Maurizio Cattelan – The art of deception

[07 Sep 2009]


Maurizio CATTELAN has made a fortune from displaying his cynicism about art and the art world and attacking its mechanics: he has opened a gallery in New York (the Wrong Gallery) that is always closed and never sells anything; he has set up a foundation allowing an artist to live for one year on condition that he/she exhibits nothing (Oblomov Foundation); he has glued his Italian gallery owner (Massimo De Carlo) to the wall for the private viewing of his exhibition (A Perfect Day, 1999) and he has disguised his Parisian gallery owner (Emmanuel Perrotin) as a pink, phallic rabbit (Errotin le Vrai Lapin, 1995) for a whole month… His rebellious art attacks the romantic notion of the “committed artist”, since in his view, art is a product like any other and there is no point in creating except to meet a specific demand. His statements, like his works, juggle with a healthy dose of derision and a deliberately immature vision of today’s world.

And it works! As a self-appointed agent provocateur of the artworld, he produces strong images that receive plenty of media attention. Maurizio Cattelan emerged on the art scene in the early 90s and generated his first real buzz in 1999 with his Nona Ora, a life-size sculpture of Pope Jean-Paul II floored by a meteorite. The work was exhibited a few months later for Apocalypse, at London’s Royal Academy, causing outrage. Simultaneously, the prestigious Marian Goodman Gallery in New York decided to collaborate with the artist and in 2001, the Nona Ora was officially presented at the Venice Biennial. From then on, Cattelan’s work became the focus of unprecedented demand and his Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour) doubled its auction estimate on 17 May 2001 with a hammer price of $800,000 at Christie’s, (c. €900,000)! In November 2004, the same unfortunate Pope sold for $2.7m at Phillips de Pury & Company (c. €2.09m). Over the same period (01 – 04), the price of his La Ballata di Trotsky, a stuffed horse suspended from the ceiling, appreciated by €600,000: the cumbersome installation first changed hands for £560,000 in June 2001 at Christie’s and then three years later for $1.85m in May 2004 at Sotheby’s.
Between these two dates, Cattelan became a new star of the contemporary art scene… and, in response to the higher demand, he made a more modest version of the Nona Ora in plaster (2003) which he had edited in 10 examples. The plaster version reached $400,000 in November 2006 when the art market was at full throttle… but two and half years later, with the market at the other end of the cycle, Sotheby’s was unable to fetch $250,000 (13 May 2009, New York).

Maurizio Cattelan’s international recognition essentially dates back to 2004 when his work was exhibited at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Serpentine Gallery in London, the Goodman Gallery in New York as well as in various different galleries in Spain, Greece and Italy. Alongside this massive exposure, his works set numerous new records at auctions. In just 12 months, his price index rose 171% and the volume of auction business generated by his works rose 577% versus the previous year. This quite exceptional progression was driven by four 7-figure sales including his Nona Ora and his Ballade de Trotsky and two others at Christie’s in November 2004: Not afraid of Love , a life-size elephant made out of polyester and covered in a white sheet that fetched $2.45m (€1.9m) and an untitled installation (requiring the buyer to “sacrifice” his floor) that fetched $1.8m (c. €1.4m) . The installation is a sculpted self-portrait head of the artist bursting through a hole in the floor… a “breaking and entry” which reminds us that the artist’s antics have included exactly that: in 1996, Cattelan broke into the Bloom Gallery in Amsterdam and exposed the stolen works in a neighbouring gallery (Another Fucking Readymade)! The same year, he copied the works of his neighbours in a collective exhibition (Cabines de bain, Fribourg) signed them, and exhibited them just a few metres away from the originals. Between 1995 and 1996, Cattelan started doing his “Z paintings” where he cuts a Z (à la Zorro) onto monochrome canvases and pokes fun at Lucio FONTANA’s inspired slash paintings.
Cattelan attacks the very structure that is producing his success… and the art world can’t get enough: one of his Z paintings on a green background quadrupled its estimate when it fetched £500,000 (c. €730,000) on 8 February 2006 at Christie’s in London. The same day Christie’s sold a 1960 Concetto spaziale by Lucio Fontana at its low estimate of £150,000, (just under €220,000). In 2009, bidders have been substantially less “playful” and the best auction result for a Zorro painting was a rather unenthusiastic $120,000 on 13 May 2009 (c. €88,000) at Sotheby’s. The main difference between that Z painting and the one sold in 2006 was a blue background instead of a green background … this comparison does not mean that the Z paintings have lost nearly 88% of their value in three years, but it does reflect the bulimic appetite with which buyers snapped up the works of this contemporary art star during the market’s euphoric ascension.

Some artists occasionally manage to shake the foundations of the art world and its market. That is why Maurizio Cattelan is not simply a fashionable artist playing with post-modernity or retarded adolescence. Already a century ago, Marcel DUCHAMP undermined the authority of cultural institutions by exhibiting a urinal which he called Mutt (meaning “fool” in US slang). Today, Duchamp is a considered one of the key milestones in the history of art and the renewal of forms and ideas. Is not Cattelan paying tribute to Duchamp when he submits a cheque for $1 for auction? The cheque, signed Cattelan of course, fetched €8,000 on 20 May last at Christie’s in Amsterdam.