Hitler Dangles as Cattelan Gives Us the Middle Finger: Review

"Him" (2001) by Maurizio Cattelan, made of polyester resin, wax, pigment, human hair and a suit. Photographer: Paolo Pellion di Persano/Guggenheim via Bloomberg

In “Maurizio Cattelan: All,” a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Italian prankster and provocateur is again flipping the bird --literally and figuratively -- on a colossal scale.

Cattelan, 51, chose not to have his 21-year survey of 128 works installed chronologically or even sensibly.

Instead, he has trussed them all up by straps and cables and dangled the mobile mess, like so much tangled laundry descending on crisscrossing lines, from the ceiling of the Guggenheim’s six-story-high rotunda.

Alexander Calder, the inventor of the hanging “mobile,” has been cited as precedent. Please don’t blame Calder.

In small measure and the best of circumstances, Cattelan’s work can surprise. Considered within the tradition of Duchamp’s urinal, Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered teacup and Robert Gober’s Surrealist, disembodied human limbs, his work can be disarming.

Generally, his art is banal. In this show, we are confronted with the worst of circumstances.

Context matters. In 1997, Cattelan created elongated “stretch” shopping carts and scattered them throughout a museum. In 2002, he propped a pair of life-size wax figures dressed as New York police officers standing on their heads, with their feet leaning against the gallery wall. (All that was missing were coffee and donuts.)

In 2007, a la Gober, he mounted a taxidermied horse dangling high above the museum’s floor, as if its head, like that of an ostrich, were buried in the wall.

They’re all here -- rendered ineffective -- sacrificed to the big idea.

Crushed Pope

Also suspended in the Guggenheim’s jumble, along with “L.O.V.E.,” the marble sculpture of a hand with an erect middle finger, is an elongated foosball table, an olive tree in a massive cube of dirt, and a huge wall of black granite.

The installation is peppered with numerous life-size wax figures, such as an old woman peering out from a refrigerator, Hitler kneeling, and Pope John Paul II crushed by a meteor.

Among the menagerie is a taxidermied mule harnessed to an overloaded cart, a dog skeleton with a folded newspaper in its mouth riding an Oriental carpet, a 26-foot-tall cat skeleton, and a life-size baby elephant dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

The single poignant moment of “All” is its denouement, where a taxidermied horse, as if pulling the entire installation -- reminiscent of the Grinch’s dog and sled -- hangs feebly above the Guggenheim’s floor.

“All” is an impressive feat of engineering. The unusual “hang” is more engaging than the artworks themselves.

Lots of Junk

If no one is injured by falling debris before Jan. 22, when “All” closes, the show will be a success; no thanks to Nancy Spector, the Guggenheim’s deputy director and chief curator who green-lighted this Conceptual sham.

The Guggenheim’s rotunda void has never been more crowded. Packed with dead weight, it also has never felt this empty. The effect of “All,” seen from Frank Lloyd Wright’s curving walkway and vacant, forlorn bays, is of a mammoth cylindrical web of junk or of the artist’s oeuvre going down the toilet.

Ultimately, “All” is disingenuous and insulting -- an art world insider’s joke gone awry. It fails as both a retrospective and a Conceptual gamble.

Cattelan and the Guggenheim are playing an academic game in which the artist, to prove his nihilistic conviction, negates the importance and honor of the museum retrospective.

With “All,” Cattelan and Spector have turned their middle fingers not just on the artist’s own work and the Guggenheim Museum, but on the public.

“Maurizio Cattelan: All” is at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, through Jan. 22, 2012. Information: http://www.guggenheim.org.

(Lance Esplund is the U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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