It’s hard to stand out in New York And if you do, you’ll usually have something exceptional to show for it. Such is the case with the city’s architecture; such is the case with its art.
The Guggenheim Museum has been around for over half a century. A celebrated institution, the building is an artwork unto itself, subjected to a fair amount of controversy. Some say that Frank Lloyd Wright ‘designed his building as an asymmetric nose-thumbing at the rigid order of New York’s streets and architecture’; others believe that he was an architect ahead of his time.
“Mr. Wright’s greatest building, New York’s greatest building.” said Architect Philip Johnson, “one of the greatest rooms of the 20th century.”
A contested expansion in 1992 (a rectangular annex was added to the museum’s backdrop) provoked further outrage and debate. Woody Allen likened its new look to a “giant lavatory basin”. And, while the museum sits directly across from Central Park’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, Ms. Onassis agreed with Allen.
I have always loved The Guggenheim Museum. Located on the Upper East Side’s Fifth Avenue, to me it is emblematic of New York’s landscape; an architectural feat that I am in awe of. Whether admiring it from the outside or within, it’s a fascinating structure that stands the test of time and continues to inspire. Furthermore, museum’s renowned permanent collection always measures up to its temporary exhibits.
If you haven’t ever seen or visited The Guggenheim, picture a cylindrically shaped building that looks like a spring or a perfectly curled orange peel, but white. The art gallery circumnavigates the building’s walled interior and is viewed along a walkway that spirals its way to the top. (If you’ve seen the movie, The International, featuring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, you may remember a lengthy action scene that took place in [a replica of] the museum’s interior).
The walkway’s balconies look into the building’s (usually) vacant centre, crowned by a domed skylight. There are four levels of galleries that exhibit Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and contemporary art works.
“There is an old saying about the Guggenheim; you come to see Kandinsky or Picasso, but you stay to see Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Recently, I visited The Guggenheim to see the popular — read: equally lauded and criticized — exhibit, Maurizio Cattelan: All. Said to be the final show of the artist-going-into-retirement, his retrospective hangs like a bejeweled chandelier of giant proportions in the heart of the museum’s rotunda, illuminated by the skylight immediately above.
Unfamiliar with Maurizio Cattelan’s works, I was intrigued to view the exhibition.
“Hailed simultaneously as a provocateur, prankster, and tragic poet of our times, Maurizio Cattelan (b.1960, Padua, Italy) has created some of the most unforgettable images in recent contemporary art.”
Known for his rebellious nature, Cattelan chose The Guggenheim to display his final artwork/installation. He’s not a stranger to controversy either:
“Unable to generate any ideas for his first solo exhibit, Cattelan instead placed a sign on the locked door of the gallery that read: Torno Subito or ”Be Back Soon”.” (This plastic sign was branded an artwork in 1989.);
“Having caved under the pressure of the Venice Biennale, and consequently with no work to show, he leased his allotted space to an agency who put a billboard in its place.” (Branded an artwork too, he titled it: Working is a Bad Job (1993).)
Cattelan has also been known to spread rumours about his artwork for self-promotion, and has been caught for creative theft.
“His source materials range widely, from popular culture, history, and organized religion to a meditation on the self that is at once humorous and profound… While bold and irreverent, the work is also deadly serious in its scathing critique of authority and the abuse of power.”
Looking up on it All
All shows the majority of Cattelan’s works (with a couple of exceptions as owners refused to pass them over) strung with ropes from a steel support structure. The exhibit feels morbid; one of its stronger underlying themes is death. Perhaps the installation symbolizes a ‘mass execution’ of sorts.
Cattelan’s body of work extends over a 21-year career; his style is satirical, political, and humorous. One of his earlier and more famous works includes La Nona Ora, a sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite. Translated to “The Ninth Hour” (1999), the work implies the hour when Christ died on the Cross. In 2000, this piece was shown in the Warsaw Zachęta National Gallery and “resulted in a public furor (that) ended in the resignation of Anda Rottenberg, the museum’s director, who refused to remove the work even after protests by members of parliament from a Catholic nationalist party, two of whom … attempted to succor the pope by picking him up from the ground.”.
A more recent work, titled ‘L.O.V.E.,’ an acronym in Italian for love, hate, vendetta, eternity, was erected near Milan’s stock market this year (2011). Referred to as ‘the finger’, the 36-foot white sculpture of a hand, with middle finger giving the birdie, was in response to the financial crisis of 2008. Read more here: WSJ.com.
Cattelan’s installation deviates from the norm. That is, usually the museum’s perimeter showcases artworks, but for now, it stands empty. It is stark in its whiteness, and looks futuristic. The focus is on the museum’s centre.
Erecting the installation at the core of the rotunda may have been Cattelan’s way of paying homage to the artists who petitioned against the building decades ago: in 1956, a group of artists, including Willem de Koonig, submitted a complaint to The Guggenheim’s trustees about the museum’s less-than-ideal gallery space. They complained that the walls were too concave for hanging art; the floor, uneven; the ceilings, too low.
That said, by focusing on The Guggenheim’s centre, museum-goers can admire Cattelan’s installation from a distance instead of lining up to see art that could’ve been crammed into the gallery’s niches.
“Cattelan’s career resists summation by any traditional exhibition format. Many of his early, action-based meditations are impossible to reconstruct, and his singular, iconic objects function best in isolation. (The exhibition) is thus a full-scale admission of the inadvisability of viewing his work within the context of a conventional chronological retrospective. The artist has resisted that model, creating instead a site specific installation that cunningly celebrates its rebelliousness. “
The exhibition is alluring, yet quizzical and erratic in its presentation – there’s disorder, lack of context, and disarray. You question the point of the works, directly after they were created… and now. Is this installation really Cattelan’s final artwork? Is it in part a subtle social experiment, where museum goers are now on the outside, looking in, as if life is observing death?
“Perversely encapsulating Cattelan’s career to date in an overly literal, three dimensional catalogue raisonné, the installation lampoons the idea of comprehensiveness.” Nancy Spector
I am not surprised that the exhibit has generated mixed reviews. You want to understand this giant body of work, but you can’t help wonder whether the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Albert Einstein
I came away from The Guggenheim with an appreciation of Cattelan’s perspective and was inspired to learn more about his individual works. Perhaps this was largely because the gallery was utilized in a new way. It was a stroke of genius to use the core of the rotunda to feature All; a new perspective allowed me to see with new eyes. Something has to be said for that.
The Guggenheim provides further details on the exhibition here:
To learn more about Cattelan’s individual works, The New Yorker’s, Peter Schjeldahl talks through them in an audio slide show tour:
 Ultan Guilfoyle, Architecture: Extension of a New York controversy: The Guggenheim is no ordinary museum.(UK: The Independent, 1992) Art: Last Monument (US: TIME Magazine, 1959)  Ultan Guilfoyle, op. cit ibid. Guggenheim Press Release (New York, 2011) ibid http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/on-view/maurizio-cattelan-all Roberta Smith, Maurizio Cattelan at the Guggenheim – Review (New York: NYTimes.com, 2011) Bettina Funcke, Pop or Populus: Art Between High and Low, (Cologne, 2008) 90