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Maurizio Cattelan
The Menil Collection
1515 Sul Ross Street, Houston, Texas 77006
February 12, 2010 - August 15, 2010

Nine Lives
by Marcus Civin





Dear Maurizio,

Your first solo show in the United States since 2003 and my first face-to-face encounter with a large body of your work... you and curator Franklin Sirmans situated your sculptures among works that you admire in The Menil Collection. I was really excited to see it! On my day off from installing my show, I skipped breakfast and rushed over to see yours. I just got back to Los Angeles from Texas and I have a few reflective questions for you.

In the small Byzantine and Medieval galleries, I crammed in with two separate families who spoke clipped phrases, all of us wide-eyed, me feeling like maybe I shouldn’t be looking at a life-size realistic sculpture of a woman, face to the wall, arms outstretched, a sculpture of a woman crucified but not nailed, packed for shipment in an art crate—glassine then foam around her ankles, wood supports.

I remember in response to questions from Gerald Matt (I read your comments in Matt's 2007 book Interviews 2) you said, about a public sculpture, Untitled, 2004, three wax dolls hanging from nooses in a tree:

“Yes, public response is something I find thrilling—not because I have caused some provocation, but because there is a dialogue that has been created that shapes the meaning of the work, which is, most of the time, totally independent of any intentions I might have thought I had. In this case, the hung children, which for me were a vision of a nightmare childhood—one where, presumably, the only way to escape or to act under one’s own will was through an act of self-destruction, where the only exit was death—became a much larger discussion of social and political violence. Of course, while these discussions are always useful, I don’t have any illusions that I am providing solutions. I am only a conduit

To me, your sculptures are ambiguous. Am I missing the joke? In a gallery with paintings by Mark Rothko, a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States, a contemplative painter who committed suicide, you exhibited Ave Maria, 2007, three outstretched polyurethane arms protruding from the wall. Are the arms trying to fly or is the sculpture a triple Roman salute, a Hitlerian "Sieg Heil"? What productive confusion do you, Maurizio, create if the sculpture represents all of these things and more? What is the relationship of Ave Maria to Rothko? It’s about faith, somehow, I suppose?

Trying to roll with with you through the Menil, to approach some kind of dialogue with the work, a dialogue about faith, violence, legacies of Dada and Surrealism, I found myself wishing I could walk with you through a Kiki Smith retrospective, a Daniel Joseph Martinez retrospective, or a Paul McCarthy retrospective. Smith, Martinez, and McCarthy engage, disorient and engage. Do you study these artists? You disorient, but sometimes don't engage.

Maurizio Cattelan All, 2007  Marble  Installation view Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2nd floor Photo: Markus Tretter © Maurizio Cattelan, Kunsthaus Bregenz

You've this one sculpture, All, 2007, an arrangement on the floor of nine elegant, horrific, carefully drilled and polished White Carrara marble hulks representing draped, knotted Hellenistic forms. Is this row of elongated, rounded, gnarled humanity, a brutal update of Roman funerary art? I’m simply guessing. Compare Sarcophagus of the Nine Muses, c. 100-150 A.D.E, in the collection of the Louvre in Paris, to All, your nine shrouded bodies on the floor at the Menil collection in Houston. The Second Century Roman elite believed cultured conversation would guarantee immortality, and so ordered their coffins with the nine muses carved in. You model nine muses, smothered, then display the wrapped muses as deliberate discards. Disturbed, I feel for the implied bodies within... ... I could perhaps conclude that you're working from a place where the muse (inspiration) is dead. But, then, these bodies could be inspired by The Lovers, Renee Magritte’s shroud head ed couple from 1928, or, nastier... these bodies in All could be Magritte’s floating boulders carved by all the rapes of all time.

In general, I believe artists should force audiences to consider the countless, varied crimes that occur globally and with frightening regularity. Yet, I want to know, whose bodies are you talking about in All? All the casualties of US imperialism? All the casualties of drug trafficking in Texas? All the casualties of Italian anarchist bombings? All the casualties of the war the Futurists wanted? Whose bodies in which mass graves? From what century? It is the museum that has suppressed images of dead bodies? I am looking for further clues, but any way I look at it, it seems Maurizio Cattelan indicts everyone and indicts no one, evoking violence as a universal, a totality. In answer to the question: Whose bodies? Maurizio Cattelan seems to insist: all bodies, and therefore accuses no one specifically. Maurizio Cattelan, I can't help but feel that your line of thinking represents an unfortunate cowardice and a missed opportunity to attempt to understand evil, cruelty, and inhumanity.

You told to Michelle Robbechi in Interview magazine just last March 8:

“... There are three different kinds of revolutionaries: those who want to change things; those who are into the fight but couldn’t care less if things change or not; and those who work following their instinct, responding to a situation in a personal way that can end up having collective results—and that can affect the world a lot more. That last model is possibly the one I’m interested in most. Look at Gerhard Richter. Or Andy Warhol. Warhol was proof that you can be revolutionary without being militant.”

But, Maurizio, come on... Gerhard Richter often works with specifics—specific people, ruminations on a certain history, The Schmidt Family, 1964. Richter finds, meets, then blurs The Hotzel Family, 1966. Andy Warhol, as you well know, is also specific, disaster ripped from the headlines, from a specific car, from a particular ambulance, from that particular ambulance to abstraction, towards a collective result from a painting of an electric chair—the electric chair, a particular form of capital punishment used predominately in the United States. Maurizio, I don’t know who the bodies in your sculpture refer to.

Even dreams have their specifics, dream characters that feel like real people with real names in real places. Trauma starts from something. In All, the bodies are gorgeous, but ultimately too blank: terrible, empty slabs.

For all the hype I have read over the years about your wit (I wish I had seen your Picasso character intervention at the Whitney) I was more amused by a small Robert Gober hairy cheese lump you selected from the collection than by all of the "Maurizio Cattelans" and your other histrionics at the Menil.

On the way out of the museum, I noticed up on the roof of the museum, a boy hitting a drum. At first, I thought someone was really performing up there. I got worried: Is it safe up there? Then I realized it was just your sculpture programmed to play the drum—

a toy boy playing a toy.

Maurizio, you have a significant audience. When will you ditch the ambiguity, the interview dodges, and really say, specifically, what you have to say?

Yours truly,

Marcus Civin


Maurizio Cattelan, All, 200, Marble, Installation view Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2nd floor Photo: Markus Tretter, © Maurizio Cattelan, Kunsthaus Bregenz Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled, 2003 Courtesy Rachofsky Collection, Dallas, TX © Maurizio Cattelan Photo: Michael Bodycomb

Posted by Marcus Civin on 5/10/10

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