Those unfamiliar with the methods of puckish conceptual-art superstar Maurizio Cattelan are advised to approach Maura Axelrod’s Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back warily, keeping in mind early anecdotes about an art practice steeped in trickery. Newcomers who can avoid feeling burned by occasional dishonesty should join longtime admirers in enjoying this account of a career Cattelan claims ended with his splashy Guggenheim retrospective in 2011; alongside Burden and some other engaging docs, it represents a very good year for art lovers at Tribeca.
Best known for a life-sized sculpture in which Pope John Paul II appears to have been toppled by a meteorite, Cattelan got started with exhibitions that — for those unconcerned with sacrilege — were more daring. The 1989 show that gives this film its name, for instance, consisted of a sign hanging on the door of a locked art gallery; patrons waited outside for a gallerist who never arrived. In any event, there was no art to see inside.
For someone who devoted much of his energy to clever ways of avoiding making art or speaking to questioners, Cattelan worked plenty hard on his career: One by one, associates describe a manipulator who always knew how a new acquaintance might benefit him. His Milan dealer Massimo De Carlo makes a fine distinction: He’s dedicated his life to success in art, perhaps, more than to the art itself.
Which doesn’t mean the work is uninteresting. Axelrod shows plenty of it — from jokey taxidermied animals to an oversized dead Pinocchio to a chilling, twisted depiction of Adolf Hitler — though one might wish for more examples of the early work that attracted attention to Cattelan. Instead we get some armchair psychoanalysis about his love life and a completely disposable sequence about the prices his work commands at auction. Aesthetes who get queasy at talk of “asset classes” and “investible commodities” have plenty of time to run out and grab popcorn while some self-satisfied rich folks discuss their collections.
Much more likeable interviewees, like husband/wife art writers Calvin Tomkins and Dodie Kazanjian, help viewers navigate issues of charm versus merit, celebrity versus staying power. Most agree that while many of Cattelan’s sculptures produce the kind of immediate response one might have to a comedian’s one-liner, the best have more potent stuff lurking within them, digestible once the laughs have died down.
While some of the movie’s own gags should be left for viewers to suss out, the biggest misdirection in Cattelan’s career has already been exposed in the press: That 2011 retirement? Not so permanent. Next month, he intends to reveal a new sculpture, albeit not on a gallery’s walls: He’s installing a solid-gold toilet in one of the bathrooms at the Guggenheim Museum.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Special Screening)
Production company: Bow and Arrow Entertainment
Director-screenwriter: Maura Axelrod
Producers: Lucian Read, Lyman Smith
Executive producers: Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman, Daniel Wright
Director of photography: Lucian Read
Editor: Lyman Smith
Composer: John Jennings Boyd
Sales: Bec Smith, UTA
In English and Italian
Not rated, 94 minutes