Artistic License

On the eve of a career-spanning retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim, the ever-elusive Maurizio Cattelan—with a little help from a friend—explains himself and his art. Sort of.


What follows is excerpted from an unauthorized autobiography of Maurizio Cattelan, as told to me over years of assiduous hanging out with the artist in New York and Italy. It’s a tale that will often seem slightly off, since it circles around history, skirting facts but stopping just shy of falsehood. Maurizio Cattelan is our contemporary Pinocchio, which makes me his poor Geppetto, cheerfully imbibing hogwash and half-truths in order to glean a few nuggets of reluctant candor. Here, the artist takes us on a virtual tour of nine seminal works—but first, his impressions of the Guggenheim… Francesco Bonami

The Guggenheim Museum in New York is an upside-down Tower of Babel. The architect didn’t want to reach for the sky; instead, he wanted all artists who enter there to become acquainted with hell. Abandon hope, all ye who come to show your work here. You forget what you were trying to express, you disappear into the vortex, and if, like me, you arrive bereft of ideas, you have no option but to pray.

The curator standing beside me asked what I was planning to do, what I was going to invent for her—the same old story, same old script—but I had nothing left to say, nothing to do, nothing to decide. I hadn’t prayed since I was kicked out of my parish church as a child, but there in the ­Guggenheim’s rotunda, I started begging forgiveness for all the ideas I had plagiarized, the unfortunates I had ridiculed, the animals I’d stuffed, the money I’d made, the women I’d treated like art objects, and the self I’d failed to take seriously. Suddenly, all my works became a crowd of Virgin Marys visible only to you, my viewer, who have always doubted the existence of Maurizio ­Cattelan—to you, faithless visitor. All these works appeared in the rotunda, begging you to kneel down and convert to the saving faith of that mysterious religion called Cattelanism, where God is a prankster.

LESSICO FAMILIARE, 1989 My first real artwork was about love, but it also was a way of giving the finger to love—or at least to that bourgeois concoction of hypocrisies and brittle rules and gestures, like walking hand in hand as a signal to the lonely, the unlucky, and the bereaved that “Hey, we’re together.” I am not made for that kind of love.

So I had a friend take a picture of me nude with my hands formed into a heart shape against my chest. I came across an empty silver picture frame at a friend’s parents’ house, the kind that people receive as wedding gifts. So I stole it, and when I got home, I slipped in the black and white picture of me. There it was, my first artwork—simple, ­immediate, and banal. It brought together the two halves of my identity: the freewheeling individualist and the artist chained to his ambitions. The frame was the art world, and I had voluntarily imprisoned myself within it. But I have always missed the other Maurizio, who stayed outside the frame—my wiser mini-me, my twin.

CESENA 47—A.C. FORNITURE SUD 12, 1991 Even after all these years in the art world, I still have the feeling of being an alien. It’s not a pleasant sensation, but I recognize that I’ve courted it. At an art fair in Bologna, Italy, I set up a table in a corner to collect donations for my soccer team, the Southern Supplies Football Club, made up entirely of African immigrants. I started to feel like a real team president, so I said to myself, What does a good executive do for his team? He builds a new stadium! So I did—well, not a stadium, exactly, but a little tabletop soccer set with 11 white players on one side and 11 black players on the other. Visitors to the fair played and screamed and scored. It was just like being in a real stadium. And I started getting noticed. I made new friends—artists, cura­tors, collectors, gallerists—who asked me what kind of work I did. I didn’t know how to answer, but I do now: I was framing states of mind. The soccer team was racism, framed and transformed into a game.

UNTITLED, 1993 I met a gallerist in Milan who offered me a show. I agreed, but first I bet him that he couldn’t sell one of my works—an empty ballpoint pen. A week after, he called to concede. He couldn’t get rid of it. A couple of days later I showed up in the gallery with a collector and managed to palm the empty ballpoint off on him. Even though the gallerist lost the bet, we agreed to do the show, but I imposed another condition: For two days before the opening, nobody could come to the gallery—even he had to stay away.

On the morning of the opening, the gallerist showed up. He had a bad moment when he realized that the front door had been bricked shut, but then he looked through a small slit and saw a mechanical teddy bear on a unicycle ride past in midair, balancing on a wire. I can still see that gallerist guffaw and his eyes sparkle. The greatest gift an artist can receive is when people react with joy to an idea that you thought might just be idiotic. I put my artistic license on the line that day. I was that bear on a wire, pedaling furiously to keep from crashing to the ground. That was my first self-portrait. »

NOVECENTO, 1997 In Milan, I was getting depressed. I was spinning my wheels and living in a shoebox apartment that I enlarged by chiseling away plaster from the walls. Every work was a battle, and the war I was waging against myself dragged on and on. When it came time to do a show, I suspended a stuffed horse from the ceiling. I had gotten the idea from World War I photographs of horses being hoisted onto ships headed for the front, but in the end it was really another self-portrait. I felt powerless, hung out to dry, horse meat for grinders wielded by curators and critics.

DYNAMO SECESSION, 1997 When I was invited to be part of a show in the famous Secession Building in Vienna, they stuck me down in the basement, making me feel simultaneously present and forgotten. So I got even: I took a couple of bicycles, set them up on stands, and connected the pedals to the building’s electric system. Then I told the maintenance guys to get on the bikes and take turns pedaling: If they stopped, the lights would go out. They accepted the task, and people who visited the show noticed that the intensity of the light depended on how tired or lazy the janitors got. To make art requires a lot of energy—some profitably invested, but much of it wasted. My career as an artist is a bit like those incandescent bulbs in Vienna: The light comes and goes depending on how hard I pedal. Sometimes my artistic energy bill is high because I’ve been burning through ideas at a tremendous rate. Then there are months in which I don’t use any artistic fuel at all and fail to generate so much as a single idea.

The year 1997 was an especially high-energy year. In the German city of Münster, I was asked to create a public work, so I rode around on my bicycle and passed by the town’s lake. Out of the blue—an expression that became the piece’s title—it came to me that it would be fun to throw a cadaver into the water. A week later I returned with a dummy corpse, rented a rowboat, and threw the lady into the lake. Well, maybe I did that: The piece became an urban legend, and nobody was sure the corpse actually existed, though many visitors grabbed boats and hunted for it.

UNTITLED, 1999 It’s been said that I’m an artist of spite—that I have a need to humiliate and embarrass. That’s not quite accurate, but it’s true that I occasionally get respect and disrespect a little mixed up. And if I have contempt for someone, I do get a yen for mischief. I’ve always detested soccer fans, for example—those drunken hooligans who seem to come unhinged whether their teams win or lose. So in London once, I informed a gallerist that I wanted him to exhibit a black granite stone on which I had engraved the list of matches that the English national soccer team had lost. He looked at me with cold eyes and an idiotic smile, which I took to mean that he hated me but was too polite to say so. When the show opened, we received death threats. I have never worked in that gallery again, and very little in England as a whole.

UNTITLED, 1999 When I got back to Milan, I recounted the soccer experience to my friend, also a gallerist, who remarked that if I had pulled such a stunt with his precious Milan team, he would have nailed me to the wall. I told him that was an intriguing idea, and for our next show I stuck him to the wall of the gallery with industrial-strength duct tape. It was a real crucifixion, and after a few hours the poor man, deathly pale, rolled his eyes to the ceiling and said, “Maurizio, Maurizio, why have you forsaken me?” They had to take him to the hospital in an ambulance, which some people thought was part of the artwork, but it wasn’t.

LA NONA ORA, 1999 I had immense respect for Pope John Paul II. Even old and tired, afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, he still kept doggedly touring the world. I wondered how he did it. For an exhibit at a small museum in Basel run by a Polish director, I made a statue of the Pope holding his staff with the crucifix on top, and together with my Milanese gallerist friend, I propped him up in a room carpeted in red. The result was appalling. The show was supposed to open the following day, and I didn’t know what to do. We spent the night in the museum trying to think up an alternative.

I fell asleep for a few minutes and then jumped up, woke my companion, and said, “We have to break his legs.” My friend thought I was nuts—was I referring to the curator? “We have to break the pope’s legs!” I repeated. We sawed the legs off at the knee and then hurried over to a quarry and ordered a massive boulder. A few hours before the opening, the museum director took one look at the mangled pontiff and went totally white. When the truck delivered the boulder, the poor man tried halfheartedly to prevent us from rolling it onto His Holiness, but it was too late. We even broke the skylight to make it seem as though the rock were a meteorite sent by God to stop his overzealous servant from accepting any burden. There were some who believed that the work was a provocation and a sign of contempt, but they were way off base: It was actually an act of mercy.

HOLLYWOOD, 2001 I was on vacation in Sicily, mulling over my contribution to the Venice Biennale, when I was struck by the similarity between the hills outside Palermo and their counterparts in Hollywood. I hiked to the peak of a mountain of garbage that was managed by the Mafia and wondered if changing the imaginative associations of a place could alter its reality, too. Los Angeles, after all, is plagued by brutal murders, race riots, and earthquakes, but the Hollywood sign overshadows all that. Lies wither, but dreams fly.

So I thought, Why not erect the Hollywood sign here, on a Sicilian refuse dump, bringing hope and fantasy to a part of the world that is desperately in need of both? I decided that my Biennale work would be a one-to-one scale model of that famous brand name, relocated to Palermo. It was a lunatic undertaking, but I figured that if I could make people forget about violence for a little while just by transposing a symbol from one place to another, the experiment would be worthwhile. When I first saw that H go up against the sky, for a moment even I was confused about what world I was in: Had I imported a bit of L.A. to ­Sicily—or beamed the whole city of Palermo over to California?

Adapted from Maurizio Cattelan, Autobiografia Non Autorizzata, by Francesco Bonami, published in Italy by Arnoldo Mondadori Editori, copyright 2011.

Courtesy of the Maurizio Cattelan Archive