How is it that Maurizio Cattelan is thriving in a bear market? Art.view considers the odd fortune of this irreverent artist ...
The art market is the sum of very fragmented parts. This becomes more apparent in a recession: when most artists' prices are sliding down, a few conspicuously creep up. In these tough times, Maurizio Cattelan, a 49 year-old Italian artist with an acute sense of absurd, is not just surviving but thriving.
At Sotheby's contemporary evening sale at the end of June, most of the artworks sold near their low estimate, but Cattelan's “Mini-Me” was the subject of an old-fashioned bidding war. The sculptural self-portrait, which comes in a relatively large edition of ten, was estimated at £180,000 to £250,000, but two phone bidders drove the minor work up to the major price of £493,000.
A few months ago one of Cattelan's most significant sculptures, “Him” (pictured left), traded behind the scenes for $10m, a sum that few living artists of his generation can command. Smaller than life-size, “Him” is a spookily realistic depiction of Hitler kneeling in prayer. Among other things, it poses the question: if the Führer asked for absolution, would God forgive him? Stefan Edlis, a Viennese-born Holocaust survivor and eminent American collector, is a proud owner an edition of the work. “When people see this piece,” says Edlis, “they react with gasps, tears, disbelief. The impact is stunning. Politics aside, that is how you judge art.”
Few artists have the ability to puzzle over tragedy like Cattelan, whose works evoke the cruel daydreams that besiege otherwise good boys, the fears that inhibit love and the hilarity that accompanies horror. His art is hardly commercial—he does not create works that match anyone's sofa. So how does one explain the current high demand?
While Cattelan's work has been subject to price surges, it was not swept up in the speculative bubble of the bull market, from 2006 to early 2008. His highest price at auction was set in 2004 when “The Ninth Hour”, a sculpture depicting Pope John Paul II knocked down by a meteorite, sold for $3m. Cattelan's primary prices for large-scale works, such as “All” (pictured at top), a white marble sculpture of nine draped corpses, now exceed that benchmark figure.
Cattelan is supported by serious collectors, such as Edlis in Chicago, Dakis Joannou in Athens, Patrizia Sandretto re Rebaudengo in Torino, David and Danielle Ganek in New York and Philippe Niarchos in Paris. “It's a hallmark of bravery to own a Cattelan sculpture,” says Amy Cappellazzo of Christie's. “It usually signals an ambitious collection.”
Word may also have got round that the Guggenheim Museum in New York is planning a Cattelan retrospective in 2011 and that the artist has been asked to consider an exhibition at Versailles. During a recession, museum validation is especially important in giving collectors the confidence to pay over the odds.
Cattelan is represented by three prestigious dealers—Marian Goodman in New York, Massimo de Carlo in Milano and Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris—and an influential art advisor, Philippe Segalot, but the artist hasn't had a show in a commercial gallery since 2002. “I like to produce work for specific places and it is difficult to do repeat shows in the same space,” explains the artist. So Cattelan often premieres new work in museums, in solo and group exhibitions. At the recently opened “Pop Life” show at London's Tate Modern, for example, Cattelan unveiled the third in a series of taxidermy horses. This one lies on the floor, rigid with rigor mortis, staked with a signpost that says “INRI”.
By abstaining from commercial shows, Cattelan withstands the usual pressures to produce. The low volume is perfectly attuned to a bear market. “I produce so little that the works have to be editioned, otherwise I don't survive,” says Cattelan. “Also, editioning is relevant for communication. If you make three new works, it means that nine objects are available. Three people talking about your work is fine, but nine makes a difference.”
Cattelan is conscious of what he calls the “media resonance” or “visual persistence” of his work. He has cultivated a strong artistic persona that takes his art beyond the narrow confines of the art world. Not only does he produce many sculptural self-portraits, he regularly works with Pierpaolo Ferrari, a photographer, to create images of “Cattelan”—a socially awkward joker—that keep his face in circulation.
Art-market insiders affirm that Cattelan is a tough businessman. As Massimo de Carlo observes, “These artists have a monopoly on a product that everybody wants, so they can do whatever they like.” When asked to what extent he is his own dealer, Cattelan declares, “Only as much as any other self-aware artist.” Thinking of more ambitious artist-dealers, he adds, “Damien Hirst knows how to drive super-fast cars...I love my bicycle."
Cattelan has maintained his credibility among the grassroots of the non-profit art world by co-curating the 2006 Berlin Biennial and co-founding the Wrong Gallery, a rogue outfit that held exhibitions in a ludicrously small space in New York's Chelsea gallery district (miniaturisation is a Cattelan trademark).
Cattelan seems delighted to make specific works for individual collectors, but patrons beware. Ben Brown, a London dealer, commissioned a portrait of his grandmother; Cattelan made a unique work called “Betsy” consisting of a life-like old lady jammed into a fridge. Peter Brant, a Connecticut-based newsprint magnate, commissioned a portrait of his wife, Stephanie Seymour; Cattelan created a bust in the style of a mounted moose head, which the art-world has nicknamed “Trophy Wife”. (To make matters worse, Cattelan made the piece an edition of three with one artist's proof, so other men could own Stephanie.) When François Pinault, a luxury goods billionaire, asked the artist to think about what he might make for him, Cattelan suggested a tombstone inscribed with the epitaph, “Pourquoi Moi?” Mr Pinault’s family was initially too uncomfortable with the idea, but Cattelan persisted and the family recently acquiesced.
Cattelan is himself a collector, although he shirks the label. He prefers to say that he simply buys art as part of an ongoing “moral investment”. The impetus to acquire other artists' work was initially rooted in competitiveness. “I was jealous of colleagues when I should have been happy for them,” explains Cattelan. “I decided to save my energy. If you think they are great works, you should buy them.”
Image credit: Courtesy of Maurizio Cattelan