January 25, 2018 at 4:10 PM
The emailed response from the Guggenheim's chief curator to the White House was polite but firm: The museum could not accommodate a request to borrow a painting by Vincent van Gogh for President and Melania Trump's private living quarters.
Instead, wrote the curator, Nancy Spector, another piece was available, one that was nothing like "Landscape With Snow," the 1888 van Gogh rendering of a man in a black hat walking along a path in Arles, France, with his dog.
The curator's alternative: an 18-karat, fully functioning, solid gold toilet — an interactive work titled "America" that critics have described as pointed satire aimed at the excess of wealth in this country.
For a year, the Guggenheim had exhibited "America" — the creation of contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan — in a public restroom on the museum's fifth floor for visitors to use.
But the exhibit was over and the toilet was available "should the President and First Lady have any interest in installing it in the White House," Spector wrote in an email obtained by The Washington Post.
The artist "would like to offer it to the White House for a long-term loan," wrote Spector, who has been critical of Trump. "It is, of course, extremely valuable and somewhat fragile, but we would provide all the instructions for its installation and care."
Sarah Eaton, a Guggenheim spokeswoman, confirmed that Spector wrote the email Sept. 15 to Donna Hayashi Smith of the White House's Office of the Curator. Spector, who has worked in various capacities at the museum for 29 years, was unavailable to talk about her offer, Eaton said.
The White House did not respond to inquiries about the matter.
Cattelan, reached by phone in New York, referred questions about the toilet to the Guggenheim, saying with a chuckle, "It's a very delicate subject." Asked to explain the meaning of his creation and why he offered it to the Trumps, he said: "What's the point of our life? Everything seems absurd until we die and then it makes sense."
He declined to reveal the cost of the gold it took to create "America," though it has been estimated to have been more than $1 million.
"I don't want to be rude. I have to go," the artist said, before hanging up.
It is common for presidents and first ladies to borrow major works of art to decorate the Oval Office, the first family's residence and various rooms at the White House. The Smithsonian loaned the Kennedys a Eugène Delacroix painting, "The Smoker." The Obamas preferred abstract art, choosing works by Mark Rothko and Jasper Johns.
On the face of it, President Trump might appreciate an artist's rendering of a gilded toilet, given his well-documented history of installing gold-plated fixtures in his residences, his properties and even his airplane. But the president is also a self-described germaphobe, and it's an open question whether he would accept a previously used toilet, 18-karat or otherwise.
Cattelan's "America" caused something of a sensation after the Guggenheim unveiled it in 2016, drawing more than a few headlines.
"WE'RE NO. 1! (And No. 2)" was the New York Post's front-page offering, the huge lettering over a photograph of the toilet. The tabloid's coverage included a reporter's first-person account ("I rode the Guggenheim's golden throne") and a photograph of that reporter seated on the toilet (reading the New York Post, naturally).
"More than one hundred thousand people" had "waited patiently in line for the opportunity to commune with art and with nature," Spector wrote in a Guggenheim blog post last year. The museum posted a uniformed security guard outside the bathroom. Every 15 minutes or so, a crew would arrive with specially chosen wipes to clean the gold.
Cattelan, 57, is well known in the art world for his satirical and provocative creations, including a sculpture depicting Pope John Paul II lying on the ground after being hit by a meteorite. Another was a child-size sculpture of an adult Adolf Hitler, kneeling. The artist's works have sold for millions of dollars.
Cattelan has resisted interpreting his work, telling interviewers he would leave that to his audience. He conceived of the gold toilet before Trump's candidacy, though he has acknowledged that he might have been influenced by the mogul's almost unavoidable place in American culture.
"It was probably in the air," he told a Guggenheim blogger in 2016 as "America" went on display.
Cattelan has also suggested that he had in mind the wealth that permeates aspects of society, describing the golden toilet "as 1 percent art for the 99 percent."
"Whatever you eat, a $200 lunch or a $2 hot dog, the results are the same, toilet-wise," he has said.
Cattelan is not the first artist to immortalize a bathroom fixture. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp, the French dadaist, unveiled "Fountain," a porcelain urinal that was rejected when he initially submitted it for exhibition. A replica is owned by the Tate galleries in London.
At the Guggenheim, when Cattelan raised the notion of a gold toilet in mid-2015, Spector embraced the idea and got approval from the museum's director, Richard Armstrong. Asked whether Armstrong supported the curator's offer of the toilet to the White House, the Guggenheim's spokeswoman replied, "We have nothing further to add."
Spector, in blog posts and on social media, has made plain her political leanings.
"This must be the first day of our revolution to take back our beloved country from hatred, racism, and intolerance," the curator wrote on Instagram a day after Trump's election in 2016. Her post was accompanied by a Robert Mapplethorpe photo of a frayed American flag.
"Don't mourn, organize," she wrote.
In August, as Cattelan's "America" was approaching its final weeks on display at the museum, Spector wrote on the Guggenheim blog that Trump had "resonated so loudly" during the sculpture's time at the museum. She described his term as having been "marked by scandal and defined by the deliberate rollback of countless civil liberties, in addition to climate-change denial that puts our planet in peril."
A month later, the curator crafted her response to the White House's request for van Gogh's "Landscape With Snow." She explained that the painting — "prohibited from travel except for the rarest of occasions" — was on its way to be exhibited at the Guggenheim's museum in Bilbao, Spain, and then would return to New York "for the foreseeable future."
"Fortuitously," Spector wrote, Cattelan's "America" was available after having been "installed in one of our public restrooms for all to use in a wonderful act of generosity."
She included with the email a photograph of the toilet "for your reference."
"We are sorry not to be able to accommodate your original request," the curator concluded, "but remain hopeful that this special offer may be of interest."