Last month, Jayson Musson, an artist best known for his YouTube performances as the droll hip-hop art critic Hennessy Youngman (“a.k.a. the pedagogic pimp”), issued an open call for a show at a tiny storefront called Family Business that had just opened amid the grand name-brand galleries of Chelsea. “Anyone, and I mean anyone, bring their work down. Bring the fucking family couch,” he said. “Bring big-ass paintings, little-ass paintings, things you painted in 1998 which is ugly as fuck … you got big-ass sculpture you want to show that won’t fit through the door, bring it down and we’ll just cut that bitch in half and reattach it when it’s back inside.”
Youngman is a vaguely Ali G–like character, though without the tightly wound British vindictiveness: He’s stoner sly, and up until a year or so ago was pretty much unknown. But his video invitation, which was viewed almost 25,000 times, spoke to art insiders and those who aspired to be—a crowd whose celebrities are art stars, power curators, and career-making gallerists. “Now, as some of you may know, Internet, the boy Maurizio Cattelan and Massimiliano Gioni have opened up a new exhibition space,” he said, wearing a cap with Pluto’s face on it, to which he’d affixed a strawlike mess so that it looked like a bowl of pasta had been dumped on his head. “Which is situated next to the motherfucking Gagosian on 21st Street.”
The boy Cattelan, 51, is an artist who, in the fall, had a career retrospective of his ironic, iconic art at the Guggenheim Museum. Gioni, 38, is the top curator at the New Museum and was recently named to run next year’s Venice Biennale, which makes him, in this world, a tastemaker’s tastemaker. “They’re bosom buddies. Top of the food chain,” says Musson, when I visit him while he’s trying to hang the nearly 500 oddball, often porn-y works of art that spilled out onto the sidewalk (and yes, someone brought a sofa). “With Maurizio’s affiliation with it, since he’s sort of a clown, I thought it would be funny to do something ridiculous or something doomed to fail.”
But there’s a yearning behind this clowning. For Cattelan and Gioni, Family Business is an earnest prank, an altruistic carnival. Cattelan and Gioni are both known for their sense of humor and felicity with publicity. But their days of hanging out looking at art together, as outsiders, are long since over, and it’s difficult to thumb your nose at the art-world Establishment when you’ve been embraced by it.
Boxed out by his own success, Cattelan—whose works sell for millions—decided to retire after the Guggenheim show. Making art wasn’t as much fun anymore, it seems. In December, he persuaded Gioni to go in with him on a new venture, Family Business. It’s not exactly a business—it doesn’t sell work—but a working monument to a way of doing business that got them to where they are: a small mafia of subversive co-conspirators. Unlike, say, the branch office of Gagosian next door—the global Goldman Sachs of the art world, where everything is exactingly vetted for collector value—it’s designed for them not to be directly involved at all, at least on the curating level. As an experimental space fueled by their own blue-chip reputations, it’s in many ways an act of optimistic nostalgia—an effort to recapture their outsider status, or at least give them access to that of others. And designed to be hijacked by those outsiders, who want what they have. While they watch, amused.
“Oh, you want to hear the whole legend,” says Gioni. We’ve met for dinner at Tenth Avenue’s Cookshop, the hectically slick gallery-district cafeteria. It took some back and forth with his busy schedule to get both him and Cattelan here.
Both Gioni and Cattelan grew up working-class Italians, though Gioni is the more educated of the two (he loves Sonic Youth and can recite by heart the dissociative Dadaist text Manifesto of Mister Antipyrine). He met Cattelan when interviewing him for the magazine Flash Art in 1997. Cattelan’s career was beginning to take off then (a project he was conceiving at the time: having people wearing oversize Picasso heads hang out at the Museum of Modern Art), and he asked Gioni to do a radio interview, pretending to be him. “He said, ‘I’ll give them your number, and they’ll call you.’ And then it kind of escalated. It started as a form of problem solving. He didn’t like to talk; I guess I like to talk too much,” Gioni says, laughing. The role-playing was meant to undermine certain expectations of what is real, but Gioni’s explanations of Cattelan’s often very weird and vaguely allegorical art (like a sculpture of an elephant in a Klan uniform) helped give it a certain seriousness. The alliance made Gioni well known and Cattelan more easily comprehensible. “He was more famous, so it became some sort of propaganda for me,” Gioni says, smiling. “It was very hard. I had to make two names for myself, my own and his.” He laughs.