When Trump’s White House Asked to Borrow a Van Gogh, the Guggenheim’s Counteroffer Was Gold: Maurizio’s Cattelan’s 18K Toilet

A White House request for an art loan last year went straight down the toilet.

Guggenheim Museum artistic director and chief curator Nancy Spector has been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump’s administration on social media. So when a request to borrow a Van Gogh canvas came in from the White House, she took a page from The Art of the Deal and made a counteroffer.

On September 15, Spector emailed Donna Hayashi Smith of the White House’s Office of the Curator with a suggestion of an artwork that might be a better fit for the Trump White House, reports the Washington Post: No, you can’t have Van Gogh’s Landscape With Snow (1888). How about America (2017) instead?

Nancy Spector at the First Annual Art Awards, 2009. © Patrick McMullan, photo Billy Farrell /PatrickMcMullan.com.

Nancy Spector at the First Annual Art Awards, 2009. © Patrick McMullan, photo Billy Farrell /PatrickMcMullan.com.
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That would be the solid gold commode by Italian artist-jokester Maurizio Cattelan, installed at the Guggenheim to much hoopla back in 2016.

That work’s message is clear to the point of being a bit on the nose: Cattelan told a Guggenheim blogger that the piece is “one-percent art for the ninety-nine percent,” a sardonic commentary on wealth inequality in the world’s wealthiest country. The toilet was subsequently available in a Guggenheim lavatory for use by the museum-going public.

Maurizio Cattelan. Photo courtesy of Patrick McMullan. Photo: J. Grassi/PatrickMcMullan.com.

Maurizio Cattelan. Photo courtesy of Patrick McMullan. Photo: J. Grassi/PatrickMcMullan.com.

According to Spector, the toilet was available “should the President and First Lady have any interest in installing it in the White House,” says an email obtained by the Post. She added that the artist “would like to offer it to the White House for a long-term loan.” (A press representative for the museum said she had no further information to offer; the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

As the Post also points out, Spector employed another artwork to proclaim her loyalty to the anti-Trump Resistance just after the election, electing a black-and-white Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of a fraying American flag for an Instagram post.

Spector’s gesture of using a Cattelan work to needle a figure of global power fits in nicely with other Cattelan works that have depicted the great and not-so-great men of history brought low. Three of his sculptures provide a kind of hat trick of rebelliousness: Him (2001) shows a miniature Adolf Hitler, humbly kneeling in prayer; La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour), from 1999, depicts a grimacing Pope John Paul II, felled by a meteorite; and Now (2004) is a rendition of John F. Kennedy in a coffin, his head intact but, weirdly, barefoot.

Telling the Post about the meaning of the proposed loan, Cattelan was characteristically opaque: “What’s the point of our life? Everything seems absurd until we die and then it makes sense.”

He then politely hung up on the reporter.

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