filled with works hung from a metal scaffold. Click images to enlarge.
The show had been hailed as a must-see by art critic friends of mine, but also panned by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker.
My first impression was one of awe. It was amazing to see the work all suspended, particularly since some pieces were huge. Cattelan’s famous sculpture of a life-size horse coming out of a wall backwards was there, complete with a small piece of wall, for full effect.
In all, it was messy and certainly didn’t do the work any favours. It was also dark – that day, snow had accumulated on the gallery’s skylight. I had seen numerous pieces over the years properly installed – sometimes brilliantly curated, as with Him, the kneeling Hitler at the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto a few years ago. Then there was the Pope being hit by a meteorite at the Royal Academy’s notorious Apocalypse show in London in 2000; the miniature Cattelan on a tricycle that was exhibited roaming the Giardini of the Venice Biennale in 2003 and Turisti, an early work consisting of many taxidermy pigeons that was installed on rafters above the gallery-goers, also at Venice. And on and on.
The jumble of work, none of which you could really get a proper look at, reminded me of the visual information that is coming at us from all directions through tv, print, advertising, art and the internet. There’s too much and either you have to select what to focus on or be overwhelmed. It was the same here.
Frustratingly, the accompanying guide, which claims to feature a diagram showing each work in the exhibition, does not in fact show every work. Key pieces are left out.
I also found it brave of Cattelan to risk his work being seen as junk. He must have been sure that the curatorial concept would overshadow the works themselves, but as Schejdahl points out, many of the pieces depend on proper curating to give them their strength. Some of his works are truly unforgettable. But not here. The art is actually rather forgettable here. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the show had I not been already quite familiar with it.
But at the end of the day, it was an intriguing concept for a difficult space, and it did create a witty, double-take inducing, rather grand spectacle, which is what Cattelan is all about, and which both audiences and institutions seem to love.