Interviewing the artist Maurizio Cattelan is like trying to extract a splinter with a spatula. The tools in your journalistic toolbox turn out to be blunt and absurd, but you proceed with them anyhow, quixotically. An hour into things, you’re smacking the splinter with the spatula, believing it will come out the other side.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Mr. Cattelan, 51, was born in Padua, Italy, and has lived in New York for almost 20 years. He has made funny art and is an intermittently somber man. Patches of moodiness cross the mountain range of his face, dark clouds on an otherwise sunny day.
This meteorological metaphor may have sprung to mind because the afternoon on which we met him at Trestle on Tenth restaurant in Chelsea, near his apartment, was overcast, a threat of rain hanging in the air. Leaning against the picture window, Mr. Cattelan made the observation that people walking by were having fun, and look at us, in here, doing this.
Mr. Cattelan detests interviews. He’s said as much, in interviews. Throughout his sit-down with The Observer he fidgeted, frowned, a child affronted by a plate of broccoli, desperate to flee the table; we took this personally until he revealed that his high-top sneakers were new and not yet broken in.
Our meeting began with his attempt to convince us not to use our recording device. Unsuccessful, he decided the best location for it was under his jacket. When we retrieved it, and placed it on the table between us, he tucked it, once again, under his jacket. The result of all of this motion, on the recording, is a series of shuffling sounds, interrupted by a baritone murmur, thickly accented and rich with suasion (his) and an anxious, high-pitched titter (ours).
The device’s final destination was on the seat next to us, as far away from Mr. Cattelan’s jacket as possible. Out of concern that it would, at this distance, not pick up his voice, we suggested that we might, in the manner of Occupy Wall Street, simply repeat everything he said.
“Then you said, blah blah,” we said, by way of demonstration.
“I didn’t say that,” he said.
He examined the paper on which we’d printed out our questions, and on which we’d scrawled a note: “Why is the Korean restaurant Do Hwa following my Twitter?”
Mr. Cattelan does not have a studio.
Where, then, does he work, we asked?
“I’m working now,” he replied. “If you say something that my mind turns into an idea, I will use it. Maybe I’ll make a show about Korean restaurants.”
Here are some artworks Mr. Cattelan has made: a horse with its head stuck in a wall; an elephant wearing a sheet as a ghost costume; a donkey toting a TV on its back; a set of tiny elevators. This week, the Guggenheim opens a retrospective in which most of his artworks will be suspended from the ceiling of the museum’s rotunda, an approach occasioned by Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. “If you don’t understand the building,” Mr. Cattelan said, “the building destroys you.” The show’s title, “All,” has a morbid edge: his 2007 piece of the same name is a life-size row of bodies draped with sheets.
Mr. Cattelan had just announced, in a New York Times article, that after his Guggenheim retrospective, he will retire. Reading this, we’d pictured the slim, refined Italian in tennis whites, sunglasses and a visor, sitting in a deck chair overlooking a golf course in Tampa, clutching a gin and tonic. The image was laughably discordant.
He’s not exactly retiring. “I call it retirement, but it’s about ending a period of work, and a certain type of practice. I’m not saying I won’t do anything else. I’m just reinventing myself.”
Preparing for “All” was a reckoning. “It was painful to work on it. I thought, maybe it’s time to close a gate and open another one. Retiring, so to speak, was a good way to have freedom.”
He handed us copies of his pictures-only magazine, Toilet Paper, which he will continue to produce, in retirement. “Whatever we do is going to end down there,” he said of its title.
Toilet Paper is loaded with surreal images sprung from Mr. Cattelan’s seemingly inexhaustible imagination. Some are touching: a young man holding the hand of a woman lost in an alcoholic stupor; others, tangily threatening: a rubber band, taut, aimed at a nipple. Its title reads as a self-deprecatory paean to print: we may sing to the high heavens the praises of the Internet, but nothing consumed online will ever be handy in the face of an empty roll.
“There is no story” to the display at the Guggenheim, Mr. Cattelan said, as there is no story to Toilet Paper. The nonhierarchical installation “has been fantastic to make peace with my mistakes, because works I don’t want to see anymore are as important as the ones that are most sought after.”
Along with iconic figures—the pope felled by a meteorite, a miniature, kneeling Hitler, a mini J.F.K. in a coffin—a persistent image in his oeuvre is himself. He’s placed a pair of mini Cattelans in a bed; hung himself from a coat hook; emerged from the floor of a museum. “I’ve always used the classic formats. Popes—there are hundreds of years of portraits of them. Animals, horses—a super extra classic subject. Evil—a super extra classic subject. The self-portrait is another classic format. Maybe I abuse it a little bit.”
He’s initiated his art dealers, taping Massimo de Carlo to a wall, outfitting Emmanuel Perrotin as a giant pink penis/bunny rabbit. Market savvy—“My position is extremely independent”—he is unapologetic. “In the end, I’m the one producing. You can be the greatest dealer in the world but if you don’t have the thing to sell, you’re just an empty case.”
In the ’90s, having had no academic training, he used his art to teach himself “the rules of the art world.” His ideas of it were “completely naïve.”
From the vaults: 11 years ago, the author of this article ran the U.S. office of the London-based Art Newspaper. Next door was the office of the Milan-based magazine Flash Art, run by Massimiliano Gioni, now curator at the New Museum. The floor was populated by therapists of various kinds; the purring of their noise machines and the soporific odor of their aromatherapeutic oils drifted into our offices. The building once housed the studio of Marcel Duchamp. All of this is worth mentioning because it was the setting into which, occasionally, a tall, angular fellow Italian would enter to confer with Mr. Gioni, who was then, as is now well-known, doing public appearances as “Maurizio Cattelan.”
Mr. Cattelan and Mr. Gioni, along with Ali Subotnick, now curator at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum, would go on to open their subversive “Wrong Gallery” in Chelsea, which was no more than a glass door. In 2006, they curated the Berlin Biennial, and opened a fake Berlin branch of Gagosian Gallery, merely a storefront embellished with a burnished plaque—knocks to the funny bone of the art market, then at its peak.
Mr. Cattelan once worked odd jobs, like custodian, postal worker, cook. For him, art was the triumph of imagination over tedium. “Becoming an artist for me was a way to save myself,” he said. “It was a tool to emancipate myself, to escape a previous life of just surviving.
“I thought, in one or two years I could find myself without a penny. I thought, ‘Are you willing to go to the lowest degree of life on the street?’ and I thought, ‘Yes, rather than have another day at this factory.’” His pieces have recently sold for millions of dollars.
Preaching to the choir doesn’t interest him. “I’m not interested in people who already like my work,” he said. “I’m interested in—how do you say?—the undecided.”
But … retirement. Had art become just another day job?
He cocked an eyebrow. “I see. You are trying to say, ‘Is this guy faking it or not? What is he really doing after?’ I’m not saying I’m turning the switch off. Without my saying I’m retiring, tomorrow would be the same for you and the same for me. It would be difficult to move to another level, or to do something completely different.”
“Now he’s doing this, now he’s painting. Or, now he will be the assistant of Larry Gagosian.”
That’s a good one, we said.
“I’m not joking,” he persisted. “We’ve had a gallery, a magazine, a biennial. I like to see the different sides. Why not?”
We eyed him. Lose the high tops, suit him up, slick back his hair, and it wouldn’t be difficult to picture him as one of Mr. Gagosian’s suave deputies, buying and selling with well-oiled panache his own artworks and those of his peers. His sculpture depicting two life-size, upside-down policemen, last shown in New York at his gallery, Marian Goodman, the year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, popped up at the Gagosian booth at Art Basel in June. Who better to trade in such things than their creator?
What is being risked, in “All,” is failure—but that’s nothing new. What is also being risked, or implied, is total destruction: a fall, the tumbling from a great height of every artwork Mr. Cattelan has ever made, in a dominoslike catastrophe set off by the snapping, say, of one faulty wire.
One of them would be a taxidermied squirrel slumped over a miniature table, having shot itself with a miniature gun. Mr. Cattelan made it in the mid-’90s.
“New York has been responsible for all my projects,” he said. “I remember the beginning of producing a show as a painful and long process. I was walking around town day after day thinking, what can we do for this show? I was probably by the park and a squirrel ran past and I said, ‘Yes, you will be helping me.’”
Then came the gun, the table.
“I projected a domestic situation onto it, the family kitchen.” Mr. Cattelan paused. “I don’t believe myself to be such a creative person, so I’m just using material that’s always been there and is easy to pick up, family history, something that probably everybody can relate to.”
This article is a construct, a way for you to relate to Maurizio Cattelan. If you had the recording device, and you listened closely during the pause that is referred to above, you would hear, over the restaurant’s sound system, Sinatra singing Gershwin: “I never had the least notion that I could fall with such emotion.”
Here is how the tape ends:
“I’ll turn this off.”
“Now it’s too late.”