Maurizio Cattelan has been one of the most interesting, provocative, bold and funny contemporary artists of his generation, looking at today’s society and exposing its contradictions in works that despite their humour are a scathing attack on 21st century culture. Following his announcement to retire, the Guggenheim in New York is hosting a retrospective of his works with ‘Maurizio Cattelan: All’, opening next month.

Cattelan a provocateur, prankster, and tragic poet of our times, has created some of the most unforgettable images in recent contemporary art. His works transcend a specific style and subject matter, varying widely with themes on popular culture, history and organized religion to a meditation on the self, creating unsettlingly veristic sculptures that reveal contradictions at the core of today’s society. ‘Maurizio Cattelan: All’ will see 130 works on show, examples of virtually everything the artist has produced since 1989, strung seemingly haphazardly from the oculus of the museum’s rotunda in a site-specific installation.

It is a long way from Cattelan’s first solo exhibition in 1989 where he simply closed the gallery and hung up a sign reading ‘Torno subito’ (‘Be Back Soon’) due to a lack of inspiration, however ever since the ideas have been coming thick and fast.

Although an ironic humor threads much of his work, a profound meditation on mortality forms the core of Cattelan’s practice. His recurring use of taxidermy, which presents a state of apparent life premised on actual death, is particularly apt for exploring this thematic concern. Perhaps the most poignant of his anthropomorphic animal scenes is Bidibidobidiboo (1996), in which a despairing squirrel has committed suicide in his grimy kitchen. Death stalks the artist’s psyche and creeps into all manifestations of his production. With All (2007), he created what he described as a “monument to death,” a sculpture that would commemorate its unrelenting presence. Derived from ubiquitous media imagery of fallen bodies, and carved from traditional marble, the nine shrouded figures appear as victims of some unnamed trauma, silently recalling the unconscionable realities of our present-day world.

Among Cattelan’s most startling projects is a cycle of lifelike waxworks that portray and contest iconic authority figures. The most incendiary of these works comprise La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour, 1999), his notorious sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite, and Him (2001), a rendering of Adolf Hitler in the scale of a young boy, kneeling preposterously in a pose of supplication. Also included is the sculpture Frank and Jamie (2002), in which two New York City policemen are turned upside down and propped against a wall in a posture that has been interpreted as a visual parallel to the sense of vulnerability that permeated the country in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A more overtly elegiac scene is constructed by Now (2004), an effigy of a serene and barefoot John F. Kennedy lying in state, a martyr to a shattered American idealism seen from the perspective of a disillusioned present.

Cattelan refused to be a puppet to the art world’s hierarchy, so I guess it is strange that he chose puppet-like characters as a medium for a lot of his work, but purveys his style superbly. ‘All’ is a joy to behold in a world where stuffiness, rigidity and critics play such a strong role. Cattelan famously stuck his middle finger up at the Italian Stock Exchange with his largest piece of work, L.O.V.E., and this exhibition is a timely reminder for all to be individual, have your own beliefs and stick it to the man. Go forth and live the Cattelan way, I know I will be…

Enjoy your retirement Maurizio Cattelan, although I bet you are still laughing away at us all, wherever you are.

‘Maurizio Cattelan: All’ is at the Guggenheim, New York from November 4 until  January 22, 2012.