View of “Maurizio Cattelan: All,” 2011. Photo: David Heald.

View of “Maurizio Cattelan: All,” 2011. Photo: David Heald.

Maurizio Cattelan

View of “Maurizio Cattelan: All,” 2011. Photo: David Heald.

THIS PAST NOVEMBER, the Italian website Doppiozero published a text by Marco Belpoliti titled “The End. Berlusconi & Cattelan,” in which the author and literary critic notes the coincidence of Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation as Italy’s prime minister and Maurizio Cattelan’s announcement that he will retire from the art world after the exhibition “All”—his current bombastic retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York. Yet Belpoliti doesn’t think this is the last we’ll see of either of them: Berlusconi and Cattelan may be saying farewell, but in fact they will, in one form or another, be among us for some time. And this is not the only parallel Belpoliti detects between the artist and the politician. These two figures, perhaps the most talked-about Italian celebrities worldwide, have been more adept at taking advantage of the media than have any of their compatriots. The scoundrel tycoon used it to achieve an unchallenged primacy on the Italian political stage. The scoundrel artist used it to become the most famous Italian artist on the international scene since, dare I say, Caravaggio.

But if Berlusconi was able to last longer than any of his predecessors in the rodeo that is Italian government, Cattelan managed to tame the beast that is the art world, dismounting as he wished and setting his own pace. Cattelan’s targets have always been culture and society at large; he has used the art system only as a disposable tool. His exaggerated figuration, Grand Guignol hypertrophies, and parodic tableaux have been driven by a desire to both expose and escape the conventions of art history, curatorial strategies, and the market. This desire also underlies the show at the Guggenheim, in whose rotunda virtually Cattelan’s entire oeuvre—from the framed photograph Lessico familiare (Family Syntax), 1989, to an exhibition copy of L.O.V.E., 2010, the upturned marble finger that is installed in front of the Milan stock exchange—dangles from a fantastical network of pulleys and cables in a chaotic kind of suspended animation. The show’s curator, Nancy Spector, is right to say in the catalogue that it looks like a “mass execution”: Cattelan is to his works what Reverend Jim Jones was to his cult, and the Guggenheim is to Cattelan what Jonestown was to Jones.

Was the choice to string up 128 of his works in a Cecil Balmond–esque feat of engineering the only way Cattelan could deal with the eternal wrestling match between Frank Lloyd Wright’s menacing architectural uterus and the artworks shown within it? From a P. T. Barnum point of view, the answer can only be a resounding yes (although maybe not from the point of view of the victims, the individual and often outstanding works of art). Cattelan had discussed other options with Spector: scattering his works around Manhattan in different sites and institutions, or repainting the outside of the Guggenheim pink (which Wright actually envisaged in some drawings). But in the end, Cattelan created an overwhelmingly successful circus. He sacrificed the individual works and eventually himself for a bigger cause: honest, pure, shallow spectacle. The show must hang on.

“All” is not the first time Cattelan has pushed the game to its limits—this prophet of the entertainment age has always been drawn to exploring its most paradoxical aspects. Hence the constant accusations of being a mere prankster, whose art is a succession of one-liners. At first glance, the Guggenheim show does not help defuse such charges; quite the contrary. Still, the fact that Cattelan has not indulged in anything so predictable as a statue of an upside-down Berlusconi should be enough for us to think twice about the harshness of the accusations that have often been made against the artist, and to hold off from any final sentence against him—as should the fact that rather than waiting to be asked to leave, like Berlusconi, Cattelan was brave enough to exile himself from his own career.

Nevertheless, Cattelan’s decision to undermine his own crowning success has left many wondering about the true motives behind his “retirement.” Some say it is an attempt to emulate Duchamp. I don’t think so. I think a trickster of a different sort offers a better answer. Talking to Regis Philbin in a recent issue of Newsweek about the decision to end his sitcom, Jerry Seinfeld says: “I knew I was doing the right thing for the audience. . . . A lot of times a performer . . . [says] let’s keep giving it to them until they vomit. That’s the normal way things are done. . . . I think there’s an overall cultural gluttony that I wanted to avoid with my show. I would never compare what I did to the Beatles, but the Beatles ended too soon for me, and because of that, every time that one of their songs comes on, I turn up the radio. Because I never got enough. And I love that feeling.” In making his own parting gesture a spectacle of gluttony, the showman from Padua may have found the best way (and the right time) to hang up his own coat. Will syndication be next, or a sequel? I’m sure we won’t have to wait long to find out.

“Maurizio Cattelan: All” remains on view through Jan. 22.

Francesco Bonami is Artistic Director of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Italy. His Maurizio Cattelan: Autobiografia Non Autorizzata, an unauthorized biography of the artist, has recently been published by Mondadori.