Magazine | February 6, 2012, Issue

The Higher Silliness

The first thing I saw on entering the atrium of the Guggenheim was a horse suspended in a sling ten feet above the ground. The sling went under the belly of the beast (as it were), leaving its head, legs, and tail drooping down dolefully. A great many other things were also suspended from the atrium’s skylight 96 feet above. Consulting the catalogue, I learned the precise number of things: 128. I learned too that the horse had been produced by taxidermy, and that with its sling, rope, and pulley it formed a work of art with the title “Novecento” (“Twentieth Century”). I further learned that I was in a rotunda, not an atrium; and that the point of suspension was not a skylight but an oculus.

There was no strong reason for my being in the Guggenheim, only a bunch of weak ones. I was on the Upper East Side with a couple of hours to kill. It was a cold day. After having lived in and around New York City for 30 years, I had never been inside this famous building. And there had been something in the news about a major art theft from a gallery in Greece, stirring in me the very faint desire — the velleity, I think Bill Buckley would have called it — to make a gesture in favor of civilization (art galleries) over barbarism (stealing things you want but can’t afford). So there I was in the Guggenheim.

The inside of the place consists of a spiral ramp rising up around the . . . rotunda. This allowed inspection of the 128 suspended art objects. All of them are the work of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. To the catalogue again. “Cattelan creates unsettlingly veristic sculptures that reveal contradictions at the core of today’s society.” How, exactly, does a stuffed horse in a sling do that? Or a 21.4-foot-long foosball table (title: “Stadium”)? Or a child-sized polyester figure of Hitler, kneeling (“Him”)? Or a fiberglass dinosaur skeleton (“Felix”)?

The catalogue did not offer much enlightenment. It did yield a few laughs, though. I had forgotten how heroically silly the world of art and art commentary has become. These parody-defying exhibition catalogues belong to a literary genre of their own, deserving of a name: the Higher Silliness, perhaps. Cattelan’s frequent resort to taxidermy, I learned from this one, “presents a state of apparent life premised on actual death.” Ah. And then:

Perhaps the most poignant of his anthropomorphic animal scenes is Bidibidobidiboo (1996), in which a despairing squirrel has committed suicide in his grimy kitchen.

Had the poor creature just arrived home from a trip to the Guggenheim?

A quarter of the way up the ramp I was regretting my visit already. I had an irrecoverable $15 admission fee invested, though, so I pressed on.

#page#The catalogue promised “ironic humor,” but I couldn’t detect any. Was it there in that fantastically elongated supermarket shopping cart (“Less than ten items” — presumably a commentary on consumerism)? Oh, here at least was a human figure I recognized: Pope John Paul II, couchant but clutching his crozier, his legs pinned down by a big ugly rock. “La None Ora” (“The Ninth Hour”), this was titled. A little higher was another horse, this one with a crude wooden sign attached bearing the scrawled letters INRI (“Untitled, 2009”). Cattelan’s source materials, explained the catalogue, include organized religion. Well, they include one organized religion. I bet I can name another one that is perfectly absent from Signor Cattelan’s oeuvre.

Weary now of Cattelan’s unfunny jokes and juvenile symbolism, I peeled off into one of the side galleries where the permanent collection is displayed. To my delight, I was among real art: Cézanne, Pissarro, Manet . . . water in the desert! Browsing here, I was transported back a half century to the studio at my high school, the domain of art master David Gomman, an actual exhibited painter, though of no lasting fame the Internet can detect.

Gomman’s teaching style was severely minimalist. Art materials were scattered on tables for us to do as we pleased with, or not. Gomman would stroll round the room making mild criticisms and suggestions. No teacher’s style suits every pupil, but I found Gomman’s inspirational, and produced several paintings that enjoyed the honor of being hung in the school hall. The head of the modern-languages department actually bought one — an abstract done with thick braids of poster paint on a black background, dried with utmost care to avoid cracking.

Gomman’s classroom also had a rich collection of art books. I browsed in them for hours, and from them acquired a good outline understanding of art history. (A subject reputed to be the epitome of rich-kid college majors in today’s U.S.A., leading to no employment opportunities at all. Miss Straggler, now a college freshman, and long afflicted with Foundling Complex, is naturally keen to pursue it.) Gomman supplemented the accompanying texts with his own pungent opinions. He bore a particular animus against Picasso, then still vigorously active: “A great showman, a mediocre artist.”

After Gomman, my enthusiasm for art lapsed. I did notice with mild interest the coming and going of pop art, though, and was reminded of it in another side gallery at the Guggenheim, which has some fine Lichtensteins. T-t-talkin’ ’bout my g-g-generation.

Pop art was at least fun to look at. After that came what I believe is called “installation art”: a pile of bricks, an unmade bed, a bisected cow, numbered cans of poop — irony squared and cubed, picking up the torch dropped by the Dadaists 90 years ago. (Those cans collectively form Merda d’Artista — I’ll spare you a translation — by another Italian, the late Piero Manzoni.) And now, Maurizio Cattelan, foosball, and dead squirrels.

On the way out of the Guggenheim I visited the store, where I purchased a $2 postcard print of Pissarro’s Hermitage at Pontoise, the least modern-looking, least ironic thing I could find. It is pinned now to the cork-boarded wall behind my desk. That’s enough: I have made a gesture for civilization, fulfilled my velleity.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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