I met Maurizio Cattelan on the first real day of spring in front of the Guggenheim Museum, where one of the artist's most recent works, a functional, 18-karat solid gold toilet entitled America is on permanent display. Although the museum, which exhibited his blockbuster 2011 retrospective, All, was closed for the day, the area was teeming with waddling Central Park tourists, street vendors sweating over hot grills, and an old man singing "Lean on Me" for change.
Cattelan pulled up to the scene on a folding bike, sliding into my view the way clowns in miniature cars take center stage. With his tan, slim-fitting clothes, and perfectly groomed ashen hair, the 56-year-old Italian artist oozed a vitality that felt alien amid all the vacationers from flyoverland. He wore a jacket on which the text "Shit N Die" had been embroidered in bright yellow, a schwag piece from his 2014 show of the same name.
We were meeting on the occasion of the recently released documentary Be Right Back. Directed by journalist Maura Axelrod, a longtime friend of Cattelan's, the film chronicles the provocateur's career over the past three decades: from his controversial, lifelike sculptures of such oddities as a smote Pope ( La Nona Hora, 1999) or a miniature doppelgänger of himself hanging on a coat rack by his neckband (We Are the Revolution, 2000), to his massive, aforementioned Guggenheim retrospective, to his grotesque and glossy biannual Toilet Paper magazine project, which he's run with photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari since 2010. Be Right Back is a brilliant distillation of the inscrutable and unpredictable nature of Cattelan, to the point that the arc of the movie itself is built around the fact that you're never quite sure if the person who presents himself as the artist is, in fact, the real Maurizio Cattelan.
In person, Cattelan was as slippery as he is in the documentary. After kindly offering me a slightly melted Whole Foods brownie, he took off, inexplicably, to accost tourists. His victims were two girlfriends, whom he caught taking selfies in front of the museum's looming architecture. The artist jumped into the fray, working his hammy Southern European charm to transform the scene into a kind of performance art/comedy routine. Peppering the young women with questions without introducing himself, he picked and prodded around, invading their space. On the low, one of the girls asked me about the Italian-accented man talking at her, "Is he famous or something?"
Cattelan's piece de resistance was a chewed-up children's book of large animal stickers. After persuading one of the women to let him affix to her back the image of a miffed duck, he corralled us all together to take Instagram photos in which he pretended he was, among other random things, a swami in a trance.
The antics with the tourists were emblematic of a certain part of the artist's multifaceted personality. During my four hours with Cattelan, I saw three distinct sides of him: He was the "court jester of the art world," clowning me with riddles and larks; the sad man, world-weary and haunted by the fear of failure and self; and the romantic, optimistic for what the future might hold. The pace at which he switched gears between these modes was dizzying. It kept me off guard and created the same kind of enigmatic aura in person that is often conjured by his darkly funny, deeply disturbing, and very emotive art.
A large part of Cattelan's success has been attributed to his unique ability to mock and shock. When his untitled 2004 work of three lifelike sculptures of children lynched from a tree debuted in Milan, it incensed one God-fearing man so much that the gentleman tried to cut the kids down himself, busting his own ass in the process. With 1999's La Nona Hora, a sculpture that features Pope John Paul II being crushed by a meteorite, Cattelan caused such a furor in Poland that two members of the parliament tried to remove the offending boulder and stand the bludgeoned religious effigy upright by themselves. Given his history of instigations, I should have anticipated the outrageousness of our sit-down interview, which took place on a day when the Guggenheim was closed to the public, just a few feet from his golden crapper.
While America has come to take on a new sociopolitical meaning to many in the wake of Donald Trump's presidency, it felt like Cattelan wanted to make it clear to me that it also represents his fascination with excrement. Before I could get out my first interview question, he cut me off and leaned over to ask my photographer Olivia Locher and her brother, Brandon, who works as her assistant (and lives with her in Midtown), if the two had ever "swapped fluids." In hindsight, I realize he had been building to this question for quite sometime, peppering Olivia and Brandon with all kinds of goofy queries about their sleeping arrangements, romantic lives, and how long they've gone without seeing each other. When their answer wasn't satisfying, he explained to all three of us the implications of incest: "It's a little more normal when it is between twins."
When it was time for Olivia to photograph him, Cattelan upped the absurdity ante. Brandon had set up a seamless and positioned a chair for the artist to sit in. Olivia went about trying to direct Cattelan in a way to get the best look— head up, chin down, shift to the left, scooch to the right, etc. But it wasn't long before the artist began directing her.
First, he asked Olivia to take off her shoes, which were DIY versions of collagist Ray Johnson's famed John Cage footwear: black-and-white saddle shoes with the words "John" and "Cage" blotched in reverse-out across the toes. Instead of putting the lace-ups on his feet, he got on all fours and pounced around with them at his kneecaps.
"Should I get real midget-y?" he asked me, before calling for a long black sweater of some kind. Everyone around the set started scrambling to find him something long, dark, and drape-y with sleeves. Ultimately, an employee at the Guggenheim gave up the black cardigan that had been keeping her warm from the museum's oppressive A/C.
Before we knew it, the standard portrait had transformed into something bizarre and otherworldly. Cattelan was there, but this time as an oblong nugget-person, making strongman poses with his arms and mean-mugging. He even started talking in a different voice. It was squeaky, semi-American, and all over antsy—like a cross between Joe Pesci, Napoleon, and a toddler. We all just watched, entranced and laughing. Once again, he had us under his spell—but who was he?
One thing is for certain: Cattelan is, as Axelrod told me, "about as successful as you could possibly be in the realm of modern art." Single works by him have gone for over $10 million. And over the past 30 years, he's been exhibited in the most vaunted museums (the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Musée du Louvre in Paris, and the Tate Modern in London have all showcased his work), and his shows are often considered blockbusters.
His immense success was especially at the forefront of my mind when I was with him at the Guggenheim, a space that celebrated his life's work with All, a massive, costly, and confounding retrospective. I was one of the 4,000-plus people who came each day to see that exhibit during its three-month run in the winter of 2011. More than 100 of his witty and macabre sculptures—a praying kiddie Hitler ( Him, 2001), a pair of upside down white New York police officers ( Frank and Jamie, 2002), a Pinocchio drowning facedown in a pool ( Daddy, Daddy, 2008), and more—were all strung up from the oculus of the museum's rotunda.
Standing underneath them all, I was first hit with an awe for the technical expertise to hoist so many priceless things from the ceiling. But as I made my way up through the exhibit, I found myself laughing hysterically and feeling incredibly distraught with the human condition—both emotional extremes left me looking inward for meaning. This is the effect of his work. As Axelrod explained: "Cattelan's art can be seen as funny or fun. Or you can try and say a million smart things about it. You can do any of this, because the experience you come to it with is a part of the work itself."
Cattelan reached the point where he could stage such a radical retrospective at one of the world's most elite museums in a very nontraditional way. Unlike the stereotype of an artistic elite, privileged and educated, the Padua, Italy-born artist had to carve out his own lane. The son of a truck driver and cleaning woman, he grew up rough and working class. He spent his youth getting poor grades in school and then flailing around with shitty, menial jobs as a young man, frittering away in a post office, a mortuary, a kitchen... Eventually, he got wise and realized how silly it is to toil for a living.
In the 1980s, he began designing furniture that manufactures would assemble for him. By the late 80s, he was applying the same approach to his art. In 1993's Working Is a Bad Job, he had an ad agency install a billboard promoting perfume in the space allotted to him at the Venice Biennale; in 2007's Untitled, taxidermists plugged a headless horse for him into a wall; in 2004's Now, fabricators placed a suited, shoeless John F. Kennedy for him in a coffin. But despite achieving the kind of rare career triumphs that elude 99.9 percent of artists, living or dead, when I asked him about his success, he pushed back.
"You don't wanna see your work," he said to me with America visible behind him, "because you might find out that you do not like it." He explained that our chat was the first time he had actually seen his gilded throne since it was made public. And before that, he said he'd only spent about ten minutes inspecting it. He told me he actually disliked being around his work. And while he was appearing in press shots to support Axelrod's documentary, he had absolutely no intention of watching it, because that would be "painful."
But his unease isn't just with his past. At times, it seems to extend to the future. "I'm terrorized by a fear of failure," he admitted. ""Failure is always there."
Cattelan's willingness to reveal these fears through his art has long attracted me to his work. For his first major solo exhibition in 1989, after being dismayed with not having any idea of what to show, he simply shut the doors of the gallery and put up a sign that read "Torno subito" ("Be Right Back"), a slogan Axelrod used as the title of her film. In 1996, for an exhibit at the de Appel arts center in Amsterdam, when he was unable to come up with something, he stole the entire exhibition of another artist and tried to pass it off as his own—until the police stormed his stolen exhibition and threatened to toss his Mediterranean ass in jail. After initial rage over the theft, the wronged gallery actually allowed Cattelan to keep the stolen works for a few days.
While these could be perceived as larks, or heady commentaries on the tired conventions of art in the lineage of conceptualists like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, for Cattelan, they are about something else: survival. As he once told Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector in an interview, "I took the path of least resistance. It was the quickest and easiest thing to do. Afterward, I realized that it was much more about switching one reality for another." It's that particular inclination of Cattelan's that I find so relatable. In the face of the pressure and indignities of everyday working life, at times I think we all wish we could exchange our reality at will, or at the very least, slump a "Be Right Back" sign over our MacBooks.
Of course, not everyone is touched or amused. Take Cattelan's work at 2016's European Biennial of Contemporary Art, in which the artist placed wheelchair-bound paralympic athlete Edith Wolf-Hunkeler in the middle of Lake Zurich. The assumed idea was that Wolf-Hunkeler would "roll on water," but reported technical difficulties that hampered the effect caused it to garner punny and pithy headlines like artnet News's "Maurizio Cattelan's Wheelchair-on-Water Performance Is More Dunk Than Slam Dunk" and incited the discussion of his possible exploitation of Wolf-Hunkeler.
Cattelan's detractors also see the high prices garnered by his work not as a validation of his artistic prowess, but more a symptom of the way hype, instead of actual quality, can fuel the art market. And there is certainly truth to this view.
In the days after his controversial Untitled sculpture of hanging children was vandalized, Cattelan's 1996 The Ballad of Trotsky, which features a stuffed and suspended stallion, fetched $2.1 million at an art auction in New York City—a record for him at the time. As shown in Be Right Back, some of these top bidders are super elites with little interest in art, who use his works as, what Axelrod has described as, "capsules of wealth." These financiers spend a fortune on art by Cattelan only to lock it up in storage for years, before flipping them at a profit to another wealthy millionaire, who will probably do the same.
To his credit, Cattelan seems nonplussed by all the hype. When I asked what does one need to do to be as filthy rich as he has become, he looked genuinely hurt. It was another moment in which he shifted gears again, his signature sly smirk turning plaintive as he said in a sincere and hushed tone, "Money is a bad friend. Don't ever do anything for money." Axelrod, having documented Cattlean's rise, contends that this is the way he's always looked at things. She described the Cattelan way of life as "Spartan," stressing he has a good relationship with money. "People think of money in different ways," she said. "Some count their dollars, and it rules their lives or they try to hold it over people. For Cattelan, it's not the end goal—it's a means to an end. It represents a way to have more freedom."
This freedom has been hard-won by Cattelan, and it's one victory that he is outwardly proud of. "Sometimes I see myself as a locked box," he confessed, "very detached from myself and others. But I feel lucky, because I am the owner of my time, and you cannot buy time. Sometimes life feels like you're that cartoon coyote in the big canyon. You think that you will walk and walk and then errrrrr boom! You know, sink straight to the bottom. But that's not the case. The fear is there, but at some point, you find yourself on the other side."
He leveled with me. "I can also be miserable sometimes. But life can really be a fantastic journey, with friends and happiness. It can be good because it is about you learning about yourself."
"Yourself" was an interesting word to hear from Cattelan. In my time with him, I realized that the question who is Maurizio Cattelan isn't just confounding for journalists like me and Axelrod. It's also an existential question for the man himself. Where so many of us engage in building one-dimensional facsimiles of our identity for social interaction and social media, hiding the seedier elements from our peers, our friends, and ourselves, Cattelan embraces the inscrutability of self—from distorting his own image into creepy diminutive sculptures (We, 2010), to having imposters pose as him in public, "switching one reality for another." Even at this point in his career and his life, he's still renegotiating who he is.
In 2011, at the time of his massive retrospective, he announced that he was retiring from the art world. The decision seemed to come out of an unease with creative stagnancy. "I started to feel such a distance from the things I was doing, as if I was under some kind of anesthetic," he told the New York Times. To seal its finality, he even promoted the retrospective with photos of himself carrying around a tombstone with an epitaph that read "The End." It appeared as though he was extremely committed. Thankfully for us, he changed his mind. He told the New York Times in an interview around the exhibition of America that he realized not long after retiring that "it's even more of a torture not to work than to work." And just like that, the retirement that could have defined him became one of the many skins that he has shed throughout his career. In spending time with him, I realized that creative 180s like these are an extension of the man's uncanny ability to be a different guy from one moment to the next.
There are a lot of things that he said during our conversation that touched me, inspired me, and bugged me out, but the one that stands out the most was an offhand but telling remark he had during the photo shoot. Olivia and Brandon Locher were preparing to take his picture, when the latter jokingly told Cattelan, who's taken thousands of photos over the years, to "Just be yourself."
Cattelan stopped and looked at him.
"Sometimes it's not easy being yourself," he said.
See Be Right Back in Los Angeles on June 2 at the Laemmle Music Hall Theater.
Follow Wilbert L. Cooper on Twitter.