Maurizio Cattelan - Biography and Legacy
Italian Sculptor and Conceptual Artist
Biography of Maurizio Cattelan
Maurizio Cattelan grew up in the northern Italian town of Padua. His father was a truck driver, his mother a maid, and the family struggled financially. Always a misfit, he disliked school, received poor grades, and constantly found himself in trouble. Art Historian Sarah Thornton explains that Maurizio's mother was ill for most of his childhood and died when he was in his early twenties. The artist feels that she blamed him for her illness, perhaps sparking his early conflicts with the concepts of failure and mortality that would later pepper his artwork. After dropping out of high school, he worked a series of unfulfilling jobs in post offices, mortuaries, and kitchens in order to support his family. Through all of these early experiences, he learned to mistrust authority and to abhor the monotony of manual labor.
From these experiences, an artistic rebel was born. Cattelan's sister Giada remembers that she used to be embarrassed to mention that she had a brother because he was just an artist, which equated to being a "lazy do-nothing." In his autobiography, Cattelan recounts his first artistic exploits, which mirror the outcast archetype being penned upon him from that time. He drew moustaches on the church statues where he was an altar boy, an act that eventually got him expelled from the parish.
Early Training and Work
Cattelan had no formal arts education. Perhaps initially compelled by his distaste for menial work, he moved to Milan in his twenties and became intrigued by art. He was fascinated with the status that came along with being an artist, and the idea of having one's work seen on magazine covers. In 1989, he decided to fake his own cover of FlashArt magazine, which was highly popular at the time. He created a house of cards sculpture comprised of copies of FlashArt, which he then photographed. He pasted this image on the front of actual copies of the magazine, resulting in very convincing fakes, which he then distributed in magazine stores and galleries. This launched his career, doubly reinforcing his idea that being an artist would allow him to work for, and be true to, himself. In 1993 he relocated to New York and ever since, he has alternately lived and worked both there and in Milan.
Without a proper academic background, Cattelan retained a freedom to wing it in the art world and rapidly established himself as an artist with a strong sense of humor and irony. Even though his work often grappled with serious themes, the art was presented tongue-in-cheek. He has always considered himself more of a worker in the art world, eschewing the preciousness bestowed upon the stereotypical or traditional artist. Since early on, he has culled widely from a conceptual based toolbox from which various mediums, forms, objects, and materials are used to express his underlying messages. In his early work, many times the message of the work formed the crux of import rather than the finished piece.
Cattelan is constantly worried that his work will not be well received saying, "You don't want to see your work because you might find out that you do not like it." This consistent fear of failure was prominently highlighted in a series of artworks that were about avoiding making anything. "They were basically about embracing failure before even beginning," says Victora Armutt, Director of the Cattelan Archive. In 1989, his deep anxiety toward having an unsuccessful first solo exhibition led him to simply close the gallery and hang a sign on the door which read, "Torno subito," ("Be back soon"). In the following years he created other "performative escape routes," as Nancy Spector, Deputy Director of the Guggenheim, calls them. Una Domenica a Rivara (A Sunday in Rivara), which was his contribution to a group exhibition at the Castello di Rivara near Turin in 1992, consisted of a rope of knotted bed sheets, dangled from an open window, as though he had just fled the scene. Then in 1993, he rented out his allotted space at the Venice Biennale to an advertising agency who installed a billboard for perfume with the title slogan Working Is a Bad Job. In 1996, he even went so far as to steal the contents of another artist's show from a nearby gallery and attempt to pass them off as his own, until the police forced him to return the work. The effort was hilariously titled Another Fucking Readymade.
Cattelan's constant obsessions surrounding survival and success formulated a strong minimalist impetus in both his artwork and his personal life. His first roommate in New York says that he had absolutely no furniture, and that he was always "trying to have less and less." He also says that it was very difficult at first because Maurizio didn't know anything about New York City, nor anything about American culture. He continued to struggle financially, living on five dollars a day at the beginning. One thing the artist knew for sure though, was that he wanted to someday show his work at Marian Goodman Gallery. He finally achieved this goal in a 1997 summer show with his work Untitled. The piece featured two small taxidermy mice in chaise lounges under a beach umbrella. This work launched him into the next stage of his career, by piquing the interest of many key players in the art world. The work also grabbed the attention of Dodie Kazanjian, art critic for Vogue, and Calvin Tomkins, art critic for the New Yorker, who sought Cattelan out and formed an instant friendship with him. Kazanjian says, "there's something about Maurizio that just gets under your skin."
Minimalism also informs Cattelan's social sphere and relationships. Many of his friends, colleagues, family members, and romantic partners note that he prefers to be alone, and does not like to get close to or be intimate with many people.
When in public, Cattelan's known to be enigmatic and slippery, dancing between the same type of emotional extremes he presents in his artwork - from sad depressive to class clown all in a matter of moments. Perhaps the fact that he feels this need to always be "on" in social situations, as the human embodiment of his artistic ideals that spurs constantly shifting gears, is the reason for his otherwise sparse personal life. "Sometimes I see myself as a locked box," he has stated, "very detached from myself and others. But I feel lucky, because I am the owner of my time, and you cannot buy time."
However, some friendships have been central in his life and professional development. An important shift in Cattelan's career came when he met Maurizio Bonami, Director of the Venice Biennale. They became fast friends, in part because they were both Italian immigrants trying to navigate the New York art world, and in part because they were both living on the same street in the East Village. Bonami gave Cattelan a prominent spot in the 1993 Biennale.
In 1997, Catalan met Italian-American curator and art critic Massimiliano Gioni. Gioni has impersonated or stood in on Cattelan's behalf (in interviews, lectures, and other appearances) for nearly a decade, not unlike the way that Andy Warhol enlisted a friend to appear on his behalf on a lecture tour of the United States in 1968.
Another one of Cattelan's friends is Milan gallerist Massimo de Carlo, who says, "Maurizio is the perfect connoisseur of many different aspects of the art world." In one noted work, A Perfect Day, 1999, he duct taped de Carlo to the wall for nearly two hours "like a strange, profane crucifixion." The length of time mixed with the hot lights of the gallery caused de Carlo to faint and he was taken to a hospital by ambulance. In another piece, Errotin, la Vraie Lapin, 1995, Cattelan had Paris gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin dress up in a pink bunny costume shaped like a large penis. In both these instances, Cattelan found a way to make people "complicit in their own abuse."
In 1999, Cattelan decided to organize his own biennial, 6th Caribbean Biennial, which acted as a sort of farce on the concept of biennial. Several artists including Olafur Eliasson, Chris Ofili, and Gabriel Orozco were invited to a hotel in the Bahamas, along with other art world elites. However, there were no artworks at all, and the event was essentially an art world holiday. Jenny Liu, a journalist for Frieze magazine, was absolutely horrified. She described the event as "a surprising hypocrisy" and "an impish act of art world sabotage." Cattelan explained simply that it was "an exhibition of everything that surrounds art."
Around the turn of the millennium, Cattelan began working with hyperrealist sculpture. Artists working within Hyperrealism (also referred to as Photorealism when used in painting) create convincing simulations of objects, figures, and situations but add other elements that are unlikely to exist in reality. In this way, they create a convincing false reality. Other hyperrealist sculptors who came before Cattelan include Duane Hanson and Ron Mueck, although both those artists tended to use fiberglass, whereas Cattelan uses wax. Many hyperrealist works act as social critique and Cattelan's sculptures, indeed present strong social commentary. For example, in Untitled (2000), a male figure sits at a dining table, slumped over with his face fully submerged in a plate of pasta, conjures thoughts of consumption and gluttony in the viewer?. In Betsy (2002), we find a sculpture of an elderly woman who sits uncomfortably inside a refrigerator. Some of his hyperrealist sculptures are more provocative, and have even been called blasphemous and offensive for featuring famous religious and historical figures in a critique of their abuses of power.
In 2004, Cattelan received an honorary degree in Sociology from the University of Trento, Italy. Between 2005 and 2010, he focused more on publishing and curating. He curated the 2006 Berlin Biennale, and has collaborated as editor on various publications including the magazines Permanent Food, Charley, and Toilet Paper, with Dominique Gonzalez Foerster, Paola Manfrin, Ali Subotnick, and Massimiliano Gioni. Charley was a DIY publication aimed exposing emerging artists. According to the publisher, "Prominent curators, writers, artists, and other arts professionals from around the world were asked to suggest up to 10 up-and-coming artists and/or submit materials on the artists for inclusion in Charley. Four hundred art makers from around the globe responded, and each of them is represented by one page." Toilet Paper is an extension of the work begun with Permanent Food, a sort of "cannibal magazine" comprised of provocative images that Cattelan and Manfrin ripped from other publications. Now, Cattelan and photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari are creating their own bizarre, provocative images for Toilet Paper, inspired after working together on a shoot for W magazine's 2009 Art Issue and discovering they had a strong artistic chemistry. Christopher Bollen of Interview Magazine describes Toilet Paper as "a magazine that is a wild photographic odyssey of surrealist misbehavior, shot with a high-fashion aesthetic and a mind for tumult, distaste, hilarity, hijinks, and a no-holds barred culture-war mentality. (A 21st-century glossy version of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou (1929) seems an apt description). In other words, the imagery was pure Cattelan set in ink." Cattelan describes the publication as "the representation of the digestive process following an overdose of images." He continues, saying "I am fascinated by the idea of employing beautiful images as a device to convey something extremely disturbing in an apparently harmless way."
In 2011, during his massive retrospective All at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York, Cattelan announced his retirement from the art world, stating, "I started to feel such a distance from the things I was doing, as if I was under some kind of anesthetic." To confirm this intent, he promoted the All retrospective with images of himself carrying around a tombstone that read "The End." However, he soon changed his mind, stating in 2016 that, "it's even more of a torture not to work than to work."
The Legacy of Maurizio Cattelan
For nearly three decades, Cattelan has been leading a generation of artists who use sardonic, sarcastic humor to critique the art world itself as well as the broader ills of society. For instance, the British street artist Banksy surreptitiously placed an inflatable of a hooded Guantanamo Bay prisoner at the Big Thunder Mountain ride in Disneyland in 2006, causing shock and confusion in passersby, much like in Cattelan's untitled work from 2008 wherein he hung the figures of three children with nooses from a tree branch in downtown Milan.
ArtForum journalist Emily Hall sums Cattelan up well, "He is eminently known as a prankster, a holy fool whose jokes reveal us to ourselves." Because he has done this while rising to shocking levels of success, he remains an inspiration to artists who wish to eschew the confines of a traditional art career. According to friend and documentarian Maura Axelrod, his work "is always super prescient."