When I started dating my now husband, the decor in his dorm apartment included a banana that he and his roommates had drunkenly taped to the wall. There it stayed all semester, through winter break, and then the end of finals. After their junior year, they took it down but saved it, only to once again display the shriveled husk in pride of place above the common room couch. Twelve years later, believe it or not, he still has it in a plastic bag somewhere in our apartment.
So imagine my surprise when I arrived at the VIP preview for Art Basel Miami Beach and discovered that Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan had done exactly the same thing. The most important difference being, of course, that this version—sourced from a local Miami supermarket and on sale from Perrotin—cost a cool $120,000.
“We sold it already,” announced a triumphant Emmanuel Perrotin as I took a close look at the piece, titled Comedian. The buyer, a French woman, has bought work from the gallery before, but never a work by Cattelan, I was told.
By the time I left the booth, a deal on a second edition of the piece had also been closed, sold to a French man. (Perrotin told him about my husband’s banana, to reassure him that the banana would age well, and the collector threatened to buy that one instead.) Cattelan hasn’t prescribed rules for how often the banana will be replaced, but Perrotin expects to throw out the one currently on view at the end of the week—unless, of course, the collector wants it.
After the second sale, Perrotin quickly texted Cattelan, and the two agreed to raise the price to $150,000 for the third edition of the work, which they have decided to sell to a museum—and two institutions have already expressed interest, according to the gallery. (There are also two artists proofs of the work, only one of which is for sale.)
Though Cattelan is known for being something of an art world prankster, Perrotin was quick to dismiss the idea that Comedian is a joke. Every aspect of the work was carefully considered, from the shape of the fruit, to the angle its been affixed with duct tape to the wall, to its placement in the booth—front and center, on a large wall that could have easily fit a much larger painting—he said.
A steady stream of visitors were on hand during my conversation with the gallerist, gawking at the work, photographing it, and even posing with it—sometimes for selfies.
“It’s best of show!” proclaimed one passerby.
Perrotin could hardly believe the stir the piece was causing, despite the almost total lack of advance promotion. “It’s a miracle; I don’t know how this happened!” he said, scrolling through his texts with Cattelan and showing me the photos of “copycats” that the artist’s friends had begun sending him less than 10 minutes after the preview began.
It’s rare to see a Cattelan work at an art fair. Essentially anything you may have spotted in the past 15 years is being sold on the secondary market. Thus, the work’s debut was an important moment for Perrotin, who has worked with the artist for 27 years.
“When we started to work together I had to fight to convince collectors one by one to buy his work. To be able to come back here at Art Basel Miami Beach…” he trailed off, clearly emotional.
Cattelan has been working on the idea for Comedian for about a year, first creating versions in bronze and resin. Somehow, they were lacking. “Wherever I was traveling I had this banana on the wall. I couldn’t figure out how to finish it,” Cattelan told me when Perrotin handed me the phone with him on the line. “In the end, one day I woke up and I said ‘the banana is supposed to be a banana.’”
The artist wouldn’t speak to the work’s meaning, but he was partially inspired by the large number of paintings he’s seen at galleries recently. “I’m not in Miami, but I’m sure it’s full of paintings as well,” said Cattelan. “I thought maybe a banana could be a good contribution!”
The artist and the gallerist arrived at the $120,000 price after several discussions, trying to strike a balance between an insignificant number that would trivialize the work, and an outlandish one that would be completely ridiculous.
Despite the artwork’s hefty price tag, Perrotin isn’t worried about someone stealing Comedian. There’s a spare banana on hand in the booth, and more importantly, without the artist’s certificate of authenticity, it reverts to being just a banana. In a way, explained Perrotin, securing a buyer for the piece completed the artwork. “A work like that,” he said, “if you don’t sell the work, it’s not a work of art.”
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