Becoming Maurizio Cattelan

Maurizio Cattelan (b. 1960) is an Italian artist who is well-known for his sculptures that on the surface seem humorous or satirical but on a deeper level address the bigger concepts of life, love, and death. He is one of the most famous and successful living artists in the world, and remarkably, he has achieved this without any formal art education or training. His success can be attributed to several factors. First, he is very knowledgeable about art history and has made a careful study of the contemporary art world. Second, he has a charming and engaging personality and has been able to use his character to build a network of people who like him, support him, and want to see him succeed. And third, he has been able to craft his artistic persona and brand to establish himself as a key figure in the art world. Sometimes Cattelan is criticized as a flamboyant artistic con-man, but I see him as a resourceful and motivated individual who initially floundered and struggled to find his place in the world but took some risks and worked very hard to build a successful career as an artist.

Cattelan grew up in Padua, Italy, (40 miles from Venice, Italy) in a poor family. His father was a truck driver and his mother was a cleaning woman. His mother was very religious and suffered from lymphatic cancer for many years until her death when Cattelan was 22. Cattelan dropped out of high school when he was 17 so he could work and support his family and help raise his two sisters while finishing high school classes at night. He never went to college but later receive an honorary degree in Sociology from the University of Trento, Italy in 2004.

Maurizio didn’t do well in school and later described himself as a delinquent or class clown. When he was 13 he was fired from his retail job at his parish’s gift shop selling figurines of Saint Anthony. Cattelan had drawn moustaches on the statues, and when the priests found them, they went straight to Maurizio to ask why he would do such a thing. Cattelan later recalled that “they didn’t even ask the other twenty kids” who were working with him because “they knew it had to be Maurizio’s fault.”[1] Religion is an important component of Maurizio’s early family life, resulting in one of his sisters becoming a nun. Later in life Maurizio stopped practicing Catholicism but religion is still reflected in some of his works such as Catttelan (1994), La Nona Ora (1999), and Daddy, Daddy (2008).

Cattelan’s mother was worried about him and his future. His sister Gaida Cattelan remembered that “In the family we always saw him as a person with an uncertain future. When my mother was alive, she was always worried about his future. What was he going to do? Will he be able to support himself?”[5] She also remarked that “At that time, an artist was considered someone who didn’t want to work. I figured it was better to avoid mentioning I had a brother at all than to be considered an unfortunate girl with a lazy do-nothing for a brother.”[5]

Maurizio’s poor work ethic during his early years is reflected in his inability to hold a job. At age 18 he was fired from a job at a laundromat for laundering his own uniform and other clothes. He hated menial labor and planned to avoid it at all costs. His last manual labor job was that of an assistant medical technician at a local morgue. He was so unhappy with that profession that he paid a doctor to diagnose him with an illness. At the time Italian employment law stated that if someone is sick and cannot work their employer must continue to pay their salary. The arrangement with the doctor provided Cattelan with 6 months of paid leave.

With this beginning it is remarkable Cattelan was even able to make anything of himself at all. Perhaps he just needed to find the right environment for himself to thrive.

It was during his extended leave from the morgue that Cattelan began experimenting with furniture design and building things for his apartment. He later said “at that point I had so much time on my hands that I started to work for myself….It was something that I had never experienced before. It was a real adventure for me.”[1] His designs earned him some recognition in the world of design in Italy. He met other talented designers such as Ettore Scottsass (1917 - 2007) who helped him develop his artistic sense and design skills. Although he didn’t continue pursuing that career path, the investment and support Cattelan received from Scottsass and other designers helped transform him from a delinquent to a man with a vision. Cattelan recalled that he stopped designing furniture “because it became too serious. Companies were calling me, asking me to design things. I tried, but it was so difficult. I was making annoying furniture for annoying companies. I found the art world much more alluring. It was like a dream. From the outside, it was really something.”[1]

Cattelan first became interested in a career as an artist at age 25 when he saw a piece by artist Michelangelo Pistoletto in a small gallery in Padua. The piece was a self-portrait on a mirror, and he later claimed it inspired an epiphany that changed the course of his life. Nancy Spector writes “the idea that something in the aesthetic realm could be so startlingly relevant in its direct engagement with the viewer moved him deeply.”[3] The owner of that gallery noticed Cattelan’s curiosity and lack of knowledge and generously loaned him some books on contemporary art. This began Cattelan’s self-motivated education of the art world, and is an initiative that continues to this day. The gallerist’s kindness and support helped Maurizio start to build the knowledge he needed to enter the art world.

Maurizio’s early works involved a lot of experimentation with mediums and followed a process of trial and error. The Guggenheim catalogue “Maurizio Cattelan: All”[3] lists Untitled (1989) as one of his first steps away from furniture making and towards artistic expression. For this work he welded bicycle parts together into an anthropomorphic-like shape. At the time Cattelan was collecting items from junkyards and reconfiguring them into sculptures. Another early work is Lessico Familiare (1989). In this work he arranged a collection of ordinary items on a wooden side table along with a framed picture of himself. In the photo Maurizio was shirtless and alone with his hands held in a heart shape over his heart. Viewed in isolation these works are not memorable but they are interesting in that they illustrate his early art explorations and evolution as an artist.

Cattelan wanted to be an artist but was struggling to come up with ideas for new works. Cattelan recalled, “Here I was, in my late twenties, with no art education or anything like that, desperately trying to come up with something clever without making a complete fool of myself. I was so afraid of doing something wrong that I ended up spending a lot of time on my own. It was a character-building experience.”[7]

In 1989 Cattelan obtained a valuable opportunity to present a solo exhibition at a gallery in Bolonga, Italy. He didn’t want to show his existing work but couldn’t come up with new ideas that he felt were worthy of the opportunity. In an attempt to avoid a failed exhibition and the pressure to create something notable he had the gallery doors locked and placed a simple engraved sign with the words “Torno Subito (be back soon)” on the door. This work became known as Torno Subito (1989) and remarkably was well received. This act was a large risk that could have been a squandered career opportunity but instead turned into a something that separated Cattelan from other aspiring artists who would not have dared attempt such a thing. This event also marked the beginning of a pattern of avoiding showing his work by embracing and displaying his fear of failure but managing to transform that avoidance into works of art. It is hard to imagine how Cattelan could have done this more than once without strong personal connections with gallerists and other people who continued to support him and provide him with new opportunities to exhibit his work. Perhaps this also helped him build a reputation as a somewhat mysterious artist with bigger ideas yet to come.

Cattelan found clever ways to promote himself as an artist outside of the traditional gallery system. One such example is his work Strategies (1990). For this piece he constructed a house of cards-like sculpture with old copies of the magazine, took a photograph of the sculpture, and distributed fake copies of the magazine with his photograph on the cover. At the time Flash Art was an important and influential art magazine in Italy that still exists today. A 2017 article written by Marco Senaldi[8] recounts the events surrounding Cattelan and his Strategies (1990) cover. Using his personal skills and charm Maurizio started to get to know the Flash Art editorial staff. He asked them for a “pallet-load of old copies of the magazine to use in an artwork,” which they were happy to provide. Shortly after the staff heard about Strategies (1990). The fake cover was “so perfect that it immediately started to circulate” and many readers were duped into believing the cover was authentic. The sculpture itself criticises the market driven art world by pointing to the delicate balance that exists between galleries and publications. In addition, the fake cover provided Cattelan with means to publicize himself as an artist. Senaldi writes, “nobody understood that the title of Cattelan’s piece wasn’t merely ironic: his strategy was, effectively, to use that fake cover as a means of one day obtaining a real one.” While posing as Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni said that “‘Strategies’ was a piece that acknowledged that art was not something I could just do on my own, and that existed in itself.”[5] His strategy worked, and in 1994 Cattelan was featured on the cover of a real edition of Flash Art. The photographed work was Ninnananna (1994), a canvas sack of rubble from a car bombing in Milan by the Italian Mafia.[8]

In 1990 Maurizio Cattelan also met the now-famous artist Vanessa Beecroft. In a 2005 edition of Vanity Fair, Beecroft claimed that she had an affair with Cattelan before either were famous and that she was the original source for many of his artistic works. She said they met when she worked in a gallery in Milan and “one day he turned up….he tried to persuade me to steal the works in the gallery.” Cattelan’s personality and charm attracted Beecroft and they had a relationship. Cattelan didn’t comment on the alleged affair or the claims of plagiarism. When questioned about stealing ideas from others, he asked, “Was Warhol robbing Marilyn’s identity when he painted her? And what was Cézanne doing? Robbing apples? In art, all you can do in the end is appropriate that which surrounds you. So it is never a robbery. At the most it is a loan. Unlike thieves, artists always give back the stolen goods.”[9] This answer is ambiguous, but it seems likely that regardless of where Cattelan’s ideas came from his relationship with Beecroft helped him grow as an artist and develop his artistic sense.

With or without Beecroft’s help Cattelan persevered as an artist and often continued his pattern of evasion that he began with Torno Subito (1989). Cattelan established the Oblomov Foundation (1992), a fictional non-profit to award an artist $10,000 to not exhibit any work for a year. The foundation was named after the lazy main character of a 1859 novel by Russian author Ivan Goncharov. Accepting such an award would jeopardize the career of any artist that agreed to the conditions. No artists accepted this, so Cattelan re-appropriated the money he raised to fund his own career enhancing move to New York. This theme of not working and not producing art and using the money he raised on himself did not offend the donors and his art career continued. After moving to New York, Cattelan career struggled as he ate rice every day. Slowly his career moved forward, but an important turning point was when he met Francesco Bonami, the Director of the Venice Biennale. Bonami and Cattelan were both immigrant Italians living in the east village in the NY art world and immediately became friends. Bonami put Cattelan in the Venice Biennale, one of the art world’s most important events. For a struggling artist this was a career opportunity of a lifetime. Cattelan again could not produce a work worthy of the show and instead rented his space to an advertising firm that used the wall to place a large billboard advertising a perfume. He named the piece Working is a Bad Job (1993) and remarkably continued to receive the support of Bonami and others afterwards.

In 1996 Cattelan had a few weeks to produce a new work to show at a gallery in Amsterdam. Unable to do this in such a short amount of time, Cattelan stole artworks from another gallery intending to show the works as his own. He named the piece Another Fucking Readymade (1996) but did not actually get to show the work because the police intervened to retrieve the stolen property and arrest Cattelan. Cattelan avoided jail because he had the support of the gallery and the artist community. Without that his career and reputation could have easily been damaged or ruined. Instead it seemed to build his reputation as artist because he was able to keep creating something unique out of his inability or unwillingness to produce art of his own.

As an artist with no formal training and outsider status in the art world, pieces like Torno Subito (1989), Oblomov Foundation (1992), Working is a Bad Job (1993), and Another Fucking Readymade (1996) were all serious career risks that could have been viewed as squandered opportunities that caused people in the art community to ignore Cattelan altogether. One might argue that someone whose position in the art world was somewhat tenuous to begin with should not do such things. It is remarkable that his artistic career continued to flourish in spite of this or because of this. There were critical voices, of course, but what actually happened is these works built his artistic persona as something unique and different. Cattelan was willing to poke fun of the art world and criticize it. Perhaps the art world somehow rewards critical examinations of itself when done in a unique way. In any case, he wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this without the support of a network of people who liked him and wanted him to succeed.

Maurizio’s reputation and career continued to grow, and in time he moved away from the theme of failure and towards more complex issues like life and death. His most notable work from this category is La Nona Ora (1999). This work features a wax effigy of the Pope lying on the ground after being struck by a meteorite. This iconoclastic work enraged many, many people, and cost the museum curator her job. The struck Pope wasn’t even Cattelan’s original vision for how to present the wax effigy. Massimiliano Gioni posing as Cattelan said, “As I was working on the piece, literally as I was installing it, the piece didn’t have the presence that I thought it would have had, and so that’s when the idea came of changing the piece.” The redesigned piece was reported by the media and made many people angry and upset. “It’s very strange how art is,” Massimiliano Gioni said. “At one point, I hit some chord, and then people, they really pay attention.”[5]

After La Nona Ora (1999) Cattelan was recognized as a highly successful and internationally known artist and had unquestionably realized his artistic dreams from over a decade prior. He continued to produce art until his quasi-retirement in 2011. Although he is not currently producing art at the same rate, he is still a prominent figure in the art world. In the April 2017 New York Times article “Maurizio Cattelan, Naughty as Ever, Plays Games and Tours the Whitney,” journalist Jacob Bernstein accompanies Cattelan for a private tour of the Whitney museum. Bernstein writes of Cattelan that “another side of him emerged” while viewing the collection. “He was thoughtful. He was smart. He appeared to possess a near encyclopedic knowledge of everything that was on display.” He was able to articulate the artists’ creative inspirations and cultural references.[6] In other interviews Cattelan provides insight into his reading list. For example, in a 2009 interview by Michele Robecchi, Cattelan begins a reply by stating that he “was going through a book of Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s 1970s performance work the other day…,” and goes on to weave facts from the book into the discussion.[7] His detailed knowledge of the art world is even more notable when contrasted with his lack of a formal art education. His art education was and is entirely self directed, and began with the gallerist in Padua who loaned him a few books after he was inspired by the Michelangelo Pistoletto piece. It is clear that his continuous reading of art history and theory books throughout his life has been instrumental to his participation in and acceptance by the art world. It is hard not to respect a motivated and self-made person like Maurizio.

Cattelan is an internationally known artist that achieved his success without any formal art education or training. He achieved this by first taking responsibility for his self-education and learning and reading about other artists. He is also a charming and likeable person and was able to build a support network of people who wanted to see him succeed as an artist. And perhaps most importantly, he was able to craft his artistic persona as someone who could criticize and poke fun of the art world and defy its conventions and expected behaviors. It is because of these things he was able to transform himself from the child his mother worried about into the international figure we know today.

[1] Bonami, Francesco. “Maurizio Cattelan.” Phaidon Press Limited, 2003. Print.

[2] Bancroft, Shelly; Nesbett, Peter. “Maurizio Cattelan is Dead: Life & Work, 1960 - 2009.” Triple Candie Inc., 2012. Print.

[3] Spector, Nancy. “Maurizio Cattelan: All.” Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2011. Print.

[4] Wikipedia contributors. "Maurizio Cattelan." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Apr. 2018. Web. 4 May. 2018.

[5] “Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back.” Dir. Maura Axelrod. Released by Bow and Arrow Entertainment. 2016. Film.

[6] Bernstein, Jacob. “Maurizio Cattelan, Naughty as Ever, Plays Games and Tours the Whitney.” The New York Times. 20 Apr. 2017. Web. 4 May. 2018.

[7] Robecchi, Michele. “Maurizio Cattelan.” Interview Magazine. 22 May. 2009. Web. 5 May. 2018.

[8] Senaldi, Marco. “Cattelan Cover Story.” Flash Art. Nov. 2017. Web. 5 May. 2018.

[9] Hooper, John. “Former lover accuses Cattelan of stealing her ideas.” The Guardian. 19 Jul 2005. Web. 4 May. 2018.