The fact that the Guggenheim’s official announcement of the first retrospective of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan casts doubt on his apparent retirement from the art world – “What this means precisely remains to be defined by the artist…. The rest is anyone’s guess.” – perfectly encapsulates the unpredictable, provocative and anarchistic spirit that defines Cattelan’s work. Will he please the critics who pronounce him as sensationalist and bow out at a career high? Or is this just yet another joke at the art world’s expense, as hoped by those who consider him to be a profound prankster?

The ironic humour for which Cattelan is well known is clear to see at “All”, the Guggenheim’s blockbuster show. Suspended from the ceiling in a site-specific installation are 130 pieces, examples of virtually everything he has produced in his 21-year career that began in his home town of Padua. They include the famous waxworks of a child-like Hitler and of the Pope in the midst of being struck by a meteorite. “The Pope was about overcoming a moment with my father,” he explains. “I’m using images to relate myself to my past, but it’s so personal: you see the Pope and you don’t think of my father!”

Cattelan’s meditation on mortality is also evident in pieces such as ‘La Rivoluzione’, a waxwork mini-me hanging from a coat rack and ‘Novecento’, a taxidermy horse that is also suspended lifeless. “There is no other way to do a show there and pay respect to the building,” Cattelan says of the unusual tumbling presentation that fills the Guggenheim’s rotunda. “I think visitors will add a lot to what they see; they will make connections.” Indeed, with his most iconic – and expensive, being a favourite of collectors such as Francois Pinault – pieces hung like laundry out to dry, Cattelan is perhaps having one final laugh at the art world.

‘Maurizio Cattelan: All’ runs until January 22


“I have never worked in terms of ‘now I want to do a political work’. But I like the idea that a work can generate stories and be responsible for some debate, and be strong enough to have a longer life than the controversy.”

“There is no other way to do a show there and pay respect to the building. I think visitors will add a lot to what they see; they will make connections.”

“The Pope was about overcoming a moment with my father. I’m using images to relate myself to my past, but it’s so personal: you see the Pope and you don’t think of my father!”

Maurizio Cattelan the Prankster – His Most Anarchistic Works

Be Back Soon, 1989
Bereft of ideas for his first solo exhibition in 1989, Cattelan simply closed the gallery and hung a sign reading Torno subito, or “Be back soon.”

Working Is a Bad Job, 1993
Cattelan’s response to the pressure of exhibiting at the Venice Biennale was to lease his allotted space to an advertising agency, which installed a billboard promoting a new perfume.

Another Fucking Readymade, 1996
For an exhibition at the de Appel arts center in Amsterdam, Cattelan stole the entire contents of another artist’s show from a nearby gallery with the idea of passing it off as his own work, until the police insisted he return the loot on threat of arrest As he says: “Escaping was a way to save myself from disgrace [but] I was considering only my own point of view, I never thought about the artist or the gallerist. In the States I would have been in jail.”

Stadium, 1991
In response to a wave of xenophobic sentiment, Cattelan formed a soccer team composed entirely of North African immigrants who played in both outdoor competitions and in exhibition settings on an elongated foosball table (Stadium, 1991). Their uniforms bore the emblem Rauss, which recalled the Nazi phrase Juden raus, or “Jews get out.”

Mauritizo Cattelan – His Signatures Explained

Cattelan has turned to his own distinctive features as a mainstay of his iconography, constructing a series of sculptural vignettes that promote his image as an Everyman, playing the part of the fool so that we don’t have to. Notable examples include La Rivoluzione siamo noi (We are the revolution, 2000), which presents a diminutive Cattelan dangling by his collar from a metal coat rack, impudently dressed in the signature felt suit of German artist Joseph Beuys, and a 2001 installation created for the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam that depicts the artist peering mischievously from a hole in the floor at a gallery of Old Master paintings.

His recurring use of taxidermy, which presents a state of apparent life premised on actual death, is particularly apt for exploring this thematic concern. Perhaps the most poignant of his anthropomorphic animal scenes is Bidibidobidiboo (1996), in which a despairing squirrel
has committed suicide in his grimy kitchen.

Lifelike Waxworks
Among Cattelan’s most startling projects is a cycle of lifelike waxworks that portray and contest iconic authority figures. The most incendiary of these works comprise La Nona Ora (The ninth hour, 1999), his notorious sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite, and Him (2001), a rendering of Adolf Hitler in the scale of a young boy, kneeling preposterously in a pose of supplication. A more overtly elegiac scene is constructed by Now (2004), an effigy of a serene and barefoot John F. Kennedy lying in state, a martyr to a shattered American idealism seen from the perspective of a disillusioned present.