Another early work is simply a small plastic sign on a cheap brass chain that says “Torno Subito” — basically, “Be Back Soon.” When Cattelan failed to come up with satisfactory artwork for an exhibition scheduled with an Italian art dealer in 1989, he purchased the sign and hung it on the door of the gallery, which remained closed for the show’s run, adding another footnote to the long history of the empty gallery as art exhibition. The little sign is at the Guggenheim, but is so hard to find that it amounts to another failure.
One of the first works by Cattelan that speaks clearly for itself is a large black-and-white photograph of the artist from 1995. Dressed in jeans, a sweater and sneakers, he rolls on his back with his tongue hanging out and his hands and feet raised like paws. The image is comic perfection: a portrait of the artist as an obsequious canine, embarrassingly eager to please. In 1995 he also began his line of taxidermied horses, donkeys, mice and too many cutely curled-up dogs. Dead or alive? You decide. (Very close scrutiny reveals the “Torno Subito” sign hanging from the neck of a golden retriever that is also not going to be back any time soon.)
In 1999 Cattelan began making exquisite life-size wax effigies of various people, including himself, looking young and cherubic; Pope John Paul II felled by a meteor; Hitler as a kneeling schoolboy possibly asking forgiveness; and a little old lady smiling out at us from a half-open refrigerator.
Whatever their strengths, the individual works are radically decontextualized and diminished in this arrangement. For example, Cattelan’s best-known, most controversial work, La Nona Ora, the life-size wax effigy of the downed pope, is usually installed on an immense expanse of red carpet amid shattered glass. It is as if an act of God (who else?) had just plunged the rock through the rose window of a large cathedral during high Mass. (The work’s title, which translates as “The Ninth Hour,” refers to the time that Christ died on the cross.) But at the Guggenheim the carpet has shrunk to a raft-size pallet not much larger than the pope, who now seems not so much a powerful target of heavenly wrath — and a work whose display in a Warsaw museum eventually cost its director her job — as a bit of cargo on the verge of being hoisted into a ship’s hold.
Throughout, there are pieces that never make it beyond the one-liner stage. Nearly a dozen paintings parody the frequent hokeyness of the Argentine-Italian modernist Lucio Fontana’s sliced-canvas monochromes by rearranging his cuts to form Z’s, for Zorro, but two wrongs don’t make a right. An enormous taxidermied white cow with scooter handles where horns might be is merely a bulky reiteration of one of the oldest Surrealist tricks in the book, descended from Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered teacup. Most recent are nine shrouded, horizontal human forms carved from Carrara marble, an evocation of death as obvious as it is opulent.
But other pieces are richly enigmatic. An olive tree planted in a large Minimalist cube of dirt looks great, as if it floated out of a Magritte. As does the ostensibly touching but in fact typically ambiguous Not Afraid of Love, which is a very lifelike sculpture of an incredibly cute elephant beneath a sheet (with holes for the eyes) that conjures shyness, Halloween and also the Ku Klux Klan.