By JACOB BERNSTEIN
“Let’s follow this lady and see where she goes,” Maurizio Cattelan said on a recent Tuesday afternoon while ambling around the West Chelsea section of Manhattan in a T-shirt and black track pants, holding a beat-up black bicycle, whose mammoth chain and lock he wore around his waist.
Perhaps the idea being proposed sounded creepy. Certainly it wasn’t the most chivalrous thing a man of 56 had ever suggesting doing to a woman roughly half his age.
But mere seconds before, he had been pooh-poohing a suggestion to go look at art, saying there really was no need since “the best art is on the street.”
And then, eccola! Here she was heading west on 23rd Street in a pleated silver skirt: gleaming fodder for the game of spotting New Yorkers on the street and constructing a narrative about them from a distance.
It’s a game Mr. Cattelan, impish prince of the art world, loves to play.
Early in his career, Mr. Cattelan, who is from Padua, Italy, won a coveted space at the Venice Biennial and, instead of filling it with one of his large conceptual sculptures, sold the wall space to an advertising agency. (It installed a billboard for perfume.)
A few years later, he was approached by the prominent collector Peter Brant to do a portrait of Mr. Brant’s wife, Stephanie Seymour, and created not a regal statue in her likeness but a legless dead-eyed mannequin Mr. Cattelan took to calling “Trophy Wife.”
And in 2011, Mr. Cattelan was honored with a career retrospective at the Guggenheim and upended its conventions by announcing his retirement and hanging 128 of his sculptures — among them Pope John Paul II (being hit by a meteorite) and Hitler (kneeling in prayer) — in the rotunda, connected by a giant aluminum truss.
For those having trouble imagining the visual, it looked as if the building was a vortex expelling the art through the skylight toward the great beyond. But visualizing it is not really necessary, given the release of “Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back,” a probing, wistful and, at times, hilarious documentary that is currently playing a two-week run at the Quad Cinema in New York, after which it will expand to 20 other American cities.
It was directed by Maura Axelrod, a former producer for ABC News, who accompanied Mr. Cattelan on this recent jaunt to make sure he shared just enough about the movie, even buying him Popsicles, as if to chill his penchant for hot topics.
They first met nearly two decades ago, when he ran into her at a gallery opening for an artist she was dating and tried to pick her up. After she said no, they became good friends instead.
What is it like being with Maurizio? “Chaos,” Ms. Axelrod said. “Total chaos.”
The woman in the metallic skirt continued west on 23rd Street, and so did Mr. Cattelan, weaving a yarn about her supposed back story.
She works for a publicity or marketing company, he surmised. Possibly as “the assistant to the assistant.” The Starbucks cup in her hand contained something with mocha. “Or cinnamon,” he added. Her turn left onto 10th Avenue indicated she was heading to Greenwich Village.
“Meatpacking!” Mr. Cattelan said, with mock disapproval. “In the afternoon!”
Moments later, she walked into Cookshop. Mr. Cattelan wanted to keep pursuing. Ms. Axelrod informed him that enough was enough.
A trip to the Whitney was a better idea, she said. Finding out that it was closed for the day was all Mr. Cattelan needed to get enthusiasm. “Private tour,” he said. “I did it at the Louvre.”
So a reporter took out his iPhone and dialed the office of the museum’s director, Adam Weinberg, as Mr. Cattelan spouted instructions about what to say. “Tell them you’re a Pulitzer Prize finalist,” he said. “You were recently on the very, very shortlist. If they say no, write very bad things about them.”
Then, he jumped on his bike and sped south, going the opposite way of the traffic, as a photographer raced behind trying to get a shot.
Gaining admittance to the museum was a snap once Mr. Cattelan’s name was dropped.
While waiting to be received by Emily Guzman Sufrin, the curatorial assistant dispatched to take care of him, the artist jokingly tried to sell a man outside access. “Sixty dollars,” he said.“You can tour the museum all by yourself.”
Ms. Guzman Sufrin received her assignment to escort Mr. Cattelan around with a certain amount of trepidation, aware perhaps that she might be getting punked. At times, watching them interact was like stepping into the art world equivalent of “The Cat in the Hat,” as he asked one insouciant question after another and she (along with others) gently fended him off.
Was this museum — like a number of others currently in the news — headed for administrative appeal?
Not that she knew of.
Might anyone have a Coke can to place on the floor for the construction crew to flatten? They were, after all moving things around in one of those trainlike electric carts.
Also, why did Ms. Guzman Sufrin have a dual last name? Was this being mean to her father?
Yet as Mr. Cattelan stepped into the gallery on the sixth floor, another side of him emerged.
He was thoughtful. He was smart. He appeared to possess a near encyclopedic knowledge of everything that was on display.
The painting of the guy in the car, he explained, was a Henry Taylor piece about Philando Castile, an unarmed black man who was killed last July by the police as his fiancée filmed it on her phone.
The flesh-like sculpture nearby was Kaari Upson, whose struggle with breast cancer, Mr. Cattelan explained, has inspired her creatively.
Finally, our strange little band reached the pièce de résistance, a virtual reality work by Jordan Wolfson that depicted the savage beating of a young man with a baseball bat. After removing his glasses, he declared it to be “Jordan Wolfson at his best.”
But he was clearly thrown by the violence, in a way Richard Prince — whose work is somehow more malevolent than Mr. Cattelan’s — might not have been. For a minute, it even looked as though Mr. Cattelan might cry.
“Underneath it all, Maurizio’s a good person,” Ms. Axelrod said. “He’s not careening through life trying to upset people. His overall approach is playful. Although maybe not the Stephanie Seymour piece. That might be the exception.”
After making his way back to the first floor, Mr. Cattelan thanked his hosts with a high five, then continued to the High Line with Ms. Axelrod. They moved to a bench and discussed the film.
As Mr. Cattelan told it, he never imagined when Ms. Axelrod inquired about getting some footage at the Guggenheim retrospective what this would grow to. “She wanted five or 10 minutes,” he said. “Then it was another five or 10 minutes. Probably, if I had known it was going to be a movie from Day 1, I would have said no.”
She said: “That’s how I sold it to you. But I knew there was a movie.”
In particular, Ms. Axelrod said, the announcement of his retirement before the Guggenheim show provided a framing device, a central question to ask with the film: Was it evidence of his underlying despair, an act of genuine self-preservation from an artist whose comedic impulses mask darker, more depressive impulses? Or was it the ultimate prank being played on the easily manipulated and hype-driven art world, a way of spurring curiosity and auction prices?
Mr. Cattelan, perhaps aware that the question holds more power than the answer, provides evidence in both directions.
Last May, Christie’s sold Mr. Cattelan’s sculpture of Hitler, “Him,” for $17.2 million, the largest amount ever paid for one of his works. In September, the Guggenheim unveiled his first sculpture in more than five years: a Marcel Duchamp-inspired solid-gold toilet on which museumgoers could interact in the most personal of ways.
“Would I do this without an audience?” said Mr. Cattelan, who in 2010 also founded “Toilet Paper,” an art wold, picture magazine. “No. It’s pornography in the end.”
On the other hand, one of Mr. Cattelan’s best-known sculptures is a depiction of Pinocchio, face down in a swimming pool, having drowned. Which many in the film present as being a serious self-reflective piece centering on Mr. Cattelan’s intense fears of being discovered as a fraud and destroyed.
Viewed this way, retirement is not so much about career enhancement as it is a way to deal with his palpable dread and performance anxiety. “Instead of having someone kill me, I was killing myself,” he said, staring out at the High Line. “It was suicide instead of execution.”
Those closest to him usually lean more toward the idea of Mr. Cattelan as tortured genius than cynical con man. In the film, one of his former girlfriends actually posits he is destined to die alone.
“Which one?” Mr. Cattelan said, finishing up a Popsicle.
Hadn’t Mr. Cattelan seen it?
“No,” he said. “I know already who I am. And now the idea of not seeing it is funnier!”