Installation view of Maurizio Cattelan’s “All” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)

Maurizio Cattelan’s All explodes on impact: all noise, heat and light, followed by gradually dissipating trails of smoke.

The Italian anti-artist’s anti-retrospective at the Guggenheim, as everyone has heard, hangs in toto from the oculus of the Wright ramp. It’s an alarming sight, but a fitting compendium for a self-styled provocateur who, as The Guardian stated in a 2004 article:

“ … is often described as a Shakespearian fool, expressing universal truths about themes such as power, death and authority through what appear to be jokes or stunts: a stuffed squirrel that has shot itself at the kitchen table, Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteorite, a childlike Hitler praying on his knees.”

Seen from below, the ensemble actually feels much lighter — in terms of both lumens and weight — than I anticipated. The dangling objects don’t get in each other’s way, allowing a barely obstructed view of the skylight above. And many of the sculptures sit on shaped white platforms whose blank bottoms serve as cloaks of invisibility for the works they support.

It is only when you start up the ramp, and the first ranks of objects become more plainly visible, that the installation takes on a greater density and even — with so many large taxidermy beasts of burden in abject poses — a touch of grandeur. Still, the competition between the profound and vapid, the scathing and the obscure, creates less of a visual cacophony than you’d expect (it’s much too elegant for that). Rather, the objects on display engage in a form of mutually assured aesthetic destruction.

The new context obviously changes these pieces and at times even deepens their poignancy, but the whole never reaches beyond the sum of its parts. The cables and the fake pigeons perched everywhere are distracting, true, but the deeper irritant is the way the installation functions as a self-enclosed and self-referential preserve of cultural tourism. You point at the lifeless squirrel and crushed pope, and smile. Meaning takes a back seat, that is, unless you are at a point on the ramp where an object hovers close by, such as “Now” (2004), with its barefoot JFK lying in state.  And that’s when you are able to actually contemplate something.

Everything else hangs distanced in the distance. At the far end of the conceptual spectrum, such pieces as an untitled work from 1997 composed of an illuminated sign spelling out the word “BAR,” or the perfume ad installed in lieu of artwork at the Venice Biennale [“Work Is a Bad Job” (1993)], lose everything when wrenched from their original context.  At the other end, the several shrouded bodies carved in Carrara marble that comprise “All” (2007) can feel lugubrious and treacly when lying in a row at your feet, but singly and in midair they assume a newly piteous vulnerability.

But overall this is neo-conceptualism with a cartoonist’s snap, which makes it simultaneously irresistible and cliquishly subversive. Cattelan grew up working class, and underneath the theoretical gloss, his art is markedly anti-elitist: it hews to the stereotypically bourgeois notion that art should look like something, the closer to reality the better. These works, which the Gugg’s press release refers to as “unsettling verist sculptures,” engage our curiosity and sense of play the most when they surrender to whimsy and spectacle, unapologetically bathing in the light of childlike awe.

After this show, as everyone has heard, Cattelan, who was born in 1960, will retire from making art, or so he says. If true, that’s too bad. While the work here is wildly uneven [“La Nona Ora” (1999) — the crushed pope — still dazzles, while the multiple iterations of his 1990s untitled Lucio Fontana spoofs, with Z’s-for-Zorro slashed through the canvas, are too much of a mediocre idea], an artist this thickly imaginative shouldn’t be aping 20th-century French nihilism. But that’s his call.

Maurizio Cattelan’s All at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) continues until January 22, 2012.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.