Buster Keaton Of The Art World – Maurizio Cattelan The Art Worker Sparking Outrage With His Tool Of Realism

An Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan once again generates quite a buzz, even though he purported to retire back in 2011. Described as a provocateur, he’s proven time and time again that this particular label sticks for a reason. His piece titled “Comedian” displayed at this year’s edition of Art Basel Miami Beach seems rather uncomplicated. After all, it’s just a banana duct-taped to the wall. However, in the context of Cattelan’s practice, the abovementioned artwork could be discerned as another instrument used to spark a debate on the boundaries of art. The more questions, the better.

The world-famous creator has returned in the excellent form to present his tools of the trade culled from conceptualism, surrealism and dadaism. Again, he engages in a shrewd play on the 20th-century cultural figures and demonstrates his critical approach with the use of a contemporary form.

Maurizio Cattelan, con l'opera del 2010 L.O.V.E. in piazza della Borsa a Milano.

Maurizio Cattelan, con l’opera del 2010 L.O.V.E. in piazza della Borsa a Milano.


Who is this immensely colourful figure, exactly? Looking back at the progression of Cattelan’s career, one might either be compelled to pronounce the Italian artist as the most quick-witted persona of the art world or distinguish nothing other than his vulgarity. Cattelan imbues his art practice with dark humour and disassociates himself from the art system, although he’s represented by some of the leading art galleries in the world – Marian Goodman (New York), Emmanuel Perrotin (Paris) and Massimo de Carlo (Milan).

Cattelan has a strong predilection for hyperrealism – he gravitates towards the extremities, blurring the distinction between artistic invention and reality, embraces the image replete with discrepancies that throws the spanner in the works of politics, culture and historic notions.

Maurizio Cattelan has no formal arts education. He’s a self-proclaimed art worker who started out by taking odd jobs, such as a postman or a nurse. Then, he devoted himself to working with wooden furniture. Cattelan grew up in the northern Italian city of Padua – his youth was marked by economic hardship at home, punishment at school and a string of menial jobs. “I did the same thing in other fields in the past and I was treated as an idiot. In this field, I don’t understand why, I’m doing the same things and it’s appreciated,” Cattelan once said.


In the 1990s, Cattelan created monochromatic canvases which he proceeded to cut with a razor. His practice emulated the gesture of the great Italian master, Luzio Fontana (1899-1968), who proclaimed his departure from the tradition of painting and sculpture in favour of an experimental exploration of form and spatial image. The slash marks reminiscent of deadly wounds inflicted onto the canvas suffused the cult painter’s gesture with a dramatic quality. No wonder Jonathan Littell, an author, requested that the reproduction of Fontana’s painting should be placed on the cover of his devastating book dealing with the subject of the Holocaust. Cattelan’s works, on the other hand, were far less dramatic. He used to carve out the initial Z in one sweeping motion – ‘Z’ as in Zorro. In this manner, a young artist presented himself as a masked vigilante who actively wages war on the tyrants of the art world. Those seemingly straightforward works incorporate the rhetoric figures paramount to artistic approach adopted by Cattelan.

Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale, 1963, dét., exposition Fontana, musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, photo: Renaud Camus

Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale, 1963, dét., exposition Fontana, musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, photo: Renaud Camus

Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale Attesa, photo: LetteraA

Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale Attesa, photo: LetteraA


Cattelan’s art career gained momentum after the seminal presentation of “Stadium 1991” in the Contemporary Art Gallery in Bologna. The piece, which consists of a six-meter foosball table accommodating twenty-two players, had political dimensions. In the early 1990s, racism was considered a serious problem in Italy. The country had experienced an exponential influx of North African immigrants in the early 1980s due to the increased demand for cheap labour. In an act of defiance against the politicians expressing their disapproval of the state of affairs, Cattelan assembled his own football team composed in its entirety of the North African immigrants. Cattelan’s team was losing every game on purpose, signalling the helplessness of minorities. In addition, the team had a sponsor – a fictional logistics company, RAUSS.

Cattelan was aware of the fact that games can provide great insight into different cultures since they often exhibit the goals of society and its established values. Therefore, the artist’s piece alluded to the infamous family board game “Juden Raus!” which was issued in Dresden (1936). The aim was to deport the largest number of Jewish people possible to Palestine. Needless to say, the game advanced the promulgation of antisemitism. Several decades later, Cattelan’s football team was equipped with kits inscribed with the sponsor’s name evoking the Nazi-inspired phrase “Juden Raus”. The game orchestrated in a gallery pitted against each other two teams defined exclusively by race: an all-white group of Italians played against black people recruited by Cattelan for his football club, A.C. Forniture Sud.

Cattelan’s game parodied the new weave of xenophobia in Italy. By juxtaposing the emerging racial tensions against the nation-wide reverence for football, Cattelan conveyed masterfully the precarious balance between leisure, entertainment and social critique.


In 1993, Cattelan was invited to participate in the Aperto’93 exhibit. Like every other artist, he was assigned space to display his work. However, Cattelan decided to lease his allotted space to the Italian advertising company that used this opportunity to promote its new brand of perfume created by the Italian fashion designer Pino Lancetti. Thus, Cattelan unveiled the correspondences between the world of art and the world of advertising, while exposing art as the source of entertainment.


In 1998, Cattelan implemented a similar project in New York – an actor he hired dressed as Picasso was sauntering by the entrance to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Soon, visitors were rushing in their droves to see the museum’s attraction. The figure of Picasso represented the gradual appropriation of high art by the popular culture. In this spectacle, Picasso played the mascot that emphasized the phenomenon of glorified celebrities and the manner in which art history endorsed certain characters.

This performative action shed light on the cultural institutions’ growing tendency to morph into entertainment centres. Cattelan’s Picasso could bring to mind all the cartoon characters wandering around Disneyland.

Picasso.mania, Grand Palais, Paris, Flick, Jean Pierre Dalbera

Picasso.mania, Grand Palais, Paris, Flick, Jean Pierre Dalbera


The artist’s focus shifted toward wax sculpture in the late 1990s. One particular piece indicative of this career period seems worth mentioning.

Cattelan recalls the assassination of President John F. Kennedy alongside endless conspiracy theories inspired by this event. All these circumstances keep the story alive, breeding frustration. The artist allows the president to finally rest in peace by organizing an ironic re-enactment of his death.

The artworks of Maurizio Cattelan often feature animals whose presence embodies the concept of mortality. These animals are often enlarged or diminished in size, anthropomorphised or embedded in ludicrous narratives.

The animal is placed in a typically human and emotionally neutral environment. In his work, Cattelan poses the following questions: have we domesticated virtually everything in our surroundings, including the allegedly “wild” animals? Have we already erased “natural” habitats, thus consigning animals to artificial enclosures created or at least managed by people? Does the starkness of a kitchen reflect the degradation and morbidity of the environment we bestowed upon animals? If we hadn’t killed any animals ourselves, would they have even developed the impulse to kill each other in this anthropocentric reality?


Cattelan announced his retirement in 2011. The supposedly final retrospective survey of the artist entitled “All” was held in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The arrangement of approximately 130 pieces was unorthodox, to say the least. His entire oeuvre suspended from the rotunda was reminiscent of a mass execution. Ultimately, the exhibit was hailed as the tragic work of art celebrating vanity.



The irrevocable departure from the art world seems entirely out of character for Cattelan, who gives an impression of the type of a person that has a relentless need to offer commentary on the state of reality. As a result, Cattelan is still working as a curator as well as the editor of “Toilet Paper Magazine” founded in 2010. Now, Cattelan and photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari can indulge in the creation of experimental images as well as some of the most absurd, almost oneiric stories.

Toilet Paper Magazine” features only images. Those images are left to their own devices to conjure surreal narratives which encourage meditation. Here, you can come across the intensely eerie, often scandalous imagery that never leaves you unfazed. The artists adopt the aesthetic of advertising, art and fashion, probing into their relationship with art. Their vivid, ironic and provocative images combine the style of commercial photography with surreal pop evocations, sexual obsessions, innuendo and ambiguity to create complex compositions. They keep turning your world upside down with smiles on their faces.

Maurizio Cattelan %22Amen%22 exhibition, Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art

Maurizio Cattelan “Amen” exhibition, Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art

Maurizio Cattelan %22Amen%22 exhibition, Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art

Maurizio Cattelan “Amen” exhibition, Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art


In Poland, the Italian artist is associated with the scandals that erupted, perhaps inevitably, after the presentations of his work. “La Nona Ora”, one of his most recognizable artworks, was even featured in the popular tv-series “The Young Pope” (dir. Paolo Sorrentino), which stirs up controversies in Poland and abroad, not unlike the artist himself.

Cattelan went down in Polish history mainly due to the circumstances surrounding the anniversary exhibition organized in Zachęta National Gallery of Art – “Beware of Exiting Your Dreams: You May Find Yourself in Somebody Else’s” – curated by Harald Szeemann from Switzerland. On account of the sacrosanct status of the Pope in Polish culture, surge of emotions was sweeping the nation as the gossip about Cattelan’s work have been circulating prior to the exhibition opening. Anda Rottenberg, who was the director of Zachęta at that time, decided against tampering with the curatorial vision. In Szeemann’s own opinion, the figure of John Paul II was essential for the depiction of Polish identity.

The artist’s work triggered a vigorous response, while security guards worked their fingers to the bone. Wojciech Cejrowski (a traveller known for his controversial right-wing perspective who visited the exhibition) attempted to cover the sculpture of the suffering Pope. After a while, politicians marched into the gallery and tried to remove the boulder crushing his body. Presumably, the realism of “La Nona Ora” was one of the reasons why the artwork caused such outrage. According to Cattelan, an incredible obstinacy of John Paul II might’ve thrown God off balance. The meteor falling off the sky could be the sign from God intending to stop the Pope.

Maurizio Cattelan - Not Afraid of Love exhibition at Monnaie de Paris_Flickr_FredRomero2

Maurizio Cattelan – Not Afraid of Love exhibition at Monnaie de Paris, Flickr Fred Romero

The Polish audience might also be familiar with another show of Cattelan’s work. Exactly twelve years after the scandal surrounding the Pope sculpture, the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw orchestrated the exhibition under the title “Amen” (2012) that showcased eight of the artist’s pieces, including one of the most controversial sculptures ever made by Cattelan. The statue of a kneeling Hitler titled “Him” (2001) was displayed at the 14 Próżna Street, in the former Warsaw ghetto. The portrayal of the dictator on his knees suggests him begging for forgiveness. The artwork raised the issue concerning the possibility of offering forgiveness to someone who epitomizes the most radical form of evil. One could safely state that once again Cattelan managed to disrupt the Polish society’s pleasant routine in order to ask difficult questions.

It’s worth pointing out that Stefan Edlis, a survivor of the Holocaust, acquired the “Him” sculpture for his art collection. The intention of the artist wasn’t to offend the Jewish community, but rather to draw attention to the question which the work actually addresses.

Maurizio Cattelan - Not Afraid of Love exhibition at Monnaie de Paris, photo: Fred Romero

Maurizio Cattelan – Not Afraid of Love exhibition at Monnaie de Paris, photo: Fred Romero

Maurizio Cattelan - Not Afraid of Love exhibition at Monnaie de Paris, photo: Fred Romero

Maurizio Cattelan – Not Afraid of Love exhibition at Monnaie de Paris, photo: Fred Romero

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About The Author


Art writer, a graduate of Polish Philology and Art History based in Warsaw. She's a member of Contemporary Lynx editorial team and Social Media Manager. She explores contemporary photography and writes mainly about women photographers. Her research interests also include film history.

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