Maurizio Cattelan: King of Conceptual Comedy

With three sensational decades in the spotlight, artist-provocateur Maurizio Cattelan has been hailed a “tragic poet of our times.”

Apr 18, 2020By Christina Elia, BA Art History
Maurizio Cattelan, Pierpaolo Ferrari, 2015, Club Milano
Maurizio Cattelan, Pierpaolo Ferrari, 2015, Club Milano


Maurizio Cattelan is no stranger to a societal spectacle. The multimedia artist regularly receives public attention for his subversive hijinks, often presented in the form of an immersive installation. Between 18-karat gold toilets, ailing clergymen, and even ripening fruit, Cattelan continues to captivate audiences worldwide with his heavy-handed satire. But his artistic background indicates surprisingly humbler origins. 


Maurizio Cattelan’s Early Life

View of Exhibition KAPUTT, Maurizio Cattelan, 2013


Maurizio Cattelan grew up in Padua, a city in northern Italy with creative roots since the Renaissance. Cattelan dropped out of high school in the 1970s and had no formal artistic education, however. His mother worked as a maid and his father a truck driver, causing his family to struggle financially during his adolescence. He received subpar school grades, constantly found himself in harm’s way, and adapted a misfit persona from a young age. This was in part due to his mother, who suffered from an illness his entire childhood. She eventually passed away by his twenties, further stimulating Cattelan’s curiosity with mortality. Resentment from these early experiences followed him throughout his adult life. 


Cattelan’s Design Career

Flash Art magazine covers, artwork by Maurizio Cattelan, 1990 and 2010


Cattelan bounced between odd jobs before ultimately becoming a furniture designer. He detested manual labor almost as much as monotony, which planted the seeds for his future as an artistic rebel. When he moved to Milan subsequent to his mother’s death, he felt inspired by the city’s creative culture, and even further intrigued by its aesthetic lap of luxury. There, he also encountered architect Ettore Sottsass, who encouraged him to break into Milan’s contemporary art scene. Cattelan longed to experience stardom, envisioning ways to plaster his art on the front cover of magazines. In 1989, he launched his career by photographing a parody cover of Flash Art – a highly popular periodical at the time – and pasting his image on actual copies of the magazine. Cattelan’s convincing forgery became distributed in galleries and news stands throughout Milan.


Maurizio Cattelan, Pierpaolo Ferrari, 2018, Rolling Stone


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By the 1990s, Cattelan had garnered notoriety for his outlandish humor. He perplexed audiences with a series of pranks in 1992, which included gathering a group of donors to award him money — under the stipulation he ceased exhibiting art for a year. At the 1993 Venice Biennale, the artist made headlines when attendees discovered he rented his booth to a perfume company, thereby acquiring thousands in profit. His pranks criticized society as a whole in addition to his fine art niche, a circle he thought overflowed with greed and self-indulgence. In a moment of self-deprecation, Cattelan even described himself as lethargic and undeserving, quoted as saying he “doesn’t don’t do anything.” This acute self-awareness underscores his entire body of work. 


Conceptualist and Hyperrealist Influence in Cattelan’s Work

A Perfect Day, Maurizio Cattelan, 1999, Philipps


Cattelan is often classified as a conceptual artist. Regarded as an experimental medium, conceptualism prioritizes ideology over aesthetic, emphasizing an artwork’s central idea rather than its tangible technique. Marcel Duchamp pioneered the genre in 1917 when he unveiled his Fountain, which in actuality appeared to be a urinal flipped upside down. Duchamp’s Fountain has many symbolic interpretations, though, most centered on his critique of modernism as a genre worthy of urination. Yet the notion that an ordinary household object could potentially be an artwork became the 20th-century’s most avant-garde theory. Citing Duchamp as a major influence, Cattelan consistently pushes these artistic boundaries in his work today. His critiques predominantly embody taxidermied creatures or hyperrealist sculptures.


Bidibidobidiboo, Maurizio Cattelan, 1996, Flickr


Hyperrealism focuses on forced verisimilitude. In reference to either sculpture or painting, the genre describes works carefully detailed to deceive the eye and resemble reality. Hyperrealism is also considered an advancement of photorealism, a movement in which artists attempt to reproduce high-resolution photography through alternate media. Maurizio Cattelan’s sculptures are usually creepy clones of their archetype, whether a specific figure or an institution’s representation. Like others in his genre, however, he doesn’t seek to entirely emulate existence. Rather, he employs jestful satire to highlight subtle nuances oblivious to the human eye, thereby accentuating poignant political, social, and economical elements. His artwork functions as an uncanny mirror for humanity. 


Cattelan’s Controversial Sculptures

La Nona Ora, Maurizio Cattelan, 1999


Cattelan created his first famous hyperrealist sculpture in 1999. La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour) attracted widespread scrutiny due to its seemingly sacrilegious subject matter: a life-sized effigy of Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteor. Here, a wounded figure cloaked in sacrimonal garb clutches the Papal cross, reclining in anguish before a floor of shattered glass. Multiple interpretations abound in this metaphorically saturated work, many suggesting the degradation of the Catholic Church. Unveiled at Kunsthalle Basel in 1999, the statue migrated to the Royal Academy in 2000 before eventually moving to Warsaw, where it sparked an even larger debate. Still, Cattelan’s immediate imprint on conceptualism couldn’t be contested. Decades earlier, a blasphemous scandal of this multitude wouldn’t have stimulated such refined responses. 


Him, Maurizio Cattlean, 2001


Scandal broke again when Cattelan revealed Him in 2001. His provocative sculpture depicted a tiny Adolf Hitler with his hands interlocked, kneeling in a pose suggestive of seeking absolution. It’s inflammatory nature is in part due to its deceiving exhibition placement: at the end of a long hallway, with its back turned toward viewers. As audiences approach what appears to be a disheveled, praying school boy, they become embittered to discover history’s most radical villain. Cattelan arouses public indignation through Him by asking viewers to consider the inconceivable: repentance for the wicked. Contentious as it may be, Him also aimed to question national memory: how can we prompt critical dialogue surrounding trauma without undermining its severity? The sculpture’s title further nods to this dreadful connotation, an allusion to he-who-shall-not-be-named. Him later sold at Christie’s for a record-whopping $17.2 million. 


The Guggenheim’s 2011 Cattelan Retrospective

Maurizio Cattelan: All, Guggenheim Museum, November 4nd, 2011 – January 22nd, 2012


Cattelan officially announced his retirement alongside his 2011 Guggenheim Museum exhibition. Maurizio Cattelan: All, a two month long, twenty-one year retrospective, featured some of the artist’s most iconic pieces, including La Nona Ora and Him. In an interview with the New York Times, Cattelan noted his initial hesitation to a retrospective, what he believed epitomized conventional ideals. He agreed on one condition: he would take part in its curation. Over one hundred works dangled from The Guggenheim’s central rotunda like gyrating meat, exploring source material ranging from pop culture to organized religion. A multimedia mobile application even offered visitors an inside-look at Cattelan’s artistic process, the first endeavor of its kind at the museum. He declared his smashing success a bittersweet swan song. 


Cattelan’s Early Retirement

View of Exhibition Amen, Maurizio Cattelan, 2011, Galerie Perrotin


Speculation still surrounds Cattelan’s desire for a sabbatical. Perhaps he felt bored, or maybe his enamoration with the spotlight dwindled as his dissidents increased. In fact, many are surprised to discover how much his reserved personality juxtaposes his renowned reputation. According to his first roommate in New York, the artist lives quite the minimalist lifestyle, even lacking essentials such as furniture. He’s been described as elusive and eccentric by peers, a man who prefers to spend time in solitary. “Sometimes I see myself in a locked box,” Cattelan once proclaimed. “I’m very detached from myself and others.” Taking a hiatus from the limelight seemed like his inevitable trajectory. 

He didn’t stay dormant for long, however. Cattelan found fulfillment elsewhere. He remained in the public eye, instead focusing his efforts on curating and publishing. He frequently submitted articles to Flash Art, founded his own picture-based Toiletpaper magazine, and erected a popular billboard for his publication on New York City’s High Line in 2012. He even curated an iteration of the Berlin Biennale, in addition to designing a fashion spread for New York Magazine’s 2014 Spring Issue. Though he featured in a few exhibitions, like his 2013 KAPUTT, none attracted the asinine attention Cattelan had been accustomed to. Longtime devotees anticipated his artistic reignition. 


How Cattelan Regained Recognition 

America, Maurizio Cattelan, 2016, Guggenheim Museum


America proved well worth the wait. Emerging from his early retirement, the artist installed an 18-karat solid gold toilet at the Guggenheim in 2016, and even allowed guests to utilize its functions. Over 100,000 visitors reportedly waited in line to get a glimpse at the excess extravaganza, both bewildered and bewitched by its radiance. The toilet not only summarized Cattelan’s sentiments regarding the American dream, but also his perception of artistic worth. Its exorbitant exterior stood in stark contrast to a rather crude concept, mocking a money-hungry market for its overpowering greed. America eventually migrated from New York City to Blenheim Palace in 2019, where it was later stolen from Winston Churchill’s water closet. Cattelan cleverly remarked he always wanted to star in his own heist movie. 


Cattelan’s Art Basel Banana 

Comedian, Maurizio Cattelan, 2019


Controversy surrounding Maurizio Cattelan hit an all time high during Miami Art Basel 2019. The satirist made headlines in early December for his new piece Comedian, a duct-taped banana that sold for $120,000. Public outcry expressed equal parts confusion and rage regarding Cattelan’s rotting fruit. (“A child could make this,” seemed to be his overwhelming critique.) By constructing a work so seemingly simple it’s actually ridiculous, however, the artist played directly into his own contempt. Cattelan evoked Vaudevillian humor reminiscent of slipping on a banana peel, wielding Comedian to serve as an elitist commentary on the art world’s falsely alluring facade. Unlike with America, he demonstrates how a meta-concept can outvalue its cheap execution, still proving Andy Warhol’s famous claim correct: “art is whatever you can get away with.” Cattelan succeeds by superseding his own record. 


Campbell’s Soup Cans, Andy Warhol, 1962, MOMA


Surprisingly, Comedian’s buyers admitted no remorse regarding their purchase. Sarah Andleman, founder of Paris boutique Colette, revealed the original edition to be her first major art acquisition, claiming pride in her certificate of authenticity. Collectors Billy and Beatrice Cox, who purchased the second banana, lauded Cattelan’s creation as a “unicorn of the art world,” comparing its prominence to Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell Soup Cans. Talk of later donating Comedian to a museum emphasized their desire to keep it publicly accessible. Though seemingly aware of its outrageousness, the couple appreciates the work’s ability to provoke popular discourse. By Miami Art Week’s conclusion, individuals far and wide recognized Cattelan’s polemic phenomenon, some even inventing their own versions. Suffice to say Comedian will continue to live on in cultural infamy. 

Recurring themes nevertheless unify his diverse body of work. Though Cattelan is often categorized as a post-Duchampian disciple, he possesses a talent more novel than his avant-garde forerunners. His contradictory career is centered in art as absurdity, purposeful but ultimately illogical. Yet Cattelan harnesses unparalleled power through his hyperrealist sculptures and taxidermied creatures, leveraging them as a vehicle for his conceptual comedy: benign from a distance, nefarious under the surface. Prescient perspectives fuse with laughable levity to confound audiences and invite deep introspection. Whether it be forgiveness for Adolf Hitler, or the harrowing realization a banana sold simply for status, the artist urges us to suspend judgement in exchange for moral enlightenment. Trickery couples with irreverent irony to call attention our deep-rooted conventions. 


The Future of Cattelan’s Career 

Museums League, Maurizio Cattelan, 2018, Museums League


Maurizio Cattelan remains a miscreant misunderstood by many. He’s established a tremendous career by testing limits, earning supporters and antagonists alike in his sardonic crusade for creativity. Some still characterize him as an immature fool, one far too occupied with his own intellectualism. Yet his scandals raise a roaring revolution concerning social responsibility. Highlighting the symbiotic relationship between art and the human condition, Cattelan continues to innovate simple materials into significant subversion. While Duchamp may have done so with a urinal, it takes a little more ingenuity to shock our evolving contemporary sphere. Luckily, Maurizio Cattelan has enough wit to outlast his real retirement. Art aficionados worldwide await his next beautiful trainwreck. 

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By Christina EliaBA Art HistoryChristina Elia is a contributing writer whose work focuses on the intersection between visual culture and language. She was born and raised in New York City, where she currently writes about topics ranging from creative nonfiction to street art, culture, and travel. Christina’s work has been published in online publications such as The Odyssey, Select City, CURA, and has appeared in print in The Tishman Review and UP.