From $120,000 bananas to gold toilets: art provocateur Maurizio Cattelan is back

<span>‘I like to do clashes. It has to be attractive and, at the same time, disturbing’ … Maurizio Cattellan.</span><span>Photograph: Jonas Ekströmer/TT/Shutterstock</span>
‘I like to do clashes. It has to be attractive and, at the same time, disturbing’ … Maurizio Cattellan.Photograph: Jonas Ekströmer/TT/Shutterstock

The artist Maurizio Cattelan will be the first to tell you he does not specialize in craft. He’s not a painter or a sculptor, per se. His speciality is imaginative provocation, the art of the conceptual joke. A life-size, hyper-realistic sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteor in La Nona Ora, for example, his eyes closed in eternal sleep. A child-size model of Hitler knelt in prayer, called Him, or a privately commissioned sculpture of a woman, Betsy, huddled in a full-size refrigerator.

Related: Don’t make fun of the $120,000 banana – it’s in on the joke | Jonathan Jones

The 63-year-old Italian has scored mainstream headlines in recent years with pieces that take a bit very literally, ribbing wealth, power, cultural debasement and the art world’s hot air, among other targets. In 2016, he installed a functional solid-gold toilet at the Guggenheim and called it America. (The work was later stolen from Blenheim Palace, and presumably melted down.) More infamously, he duct-taped a banana to the wall at Art Basel in Miami and called it art. That piece, titled Comedian, sold for $120,000 (and has been eaten by viewers, then replaced, on multiple occasions) – an easily mocked symbol of the art market’s bullshit, a work of questionable genius or a triumphant, Duchampian performance of the modern artist’s tragicomic existence, depending on who you ask.

Who’s in on the joke? For years, given Cattelan’s status as a semi-retired prankster and disdain for the art market, not commercial galleries. But Cattelan, who splits time between New York and Milan, has returned to Chelsea with Sunday, his first solo gallery show in over two decades and his first with the Gagosian. “I call Gagosian the dark side of the market,” said Cattelan recently over Zoom with a laugh, before sticking the landing: “I hesitated for a very, very long time, but it was a good partnership.”

The show, running through 15 June, has a more self-consciously serious bent than the banana bit – more in line with his gold toilet America (2016), a commentary on “wealth, nationalism and violence” open for visitor use, and which spawned experiments with bullet-ridden depictions of national flags. Sunday (2024), one of the exhibition’s two pieces, adorns a wall of the cavernous gallery with individual 24-karat plated steel panels pockmarked with gunfire from over 20,000 rounds of ammunition (and selling for $375,000 a piece, according to Artnet). The panels, which evoke gilded moon craters as much as war zones, continue the artist’s long-standing fascination with gold. “I call it a fatal attraction, because it’s true,” said Cattelan of the material, which immediately entrances and signifies. “The gold calls you in, and there is no way [to resist] – a reflection of gold is magnetic. Crass, but magnetic.”

And beautiful, at odds with its geography of violence from a range of automatic and semi-automatic weapons – dents, craters, imprints, tears, clean shots resembling hole punches. “I like to do clashes,” said Cattelan. “It has to be attractive and, at the same time, disturbing.” He had long dreamed of a performance art piece in which an audience witnessed guns shot at them through bulletproof glass. As that’s not quite gallery or liability material, the artist settled for splitting “the experience with the result”. The 64 panels, each a little over 4ft by 4ft and 3mm thick, were shot at – decorated, one could say – at a “state of the art” gun range outside New York by licensed professionals in a handful of shooting sessions, overseen by the Gagosian’s senior director and fellow artist Andy Avini.

“Maurizio knows what he wants. He has a vision, he sticks with it,” said Avini. Once given the concept, Avini embarked on a months-long journey of overcoming logistical and legal hurdles. “Adjustments had to be made, laws had to be abided by. He gave me the basics, and I had to make some phone calls,” including to Hollywood armorers. America’s overall lax gun laws notwithstanding, you cannot just shoot guns at steel panels in New York.

And yet the shots were fired, forging an inherently violent tool with fine art, and calling attention to gun regulation in the US. “The work was produced in the states,” as opposed to Europe, “because it’s easy,” said Cattelan, provoking a mix of fear and perverse awe. (And also a legal letter from British artist Anthony James accusing Cattelan of plagiarizing his Bullet Painting; both artist and Avini dismiss the accusation as without merit. “I’m not going to address the topic, other than to say that this claim does not matter,” said Cattelan.)

Sunday is counter-balanced with November (2024), a sculpture of Carrara marble of a man, modeled after his late friend and business partner Lucio Zotti, who died last September, in repose on a bench, genitals casually exposed, urinating onto the ground. Cattelan refers to the work as a “fountain”, invoking the long legacy of classical nude waterworks in Rome and particularly Mannekan Pis (1619), a sculpture of a young boy peeing. The work has no drainage, however; November’s water fountain currently pools on the floor.

Cattelan refers to the work as a “monument of marginality”: the things you don’t or can’t see, made visible and beautiful. The official reading is a bit more pointed; the press release notes that Sunday uses “precious metal to deconstruct the country’s relationship to the accessibility of weapons (a condition against which privilege affords no defense)” and quotes exhibition curator Francesco Bonami: “If you’re free to buy an assault rifle in a department store, what’s wrong with pissing in public?”

Cattelan, in conversation, is more circumspect. “On the press release, we talk about gun control, but it’s more about violence in general, and violence is something that belongs to everybody,” he said. “It can be violence produced with any means. It can be even psychological.”

“I’m not American, so what can I say about another culture?” he added. “I watch and I compare … but it’s part of each country. Each culture has creeds, faiths, beliefs that are different, and they need to be understood and then addressed.”

At a recent visit to the Gagosian, viewers paced the lacquered, scarred wall and quietly observed November; the mood of curiosity seemed to prevail over provocation. But who’s to say what punchline hits over time? And whether that’s a joke, or a gut punch, or neither, or both. “I think for [Cattelan], the work isn’t finished necessarily once it’s on the wall,” said Avini. “It’s always ongoing, and it’s the people’s reactions that are holding it up.”

  • Sunday is on view at the Gagosian in New York until 15 June