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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 1 OCTOBER 2016 — The spiraling rotunda of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was closed recently, the floor filled with great crates in natural wood and fluorescent green that some took for readymade art. They were not, but the big draw had just been installed: a sculpture by the contemporary Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. One-part art theoretician, many more parts provocateur, in 2011, the artist mounted, at this very museum, the site-specific exhibition that was intended as his valediction: nearly all his major works were hung on wires stretching from the ceiling to the floor of the rotunda—a monsoon of art. Cattelan thereupon retired, quite young, but like Frank Sinatra, it was all premature. Five years on, he has returned to pick up where he left off, at the Guggenheim.

Much of Modern and contemporary representational art has rejected the primary mission of most prior styles that originated with Western art since the Age of Pericles, which was an attempt at creating beauty. The supervening mandate has been to shock and to criticize—primarily those people with the sophistication to understand, and means to purchase, Western art. Cattelan is very good at it, as anyone who has experienced Him (2001) an attest. You approach from the back a lifelike sculpture of a penitent schoolboy, dressed politely in plus-fours, kneeling in prayer. As you come around the side of the work and see the figure’s face, you find it is a realistically rendered Adolf Hitler, gazing humbly toward the heavens. This past spring, the work sold at Christie’s New York, just to the south, for $17.2 million—a personal best for the artist.

That piece and others are hard acts to follow, but leave it to Cattelan to come back strong. As anyone who has visited the Guggenheim knows, Frank Lloyd Wright was an architectural genius, but he was no plumber. Toilets are cramped, single-occupancy units spotted at each level along the northern face of the rotunda. No apparent attempt has ever been made to make them more than utilitarian—until now.

Visitors ride the single passenger elevator five floors up, there to stand in line at one of the larger toilets—conveniently marked “UNISEX.” It is art appreciation time, and here is how it works:

You line up and wait to use the toilet. Although there is an empty one just paces away, you are here because this toilet houses the art. The line can be as long as two hours, so if you did not need to use the toilet before arriving, you surely will once it is your turn. When it comes, you go in and there it is: Cattelan has replaced the regular porcelain potty with a fully functional identical copy made from eighteen-karat gold. The seat weighs thirty-five pounds (nearly sixteen kilograms), which means that the raw material value in that component alone is over US $600,000. To experience the art, you sit down and urinate. Then you flush—and please do not forget to wash your hands. When you leave, a docent comes and checks to make sure you did not steal the handle or break the seat in an ill-advised attempt at weight-lifting; once every twenty minutes, an attendant in black interrupts the procession to tidy up.

Maurizio Cattelan: America, 2016
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Photo: Alan Behr

The piece is entitled America. It calls to mind that ground-breaking Modernist readymade of Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917)—which was a real urinal rendered nonfunctional and put on display as art—but in reverse: this is purpose-built art that functions. The seat of the Golden Throne is quite cold, making you aware of the uniqueness of the experience from the moment you take your seat. In the reflection of real gold, your poured-in addition is all but indistinguishable from the water in the basin. If you are disappointed that your contribution thereby really does not add all that much to the appearance of the piece, you should at least feel a momentary experience of grandeur from doing something very much not grand–which may be the point of the title, America.

What can this all mean?  On its website, the museum has a great come-on: “Have a seat, won’t you?” The wall label, however, turns on social commentary, saying that the work is “making available to the public an extravagant luxury product seeming intended for the 1 percent.” That is nonsense. You have to be much richer than that to afford what is likely more gold than you have likely seen in one place at one time. Because the work is in that particular toilet (the single-occupancy rule rigidly enforced) and is an exact duplicate of the museum’s other commodes, it is quite site-specific.  Pay for it and take it to your house, and it is just a gaudy home improvement, crying out for a matching bidet. That may be the point—and the reason for the title: here it is, American excess in about as simple yet ostentatious a form as can be presented. And because it cannot be fully appreciated until used, the only way to experience it is to foul it. If that is meant as a metaphor for the USA, should we be insulted?  Perhaps no more so than are pious Catholics are offended by Cattelan’s La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour) (1999), in which a life-sized Pope John Paul II lies pinned to the ground by the meteorite that has just struck him down.

To watch the people using America, however, is to see faces of pure satisfaction and, dare we say it, relief.  As the artist surely knew when creating the piece, no one ever leaves a clean and safe public toilet feeling let down.

Now on exhibit at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The installation is “ongoing,” meaning that there is now no set date for its removal.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10128
Tel: (1) 212 423 35 75