Cats from Art History

Erik Wenzel

Cats from Art History is a picture blog of artworks that have featured cats through the ages, ranging from a mummified cat dating from the 1st century AD to a contemporary works by Liam Gillick and Ai Wei Wei. In an online world of cutesy youtubes and lolcats who knew these creatures could hold so much weight?

The collection has been compiled by artist and writer Erik Wenzel and was founded just earlier this year. We recently asked him how the project came about, in response he described an art piece of his own that had been specially created for a friend’s show, eventually leading to his online feline fanaticism. Below Erik describes the project, featuring a selection of images from the blog.

Liam Gillick, Wie würden Sie sich verhalten? Eine Küchenkatze spricht. How are you going to behave? A kitchen cat speaks Installation, 2009

“A few years ago I was asked to participate in a group show at an apartment space. These friends regularly cleared out their large living room and mounted short exhibitions. What was interesting and kind of ridiculous about this particular show was that inside the show they were doing another group show about cats.

For a while I had been thinking about how many exhibitions are curated around essentially random themes into which one can plug any number of artists. Or how themes, which once decided, dictate who and what should be in them. To borrow from Sol LeWitt, the theme becomes the machine that curates the exhibition. It can become tautological, a curator or theorist will arrive at a concept and then just locate artists or artworks that illustrate that concept.

Robert Gober, untitled, 2000-1 

So a group show about cats will show you just that. But there is something about the subject of cats that has a knowing quality. Cats are clever and crafty; they are funny but they also always seem to know a little bit more about what is going on than you do. Cats address the audience. Cats break the fourth wall. They look at the camera and they return the gaze. And when you organize a show around cats, a kind of silly theme, it can point to other things that are also organized around equally ridiculous and arbitrary topics.

I went to the gift shops of the art museums in town and bought all the postcards of artworks that had cats in them. I bought multiples of each one, so it became an “edition.” It was quite attractive to create an edition by just buying several copies of one thing, taking advantage of mass-production. Everyone is supposed to buy one, not ten pictures of their favorite painting in the museum. The selection was also limited to what was available for purchase and I liked that metric for determining what was going to be in my portfolio of prints. They were sold in signed numbered envelopes. Additionally each postcard was signed and stamped “CATS FROM ART HISTORY ERIK WENZEL.”

It was one of those things you do as kind of a one-off. A little bit goofy, but then it lingers. I’m interested in the structures that present art. What principles organize exhibitions and select artists and artworks? And physically, how are artworks, images communicated? These cards were not the artworks; the artworks were photographed, printed at 1/5 the size and then sold as a souvenir. So many things after Cezanne painted his dealer holding a kitten occurred along the way that completely re-positioned the meaning and status of the image.

Balthus (Baltusz Klossowski de Rola), Girl with Cat, 1937

So now years later I was asked again to participate in another cat show organized by the same people. I was going to be Berlin and didn’t want to make an object anyway. It seemed crucial to have an accumulation of images and to move even further away from a specific object. First there was a multiple edition created from appropriated material that had no “original”, now just images online. It is all about the images anyway. It didn’t need to be an artwork, it was an idea that suggested it’s own content. Cats dominate the internet, a phenomenon I wholly endorse. And the internet is the best way to send and receive images nowadays. It was almost a necessity that it be a web-based project. Another decision made by the machine.

Cats From Art History fits well into the universe and hopefully encourages a different read on this most intriguing of animals. Far from simple cuddly balls of fluff, we have a mummified god, a lion-like feline guarding a pubescent girl, a grotesque beast devouring a bird, the artist Ai Wei Wei detailing their abuse in China, Nobuyoshi Araki confronting aging and mourning, and Liam Gillick fantasizing about a talking cat as a way to look at being respected instead of loved. The cat might actually be a pretty sophisticated way to bring together a large amount of interesting ideas.”

Paul Klee, Cat and Bird, 1928

See Erik’s blog here.