Although I constantly see art that I am moved to talk or write about that falls outside of my usual geographical constraints at The Star, few exhibits have challenged my actual perception of art, and particularly sculpture, as much as the current installation “Maurizio Cattelan: All” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
The Italian artist has taken over the center of the museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright building with almost every hyperrealist sculpture and art piece he has ever conceived. The dozens of works are suspended in a dizzying amalgamation that viewers take in by climbing or descending the spiral.
Since this is not a review, I won’t touch on the more critical aspects of it from an art historical perspective. I’m not certain that it succeeds on that level. This is, rather, a visual appreciation of a work that I think anyone who has a chance to experience it should.
The objects include self-portraits, realistic facsimiles and taxidermy of animals, full-scale painted billboards, perching pigeons, upside-down cops, a praying Hitler, and other odd, irreverent, and punkish visual pranks and jokes sometimes striking a chord, sometimes simply facile and bratty.
It is the installation that makes the show. Upon entering at ground level the eyes are drawn up to a clotted grouping of things all too detailed and obscured to take in at once. Entering the spiral ramp, the details of each object begin to emerge and the overall piece begins to engage: dangling feet lead to legs, bodies, and heads; an elephant either Klanish, ghostly, or embarrassed, hangs hiding under a sheet; a seemingly full-scale dinosaur’s skeleton and a 20-foot-long foosball table are some of the objects that emerge.
Students of modern art history will note references to international artists or countrymen such as Pablo Picasso, Joseph Beuys, Lucio Fontana, and Piero Manzoni.
The objects may refer to other works (the foosball table was actually used for a competition as part of a larger work) or are stand-alone pieces. They may suspend by themselves or sit on pedestals to provide some grounding and better visibility. Without its room-like setting, for example, a squirrel that has committed suicide in its well-appointed kitchen would not be readable, whereas a respectable older woman crammed into a gleaming new stainless-steel refrigerator is a piece that can stand (or hang) on its own.
At each new level and each new vantage point the objects become more and more fascinating. Even the ones that may be familiar offer new interest and insight. At the same time, the architecture remains in view, forever part of the work. With no art displayed in the bays, the building’s form is its function and an inextricable accomplice in the work. In fact, all of the self-references and cross-references flying back and forth between the works themselves and the building can be as dizzying as the horses, donkeys, dogs, wax figures, and death-masked effigies doing their acrobatics throughout the installation.
With each new angle and vantage point, from worm’s eye up to bird’s eye, the piece forces you to constantly engage with it and its components. I cannot remember any exhibit that ever saturated me with its imagery in such a way. It is exhaustive and exhausting. Upon reaching the top, I was relieved and a bit elated. It is somewhat like reaching Valhalla, and the delirium from so much engagement certainly plays a factor in the exhilaration.
That is the show’s strength. Its weaknesses become more apparent on the way down. We decided to take the ramp rather than the elevator. At the time, it seemed there might have been even more to glean from the parts now that they had been taken in whole. That was where the spell began to break. It was not clear if it was the objects themselves or the intensity that had built up over such intimate and repetitive viewing, but seeing them once in this context was certainly enough.
Those same works that seemed to possess such mystery and present endless revelation had nothing to offer on second glance. Weaknesses already apparent became fatal flaws and strengths became merely amusing tidbits. It seems that the genius of the artist was to understand his own works’ limitations and play against them, by refusing to elevate them in one way while quite literally doing so in another. This may leave you with some disappointment, but only because of what the experience initially offered. That would be my endorsement of this unusual and still compelling juggernaut.
Jennifer Landes is arts editor at The Star.