Immediately upon entering Triple Candie’s Harlem gallery you are greeted by a flamboyantly painted coffin lying on a bier, a memorial to an artist who, in many ways, defined the past decade’s guiltiest pleasures. For 49 years, Maurizio Cattelan’s endearing wit has provided instant gratification for a new generation of the global rich—he’s a favorite of oligarchs and industrialists. Was it the faltering economy that Cattelan couldn’t handle or was this a final performance a la Ray Johnson?
For the bereaved coming to say their final goodbyes, Cattelan has arranged for a decidedly optimistic affair. A small wooden tree with paper leaves grows out of the head end of the closed casket. Depending on your faith, this could be a sign of life after death, hope and resurrection—or perhaps it’s evidence of a hoax. Either way, you have entered a posthumous retrospective for an artist that you probably hadn’t heard had passed on.
This is Maurizio Cattelan is Dead: Life and Work, 1960 – 2009. And if this were any other gallery, you would be scrambling for a newspaper, or more likely ArtForum, wondering how you could have missed the news of Cattelan’s death. Much in line with Triple Candie’s classic 2006 show, David Hammons: The Unauthorized Retrospective, this is a conceptual curatorial game and skeptical critics will assume the artist was on board or maybe even contributed to it–but not in this case.
The founders of Triple Candie, Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, are up to their old brilliant tricks. They’ve created an extensive biographical timeline that loops around the entire gallery. Of course, there is no “real” artwork, but the sheer amount of hours they logged acquiring Cattelan’s bibliography for use on the wall labels equals the research efforts of curators of traditional shows. Triple Candie maintains that their texts are entirely factual, which may be true. (Or may be another scam). Tied in are elements of commentary with, at times, tremendous bite. The opening text identifies Cattelan as “a con artist and populist philosopher whose art embraced what might be called comic existentialism…” and goes on to state he “built [his] career through a mix of savvy resourcefulness and puckish deceit.” The greatest speculation in the timeline’s reference to the loss of the artist: “Was his death of his own doing, the result of exhaustion or over-exposure?”
While the vast majority of the exhibition revolves around the painted timeline, there are several stand-ins for the authentic sculptures, as well as archaeological finds that make up the narrative of Maurizio’s life. Circling around the room you can see perched high above the window sill a shelf holding books on Pollock, Motherwell, and Eve Hesse, and others (like PEI’s What Makes a Great Exhibition?!). Amongst them sits a doll clad in all black, giving his viewers a point and a gregarious smile. This is a recreation of Cattelan’s various redressable action figurine-esque Mini-me’s. Some versions of his miniature sculptures have portrayed the artist in a colorful dress shirt or sweater, jeans, and running shoes or flip-flops hanging by the toes. In this case, according to the wall label, Triple Candie borrowed a doll not from a collector, but from a bar frequented by Bancroft and Nesbett. (It’s the first Mini-me with a mustache.)
At the start of the decade, as the commercial market bloomed, personalities were used as marketing tools. Skeptics believed that a captivating background was as important as technical artistic proficiency. The myth of Cattelan is that he was quintessentially Duchampian even as a lad in Padua. At the age of twelve, he began he supposedly began his first job with the Catholic Church selling effigies. On a slow day, Cattelan was fired for drawing an L.H.O.O.Q. mustache on Saint Anthony.
Two posters were created in remembrance Cattelan. The first is a memorial collage of the Page Six’s of the art world, Artforum’s SCENE & HERD Diary, and the yearbook photos in “Out With Mary” on artnet. Whether posing with the old Wrong Gallery cohorts, Ali Subotnick or Massimiliano Gioni on the Biennale trail, or just cracking wise with a prosthetic leg coming out of his crotch and a big grin on his face, the “art world’s court jester” lived his life to the fullest. On the other side of the gallery space is a golden poster listing the last three years of ArtReview’s top 100 power people. (For the record, Cattelan, as part of the Wrong Gallery, finished 44th in 2006 and 68th as a solo act in 2008. He was robbed in 2007. In contrast, Damien Hirst finished 11th, 6th, and 1st over that same time frame).
Over in the Case Room is Maurizio’s magazines, the definitive collection of Cattelan’s publishing career. Behind the glass of a long cabinet are 5 of the 15 Permanent Food issues he created with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and the 5 issues of Charley, a collaboration with the Wrong Gallery between 2001 and 2007. The ultimate reveal comes when you examine the magazine spines and realize that these collectibles are simply Xeroxed covers affixed to past issues of Art on Paper. It’s a hilarious deception, especially if you know that each of Maurizio’s magazines consists solely of duplicated hits of other magazines.
Cattelan is no stranger to death. The absurdity of mortality has always played an integral role in his practice. The most visible work in the Guggenheim’s highly acclaimed “theanyspacewhatever” exhibition was his Daddy, Daddy, 2008, which implied that Pinocchio had taken a dramatic plunge from the top of the Rotunda down to the lobby fountain. (Possibly, the puppet learned that life isn’t as easy after the strings are cut.) Of course, there are his infamous taxidermy animals, bidibidobidiboo, 1996, and the controversial Kids Hanging in Milan, but Cattelan’s most personal work was Untitled, 2000. This life-sized self-portrait sculpture depicted Cattelan slumped in a chair over a kitchen table with his face resting in a large plate of pasta. Was it a heart attack? Poisoned noodles? Or maybe the practical joker was playing possum again?
As you complete the circle around the gallery at Triple Candie, the timeline ends at a three simply painted words: “Maurizio is dead.” Long live Maurizio.
Some fear that Triple Candie will eventually program too many exhibitions without the involvement of the artists, and the gag will grow thin, thus voiding the prankster status. But, as they push and continue to challenge it’s clearly a practice of sharp curators working autonomously to blur institutional lines. In their 2008 show, “Unwitting Accomplices: Thirty-Six Objects Thrown in Violent Incidents,” broken bottles and rusted aerosol cans were allegedly gathered at political protests and sites of various types of international abuses. However, the true origin of the items was just outside Triple Candie’s old gallery door on 126th street. It was archaeology of urban debris that was collected, assigned historical narratives, and given tremendous significance when housed in a museum-quality vitrine. One of the gallery’s neighbors refused to properly dispose of trash and, through this simple act, is transformed into a collaborator. Another exhibition, the first in their new space, displayed ready-made “painting” purchases in a Harlem department store. The mass-produced prints were ornately framed, researched, and given the same genuine attention that is bestowed on the masters.
It would be fascinating to see the under-known or local artists of Triple Candie’s original mission reemerge shuffled with the surrogate surveys—to keep visitors off balance. But, as they increasingly find creative ways to work exclusively with not-art we see that their exhibitions are far above provocative one-liners.