"Projects 65: Maurizio Cattelan," Nov. 6-Dec. 4, 1998, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, N.Y.
I stood beside a whorl of bubble wrap in Picasso's dressing room, a storage closet in the Museum of Modern Art's subterranean visitor services office. In this instance, Picasso is not the world-famous artist but an actor wearing a Picasso costume greeting visitors in the museum lobby. It's part of a work by Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan (who I interviewed last month for ArtNet). Cattelan had agreed to let me be Picasso for half an hour.
I had big dreams for my time slot. As curator Laura Hoptman points out in her essay accompanying the exhibition, Cattelan's Picasso is a "walking, three-dimensional fulfillment" of fears that museums might be dumbing down programming in order to appeal to a mass public.
My plan was to make Picasso more radical. My Picasso would charge into the gift shop, scoop up a bunch of sparkly MoMA pens and run around the museum handing them out. In my fantasy, the people look up at me with the shining eyes and heartfelt gratitude of Tiny Tim.
I did not discuss my scheme with Cattelan. His approach is hands-off, anyway. He never fabricates any aspect of his work. Picasso's head, for instance, was made by a sculptor in Milan who worked from drawings by cartoonist Umberto Manfrin.
Not that Cattelan would have minded my plan. He initially wanted Picasso to panhandle in the museum, but the administration nixed that part of his project. Cattelan diplomatically called the change a "normal part of perfecting the work."
Two young actors, Judy Elkan and David Cote, usually play Picasso (who, like Mickey Mouse at Disneyworld, is mute). Picasso received at least two reprimands from the museum. The first came on opening night, when Elkan, testing the institution's boundaries, tried to panhandle. A museum administrator told her to stop immediately and Picasso hasn't panhandled since.
The second admonishment came a week later, when an assistant from curator Robert Storr's office told Elkan that Picasso could no longer give patrons the finger, chase them around the lobby or dart into traffic. The reprimand, said Storr, came in response to visitor complaints. "It's a question of where impish behavior becomes aggressive to the viewer," he said. "We wouldn't hire Don Rickles to work the lobby."
Elkan claimed that she had never given the finger to any museum patron, but admitted that she had ventured onto 53rd Street "for a photo shoot." Elkan confessed that she did chase one patron -- a man who had pinched her ass. (As a result, she then tried to camouflage her gender when performing by keeping her hands closed. She also stuffed a tube sock in her underwear.)
Cote, who said he was mystified by the complaints, added, "In the beginning, I tried to be subversive, which was what I thought Maurizio was after." He took pamphlets from the information desk and tossed them around, or mocked the museum guards' poses, among other things. But he gave it up after a while, he said. "It's much more interesting to get people to collaborate in the silliness."
By and large, museum visitors love Picasso. Fashionably clad adult bohemians, deep in conversation, stopped to point and smile. A stiff matron melted when Picasso kissed her hand. Museum guards gave Picasso the high five. One child, initially terrified, was won over when Picasso danced.
This outpouring of love for Picasso has been the biggest surprise, said Hoptman. "There's an uncynical jolliness that the artist may not have intended," she said. "In a funny way, if it continues to be this well-received, it's a failure -- if Maurizio's work is about getting under the museum's skin." The piece is not that simple, she added. Cattelan "is complicit with the museum," said Hoptman. "We asked him to do this. We're paying him."
That subtlety may be lost, however, on those museum visitors who don't know who Picasso is. (One way Elkan tries to address this identity problem is by conjuring up the artist's imagery: She places a finger on either side of her forehead, paws the floor with her foot and charges a few feet, like a bull.) One visitor from Maine shook Picasso's hand, but said afterwards that he had no idea who the character was supposed to be. "I just walked here from the Javits Center," he said apologetically. When told that it was Picasso, he mused, "I guess they want anything attractive to kids."
Several visitors assumed that Picasso was Pollock -- including one teen who ran past Picasso yelling, "Jackson Pollock's got a big head!"
Now it was my turn. I stood in the storage closet hastily pulling on Picasso's puffy undershirt, knee pads, sandals and socks. Next, Elkan helped me adjust Picasso's battery pack around my waist. The pack powered the fan installed inside the crown of Picasso's Styrofoam head. Even with the fan, Elkan warned me, the head could get hot and smelly.
Then, in a scene like childbirth in reverse, she held the gaping neck towards me. I curled my back, took a breath and slid my head in. It was indeed hot, heavy and a little smelly. Getting used to looking out Picasso's mouth was even more difficult. The thin slit afforded a limited frontal view and absolutely no peripheral vision.
As Elkan helped me adjust the head's straps, I was horrified to hear myself clunk the head against the wall several times. My sense of space was completely off. Flapping my arms crazily, I trundled into the elevator and prepared to make my debut.
Venturing into the lobby, I promptly careened into several chairs. I was grateful my face was hidden. With Elkan's help, I steadied myself. I noticed an elderly couple smiling at me. I tried to adjust the head so I could see them better. It was shocking. The last time any strangers -- let alone any strangers in New York -- had smiled at me with that much affection, I had yet to be potty-trained. They giggled as I approached them clumsily, and I suddenly realized that my Picasso dream had come true: shining-eyed museum visitors adored me.
Any subversive ideas I might have had flew out of my head as I shamelessly tried, for the next 30 minutes, to win the adoration of the museum-going public. Sometimes I failed, as when I pinched the big toe of a woman who sat in the sculpture garden with her legs outstretched, reading a book. She looked up, asking dryly, "Who are you?" Elkan, to my mute rescue, chirped, "It's Picasso!" "Oh," the woman said, returning to her book.
But more often, I succeeded. I high-fived a bunch of excited schoolkids, waved to gaping tourists as they passed by in cabs, and stepped into the museum gift shop and amused shoppers with my ardor for Picasso address books. ("Picasso's not supposed to be in here," sniped one worker.)
In the end, I was in fact a bit subversive -- with the incredible flow of tourist money into the museum. Which is to say, I got some. A teenage boy approached Elkan wanting to know if she would take a picture of him and me, using the Polaroid camera she had hanging around her neck. I rubbed my fingers together in the international gesture for "cash" and the kid offered me a dollar.
It was a special one, he said, handing it to me. Someone had stamped it with the statement "I AM AMERICA." Standing there studying the bill, I found myself adopting a more museum-like perspective. I suddenly realized that visitors might not adore a Picasso who looked like he was sticking dollars in his mouth.