UPPER EAST SIDE — The Guggenheim has once again up-ended things in its iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building.
Instead of installing art along the building's walls or up its ramp, some 130 works by controversial contemporary Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan are suspended in a giant whirl by cables from the ceiling's oculus.
It took years of discussions before he agreed to do the retrospective, "Maurizio Cattelan: All," which opens Friday and runs through Jan. 22, 2012.
"The idea of bringing this all together was completely an abject idea," Guggenheim's chief curator Nancy Spector said.
The artist's works tended to be performance-based or site-specific, and he was resistant to a conventional chronological exhibition, Spector said. But eventually their brainstorming led to the proposal to dangle his taxidermied animals, Pope John Paul II sculpture, giant fooseball table and other works in the middle of the Guggenheim's spiral, so there would be "no hierarchy" of the work.
"It creates this completely egalitarian arrangement of viewing the work," Spector said, and with this new installation, "Maurizio has created a work of art unto itself."
The Guggenheim's director, Richard Armstrong, called the show "a difficult and perfectly realized project" that was "an engineering feat."
Cattelan is often considered the art world's court jester and is known to send imposters to give speeches on his behalf.
But he's also "deadly serious," Spector said, calling him a "tragic poet of our time" and noting how his images "provoke, disturb and bewilder."
She added: "Maurizio spent his career challenging authority and questioning the abuse of power."
Some of his famous pranks include a 1997 show where he copied the images in a gallery next door by Carsten Holler, a German artist who recently installed a massive slide at the New Museum. Cattelan did a piece in 1993 where he raised $10,000 to award to an artist who agreed not to show any work for an entire year. When no artist accepted the award, Cattelan used the money to move to New York.
In 1999, at the Museum of Modern Art, he had an actor dress up in a Disney-like Pablo Picasso mask, greeting visitors every day of the show. His sculpture, "Frank and Jamie," from 2002, featured two NYPD officers turned upside and propped against a wall, playing with the sense of vulnerability people felt after 9/11, Spector said.
"Despite the humor, which is rampant, there are profound political implications to the work," Spector said.
The artist did a project in 1991 where he funded his own Italian soccer team. All of the players were illegal immigrants from Africa, at a time when a strong xenophobic strain was running through Italy, and he outfitted them in uniforms with the emblam, "Rauss," recalling the Nazi phrase, "Juden raus," or "Jews get out."
He has incorporated a lot of fascist imagery, like a piece from 2001 called "Him" of a miniature Adolf Hitler, kneeling in supplication. Just last year, Cattelan installed outside Milan's stock exchange a giant hand outstretched in a fascist salute, but its fingers all lobbed off except the middle finger.
The piece has become beloved by the community, Spector said, with many demonstrations being organized at its base. A smaller version of the work is in the Guggenheim show.
The show does not have interpretive texts lining the walls. Instead, the Guggenheim has launched its first ever App, which has more than 30 videos with artists, critics, curators and engineers. It also has commentary from Cattelan himself. For those who don't have iPhones or Androids, the museum loans iPads.
Cattelan has said that he plans to quit making art after the retrospective.
"We're not sure what that means," Spector said. But she noted that the installation could also be seen as a gallows, a hanging and ending.
"We all feel that this is both a culmination and a lamentation," she said.