I had imagined that Maurizio Cattelan’s “All” -- a retrospective that consists of nearly every work he’s ever made, suspended via cables and a truss from the Guggenheim’s ceiling -- would look like a total clusterfuck, a supernova sparked when Madame Tussauds crashed into a Calder factory and exploded. In fact, when I first saw these 128 sculptures, framed photos, paintings, stuffed horses, sleeping dogs, a sitting cow, a dead squirrel, mannequins, numerous self-portraits and assorted gewgaws, all floating in the atrium, my fan heart sank. It seemed sedate, sparse and anticlimactic, less clusterfuck and more inchoate limbo.
Although the 51-year-old, Italian-born art star is much loved by curators and collectors, and his work sells for millions, critics haven’t been kind to Cattelan. His work is often dismissed as a bunch of sight gags, one-liners and kitsch. He’s considered an entertainer more than an artist, a poseur joker who mocks the system that makes him able to be a millionaire poseur joker. It’s true that his work can be wildly uneven, but I’ve had faith in him ever since I saw it for the first time, in 1994: The installation was a live donkey in a Greene Street gallery. (The neighbors howled, and the show lasted one day.) Since then, Cattelan has, often enough, done what an artist ought to: open the floor beneath my feet and take me places I didn’t know were there.
Standing at the bottom of the atrium, staring up at it all in the minutes after I arrived, I thought, My God, this guy’s gonna get blistered. (He did: Artnet Magazineran a negative review of this show before it opened.) He’s been way too cute promoting the show, too, doing things like carrying a tombstone reading “THE END,” telling the press that after this show he’ll retire from being an artist. The clownishness makes it that much easier to write off Cattelan as a man addicted to using museums as material, one who’s been tripped up by his own ideology.
This tripping isn’t altogether his doing. Since 1959, the glorious Guggenheim has laid a trap for artists, and many have fallen into it. Save for Tino Sehgal’s 2010 visitor-activated museum installation and Matthew Barney’s transformation of the building into a Vaseline-filled body that he moved through like some mad narrative organism, almost all surveys here are forced into a format of one-piece-per-architectural-bay, commanding viewers to keep a moderate distance, pause, move on and repeat, all the way to the top of the ramp.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Cattelan would desperately search for a way around this format, trying to deny the kind of totalizing summation that often makes artists view retrospectives as being entombed alive. “All” is Cattelan internally fissuring, convulsing into a spectacular grand seizure. It’s full disclosure, nondisclosure, self-martyrdom, panic attack and jumping-the-shark rolled into one -- and it’s also some kind of masterpiece.
As I made my way up the ramp, my initial letdown turned into pathos-filled wonderment, intrigue, evolving awe. Far from being a one-shot chaotic burst, the installation becomes, for viewers, a slow burn. New objects come into view; you see work from below, then circle around and see it straight on, then from above. This multiplication forms optical echoes, patterns of thought, altering ideas about what you’ve experienced. The mess becomes a mesh. Things cohere, then break apart. In spite of the onslaught of visual material, objects somehow come into view one at a time. Yet all the while you’re unconsciously seeing everything at once, fitting it all together in changing configurations and categories.
Without spatial, chronological or textural ordering, we’re thrown back on our own devices. I loved not having to read the windy explanations that usually accompany conceptual sculpture. Here, Cattelan’s work is in traumatized traction, laid out in freeze-frame exploded view. The museum becomes a Rembrandt or Eakins depiction of an operating theater, with viewers circled around a splayed corpse. The inanimate objects seem less dead, more inhabited, phantomlike.
Insiders who know almost every piece on view may still not realize what they’re looking at, missing an artwork here, forgetting others there, seeing old things in new ways. It may be tough on those unfamiliar with any of this, as they’ll lose a lot in the thicket. But that’s always the case in museums; Cattelan just exaggerates this condition. New viewers, I could see, were forming their own ideas, writing their own private books about Cattelan. I suspect most in the art world will see “All” as nothing but an ironic joke, but I see it as a stone-cold, irony-free zone.
Look at JFK in his coffin, floating in midair. It replaces his death with something closer to an ongoing American question about his assassination. The full-size horse hanging near the floor -- the lowest piece, the first and most visible -- gives us the flaying nakedness that all artists must feel when exhibiting their work. Two photos of the clasped hands sticking out of dirt that I saw in the 1999 Venice Biennale continue to vex me: I still think they belonged to an actual buried man (as Cattelan’s closest friends assure me they did) and weren’t simply animatronic hands (as almost everyone else believes).
I’m tantalized by the sight of his tipped-over Pope John Paul II, here resting peacefully on a platform. Empathy-inducing art that annoys, flummoxes and escapes categorization is a Cattelan mainstay. I see fizzy nothings that delight, a picture of a randy French art dealer he dressed as a pink penis for a month, the full-size Picasso figure created to greet MoMA visitors.
As someone scared of soccer hooligans, I love the granite monument to all the games Team England has ever lost. I also love the sight of the 21-foot-long Foosball table on which Cattelan, in the midst of immigration turmoil in 1991, arranged for African guest-workers to play an Italian team. (Even if here it may come off as only a silly surrealistic Christmas ornament.) I am the son of a Jewish immigrant who walked out of Russia and Germany to escape death, and I was newly mesmerized by Cattelan’s miniature Hitler as supplicant child.
When Thomas Pynchon put together his work for a collection, he wrote of the sickening feeling of wanting to do a “wall-to-wall rewrite.” That’s what “All” is: Cattelan butchering everything he’s ever done, playing hide-and-seek, hoping his art can somehow escape the scarring effects of being so visible. “All” is an artist undergoing an intense mortification of the flesh, desecrating his life’s work, making this great big Maurizio piñata of brilliance and failure in order, maybe, to bring about aesthetic resurrection.
I often dislike parts of people I love. That’s how I feel about “All.” Cattelan is a very uneven artist, one who's made a lot of clunkers. Part of me wishes he’d have broken through his own idea and at least installed a few pieces elsewhere in the museum (the Hitler maybe; the horse with its head stuck in the wall; his self-portrait in which he's crawling out of the floor). Yet "All" is an exhibition that repeats the Frankenstein monster’s haunted words to its maker: “You are my creator, but I am your master.” Many people will not feel mastered by Cattelan, but I’m thrilled by what he has done. I stand on the ramps staring into this miasmatic cloud of floating art, spellbound, unnerved, pleased and eager for him to go back on his word. Don’t quit.
“Maurizio Cattelan: All,” Nov. 4, 2011-Jan. 22, 2012, Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10128.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.