Writer, critic, and former painter Francesco Bonami took on the role as curator in 1993, when he organized a section of the emerging artists wing, “Aperto,” at the Venice Biennale, in which he included then-unknown Maurizio Cattelan and Damien Hirst, among others. Though the exhibition was met with mixed reviews, his prescient eye would become his calling card. Bonami would go on to become the senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where he mounted a huge Jeff Koons retrospective in 2008; he curated a Rudolf Stingel retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 2007; and he has curated widely controversial exhibitions, like the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003 and the 2010 Whitney Biennial. Artsy’s Marina Cashdan sat down with the light-hearted (but thick-skinned) Bonami on the grassy grounds of the Fondation Beyeler to talk to him about “Maurizio Cattelan: Kaputt”, for which Bonami wrote the show’s essay and introduced the exhibition (sans Cattelan). In this refreshingly open interview, Bonami tells us what it has been like to work with the art world provocateur for the last two decades, even dishes on naming Cattelan’s best works, his distaste for art world darlings Banksy and Ai Weiwei, and why “Maurizio Cattelan: Kaputt” at the Fondation Beyeler is much better than the “Maurizio Cattelan: All” exhibition at the Guggenheim New York last year.
Marina Cashdan: Do you come to Basel every year for Art Basel?
Francesco Bonami: I try not to come. This year I came because I did this [exhibition] with Maurizio, but if not, I [wouldn't have] come.
MC: I was at the press preview of “Maurizio Cattelan: Kaputt” where you said that this show is better than the Guggenheim’s “Maurizio Cattelan: All” show. Can you expand on that?
FB: [Laughs.] Well, I think the Guggenheim was of course the most theatrical...and media frenzied...and the spectacle. It’s true, it was an impressive feat, but I don’t think it did a very good service to the work. The people that didn’t know [Maurizio’s] work, they thought that that was the work.
MC: You mean in the way it was presented, hanging from the rotunda?
FB: Yeah. The general public loved it; there was no issue about that. But they didn’t really understand what the work was about. And people that knew the work, like me, felt that some works were totally... killed. It’s a bad thing. Today it’s hard to decide what is a success and what is not a success, because of course when you have one of the highest levels of attendance at the museum, and all the press, and everything, you cannot deny that it’s definitely, on one level, a success. In terms of making the work [understood], maybe I don’t think it was a success, because a lot was lost. There was a missed opportunity to present a narrative within the work. The thing that’s very strong is when you see the chronology of [Maurizio’s] work, one after the other. Then maybe you’d understand more the story of Maurizio.
MC: That’s a good segue to the next question, which is the story of you and Maurizio. Was it 20 years ago that you first worked with Maurizio? And in what context?
FB: Twenty years ago, 1993, was the first time [I worked with Maurizio]. It was at the Biennale in the section called “Aperto,” dedicated to younger artists. At that time I was among the curators, each curated a small section, and I invited Maurizio, among other artists. I invited him again in 2003 [when I curated the Venice Biennale international exhibition].
MC: What’s it like to work with an artist whose career skyrockets before your eyes, and who is now an art world rock star, to some degree?
FB: It’s interesting to see the progression; it’s interesting to see how he has refined his language; it’s interesting how he [went] from a guerilla attitude to, as he understood more, to become a provoker, and then more, playing “cat-and-mouse” with the system and the market and everything, in a very shrewd way, a very intelligent way. Even here at Beyeler, this is a great piece, and it’s very interesting how he was able to [walk the line] between retirement and not retirement, and yet presented something fresh. I mean, this work here in the Fondation Beyeler, it’s something old and new at the same time. So you cannot accuse him not of coming out of retirement, because he didn’t do a new work, but at the same time it is a new work [laughs].
MC: Having worked with him for 20 years, is there a particular story or anecdote that you think really defines your relationship with him?
FB: It’s an interesting relationship. I mean, I gave him some titles for his works, so...it’s interesting that most of the work [for which] I gave him the title, he never showed them in my shows, which were the best [works]. Well, the interesting thing is our relationship is very strong, but at the same time, every time I’ve worked with him, he never gave me his best work. I don’t think it’s on purpose but he never gave me his best work.
MC: He created a memorable work for you at the Venice Biennale in 1997. That was for you.
FB: Yeah, he sold a space that was given to me to an advertising company. They put a test of a new perfume. Then in 1997 I invited him to the SITE Santa Fe Biennial, where he did the test for what would become a very successful work, the head of Picasso, but then did the Georgia O’Keeffe [version], and nobody cared about that there.
MC: So do you think with you, in a way, he plays the cat-and-mouse game with you as well?
FB: I don’t know if it’s that, it’s just maybe he feels more comfortable to do tests and something like that [with me]. I mean, I don’t mind, it’s interesting. You know his best work, HIM [a 2001 sculpture of Adolf Hitler praying on his knees]. I gave him the title. And, La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi, the self-portrait [of the artist dangling from his collar], I gave him the title … and I never was able to show it.
MC: Next time you give him a title, you should require that he allows you to show it if he uses the title.
FB: There is always an involvement. I think it’s interesting, so I’m not complaining. But I think it’s funny, you know.
MC: Maurizio wasn’t present at the press preview for “Maurizio Cattelan: Kaputt” and you asked why artists can’t have the same anonymity as, say, writers. Do you think contemporary artists have become “celebritized”, and do you think this hurts art making?
FB: Yeah, I think it’s all a media thing, particularly in the case of the artists. You know, they produce something to look at, and to think about, so I don’t see why their presence is so essential. Most of the artists I’ve met, they don’t talk too much, they are not very interesting, and often they are even boring. So I don’t understand what this obsession is in the press.... It’s just that people want a target, in a good way or a bad way. I mean, I think that Bruce Nauman never goes to the openings, and Gerhard Richter often doesn’t go to [his openings], Damien Hirst often doesn’t. I mean, I don’t see why someone cannot present the work and not be there. You have a famous case in literature, Thomas Pynchon—you don’t even know if he exists! You know? Or a horrible example in contemporary art is Banksy. I hate his work... I mean, how many people have seen Ellsworth Kelly in life, you know?
MC: But do you think it’s at all different because Maurizio Cattelan puts himself so much at the center of the work?
FB: Yeah, I understand some the rush toward him because in some respect he is that kind of hypocritical in the sense that he likes to be at the center...then he acts like he doesn’t like it. It’s dumb.
MC: There seems to be an Italian connection in many of his collaborations but also his work, and as an Italian—though living in New York—do you think his works speak particularly to Italian culture, or Italian issues?
FB: I think it takes a part from Italian culture, Maurizio’s very Italian in the way he uses language and he’s an Italian in a good [sense of the word]. Like in Fellini movies, that they’re very... they come from Italian issues, but then they transform into something [else]. You know, the little dead squirrel in the kitchen of his childhood is a typical kind of an Italian environment, but he doesn’t particularly identify with Italian things. So I think that’s the strength of his work; like so many artists who maintain a national identity, but at the same time they go beyond.
MC: The exhibition’s title “Kaputt” was named for the 1944 memoir of Italian author Curzio Malaparte, whose graphic retelling of World War II behind German lines devotes an entire chapter to horses [read more here]. Can you talk about Maurizio’s obsession with horses, and what you called earlier his “disrespect” or contempt for horses?
FB: [Laughs.] No, I was joking, but he has this sense of melancholy…that horses are heroic and at the same time very sad characters in the making of history, that horses are these kind of sad figures. If you want to be very contemporary, there’s all this very sad atmosphere about horse racing. Because of internet bidding nobody goes to see the real horse races. So you have this empty track with a few people looking at the horses running, so it’s like almost...dog racing, you know? So I think it’s the destiny of this animal; that it’s both noble, and at the same time, in a way, totally useless, you know? [Laughs.]
MC: How do you predict Maurizio Cattelan will be remembered 100 years from now?
FB: I think it’s his fear, and his concern, how he will be remembered in 100 years. I mean, it’s looming, the “Duane Hanson syndrome”, you know? [Laughs.] On some of his work I think it could be the “Duane Hanson syndrome”. But he has always understood the power of images, and how images can project the fame of an artwork into posterity. I think it makes him a particularly strong figure in art history. So I think you think about HIM, you think about La Nona Ora, you think about all the marble [works], you think about the self-portrait coming out of the ground. There is a handful of works that I think are so strong that will be part of art history, and then the other work that will have the “Duane Hanson syndrome”.
MC: Can you explain the “Duane Hanson syndrome”?
FB: I have this theory, that some art—which is not a matter of importance in the moment that they’re being done—but that some artworks accumulate dust, and some others, patina. So I think Duane Hanson accumulated a lot of dust. When you see sculptures that, you know, belong to a particular moment, they have been important, but now they are dusty. They have no patina. Like say, I’m taking a very stupid example, but The Thinker by Rodin. You know, it’s something that has patina. It does not get dusty; you like to see it. I think that it doesn’t bring you back in time, and that, I think, is the strength of artworks. Those works that, wherever, whenever you see them, they don’t bring you back to the time when they were made.
MC: There’s a concurrent Max Ernst exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler at the same time as “Maurizio Cattelan: Kaputt”. Can can you draw any connections between Max Ernst and Cattelan? Or between “Kaputt” and the Ernst show?
FB: Well maybe they share the same kind of anguish? There is this anguish, and there is this irony. I think [Ernst’s] The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child [before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter, 1926] could easily be the work of Maurizio. I mean, he didn’t do it, but he could do it.
MC: Have you had a chance to walk around Art Basel and if so, are there any standout booths or aspects of the fair or particular pieces that you were drawn to?
FB: I think there was a beautiful work by John Armleder in the gallery of Massimo di Carlo, that’s a work of an artist that has been, in a way, overlooked. ... It depends what you’re looking for.
MC: And as a curator, are you seeing particular themes, or dare I say trends, appearing in Art Basel; and do you see any reverberations from the Venice Biennale in the fair?
FB: Everybody said that the Biennale was anti-market, but I wouldn’t say it’s anti-market. I think this [Venice] Biennale was subtly pre-market, in the sense that you see [the Biennale artists] here and they all sold.
MC: And what did you think of the Venice Biennale?
FB: Well, I worked with [Venice Biennale curator] Massimiliano [Gioni] in 2003. He did a small pavilion in the Biennale that I curated. I think that this Biennale is completely different from the one that I did. I mean, mine was totally about chaos, and explosion and this [one] is about bringing order to chaos and things like that. I also think it’s about crossing the line between outsiders and insiders, which I think is a very dangerous one.
FB: If I can place a critique, it’s that a lot of these artist—outsiders—were presented in a standard label, describing their pathologies, but I think it would have been interesting going a little farther but that would have been very hard for [him] to do.
MC: Go farther in what way?
FB: In the sense that if you want to describe art through the pathology, it should have been presented as all artists are freaks. Like, Bruce Nauman, this guy is a freak that lives in Galisteo, [New Mexico], or Walter De Maria is a freak that lives in a power station in Manhattan, in a small space with a space heater. I mean, that would be, maybe, a fair thing to do, but it would not have been allowed, probably, as an insider artist. So I think that is the only critique that I can bring, that the outsider artists at the end they are presented, but also taken advantage of. I think that’s the only critique that I have.
MC: Were there any pavilions or collateral events that you were surprised by, in a good or not good way?
FB: I hate Ai Weiwei. I think he should be put in jail for his art, and not for his dissidence … lukewarm dissidence, because a real dissident, you don’t hear about them any longer, you know? They just throw away the keys.
MC: And you don’t think he’s helping “real” dissidents?
FB: I don’t think he’s helped the real dissidents, and I think he exploits his dissidence in favor of promoting his art. You know, it’s really very tricky. And the other pavilions, I don’t know. I always find it artificial—the German goes in the French [pavilion], the French goes into the German [pavilion]... But I have to go back to see more of the pavilions I haven’t seen.