While some 600 works in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s collection bask in the light of the new building’s wide windows and roomy galleries, one piece is hidden within the walls. When the museum relocated downtown, Maurizio Cattelan’s “Untitled, 2004” was exhumed from its resting place on the second floor of the Marcel Breuer–designed building on the Upper East Side and given a new burial on the eighth floor of the Renzo Piano–designed structure in the Meatpacking District. It’s one of a handful of artworks purposefully hidden in museums around the world.
“It’s really about his relationship to the museum having buried him, having interred him, being his resting place, and him becoming one, almost, with the museum’s architectural structure,” Whitney Curator Chrissie Iles told Hyperallergic about the Cattelan piece. “There is a reason why the words ‘museum’ and ‘mausoleum’ have the same etymology.”
Back in 2004, Iles curated the Whitney Biennial and invited the Italian artist to participate. Cattelan contributed by steamrolling a previous piece — a 2000 wax effigy self-portrait slumped over at a table with the figure’s face in spaghetti — and sealing its remains in a concrete block. As Emma Allen reported for The New Yorker, the burial of this piece in the old uptown Whitney, for the 2004 Biennial, was only attended by a handful of people, giving it something of an urban legend status. And the 385-pound cube of concrete transported between the museums doesn’t look like much. Iles explains, however, that it’s not the existence of the piece, where it’s buried, or its physical attributes that are important.
“The piece is very much about his relationship to death in particular and to the institution in relation to the artist,” Iles said. “Also, the idea of failure. That sculpture that he pulverized was a sculpture he felt was a failure. The image of himself sitting at a table with his face in spaghetti is a scene of failure and death.”
Death is also central to another buried artwork: Kris Martin’s “Anonymous II” (2009) at the Walker Art Center. In a daisy chain of contemporary art, Martin buried a human skeleton that was given to him by Kiki Smith, which had been given to her by David Wojnarowicz and was once used for medical research. The exact GPS coordinates are available so that you can visit the grave on the grounds of the Walker, but there is no marker, the invisible presence suggesting transience and the anonymity of death. In a different act of artistic burial, Terry O’Shea once tossed a resin sculpture into the La Brea Tar Pits, then donated a letter describing its disposal to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the museum thus acquired the work even though it would never be retrieved from the burbling asphalt right outside the institution. And back in 1997, Cattelan actually dug his own grave at Le Consortium in Dijon, France.
There’s a symbolic link between the burial of the artist and the idea that museums are a kind of vault for their work, purporting to be as impervious to decay as the most outrageously marketed sealed casket. Yet just like those corpses placed in those expensive coffins, art, like all material, does break down, even if the most innovative facilities may extend that decay far beyond the artist’s own lifetime. Sometimes artworks have ended up hidden as museums themselves have evolved, like Joan Miró’s 20-foot mural “Alicia” (1965–67), which was concealed behind a false wall in the rotunda of the Guggenheim so that the museum could better host rotating exhibitions.
With wall text developed to interpret the burial, along with a cryptic lobby flagstone that represents the “grave,” visitors to the new Whitney may stumble upon the Cattelan piece and the museum-as-mausoleum secret. Encountering the flagstone may be a little like walking over a memorial carved into the floor of a church: it suggests the interment of a person whose bones you’ll never see.