Unlike professional athletes, actors (Gene Hackman) and some novelists (Philip Roth), visual artists don’t usually retire. Or if they do, they don’t announce it.
But in 2011, Maurizio Cattelan — one of the most expensive living artists, then at the peak of his career and the subject of an uproarious retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum — told the world that he was finished, fatigued both creatively and by the velocity of the money-fueled art world. During the last couple of years, though, Mr. Cattelan found himself itching to make things in three dimensions again. “Actually, it’s even more of a torture not to work than to work,” he said in an interview. And so he is coming out of retirement with a new sculpture that seems designed to proclaim his return with an exclamation point, though the piece is of modest size and will not be on view in a public gallery.
It will, instead, be installed in early May just off one of the ramps of the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, in a small, humble room where visitors often feel the urge to spend some time alone. The room has tiles, a sink, a mirror and a lock on the door. And now, instead of its standard Kohler toilet, it will have a solid 18-karat-gold working replica of one, a preposterously scatological apotheosis of wealth whose form is completed in its function: You could go into the restroom just to bask in its glow, Mr. Cattelan said, but it becomes an artwork only with someone sitting on it or standing over it, answering nature’s call.
“There’s the risk that people will think of it as a joke, maybe, but I don’t see it as a joke,” he added, on a recent trip from his home in Milan to New York, where he lived for many years. Mr. Cattelan, who grew up poor in Padua, Italy, the son of a truck driver and a cleaning woman, was asked if economic inequality figured into his thinking about the piece. “I was born in a condition where I was — how do you say? — forced to think about that. It’s not my job to tell people what a work means. But I think people might see meaning in this piece.”
In one sense, the sculpture is a punning extension of his work on the ribald picture magazine he founded in 2010 with Pierpaolo Ferrari, called Toilet Paper. The toilet also has obvious 20th-century art-historical precedents: Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” the urinal he unsuccessfully submitted to an exhibition in New York 99 years ago this month, and Piero Manzoni’s “Merda d’Artista,” metal cans with the contents labeled as the artist’s feces, each can priced according to its weight in gold. Though Mr. Cattelan began thinking about the piece before the United States presidential campaign was in full swing, the conspicuous gaudiness of the solid-gold facility will surely evoke Donald J. Trump’s taste for gold-plated bathroom fixtures, and the sculpture’s title, “Maurizio Cattelan: ‘America,’” inspired by Kafka’s novel “Amerika,” will engender some heavy-duty interpretations.
Nancy Spector, the longtime chief curator at the Guggenheim, said the Occupy movement and growing concerns over the concentration of wealth immediately came to mind when Mr. Cattelan approached her to see if the museum was interested in hosting the toilet. “I think this is going to enter into that discourse, and we have to be prepared for the reactions that people are going to have to it,” said Ms. Spector, who recently left the Guggenheim to become chief curator and deputy director at the Brooklyn Museum. She added that when she presented Richard Armstrong, the Guggenheim’s director, with Mr. Cattelan’s idea, “within two seconds he said, ‘Do it.’ It made so much sense.” (Neither Mr. Cattelan nor museum officials would reveal the sculpture’s cost, but they said it was being paid for with private funds and would remain at the Guggenheim for the foreseeable future.)
Guggenheim officials said that they anticipated lines for the Cattelan bathroom and added that a guard or attendant might be placed near the door to ensure orderly waiting — and also to make certain that no one tries to abscond with a piece of the toilet.Continue reading the main story
They added that 18-karat gold was chosen for its solidity, though they acknowledged the possibility that the sculpture still could be scratched or damaged.
Mr. Cattelan is known as both a public jester and an intensely private figure, and he said that the decision to retire at 51 was agonizing. The debut of the piece comes as he is emerging into public view in a way he never quite has before in his career. “Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back,” a documentary that the filmmaker Maura Axelrod has spent more than a decade making, will debut on Sunday at the Guggenheim as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. “I didn’t know he was planning to announce his retirement when I started making the movie,” said Ms. Axelrod, who came to the project after a career as a journalist covering wars and regions in crisis. “And then, as I was finishing it, he decided he was going to come back. So ‘Be Right Back’ really ended up being the appropriate title.”
Mr. Cattelan cooperated only reluctantly with Ms. Axelrod, but through interviews with family, friends and art-world associates, a picture emerges of a fairly dark soul, afflicted with deep self-doubt and pessimism about humanity — a take Mr. Cattelan has parodied in his own work, raising the possibility that this worldview might be a bit of an act. After so many years delving into his persona, Ms. Axelrod said, “I don’t think I got very close to figuring out what he’s really like.” As to whether he should be seen as a significant artist or more a phenomenon of the star-making art market, she added, “I hope that that question is still on the table and I’ve just put more information into the debate.”
In the recent interview, Mr. Cattelan said the art market’s emergence over the last dozen years as a kind of hedge fund for billionaires was not his primary motivation for retiring. “But the way it felt was like driving a car and someone else was controlling the speed,” he said, adding that his retirement angered many of his collectors, who feared it would cause the value of his work to decline. That seems not to be the case. A 2001 work, “Him,” a jarringly realistic boy-size Hitler on his knees, is expected to sell at a Christie’s auction in May for between $10 million and $15 million, which would break an auction record for Mr. Cattelan’s work, set in 2010, of almost $8 million.
Creating the toilet, Mr. Cattelan said, gave him a way “to get around the wall I had hit,” and he said coming out of retirement could give him more say in how his older work is exhibited.
As for new work, he said, he has come up with only one other idea, which he is keeping to himself. With a smile and a shrug, he said, “I have limited vision.”Continue reading the main story