Gabriel Orozco is ubiquitous on the international exhibition circuit. He was featured in Documenta X, Münster, and the Venice Biennale, and has had a handful of museum shows in Europe. At 36, he’s been on the covers of Art forum, Flash Art, and Parkett, and although he’s from Mexico and lives there part of the year, he was included in the last two Whitney Biennials. This is an artist for whom rules are broken. But his shows here have left a hazy impression. In what may have been intended as an audacious act, but which came off as coy, he installed four clear yogurt-cup tops on the walls of this otherwise empty gallery in 1994. It was like he didn’t care. But everything in this new show says Orozco cares too much about what New York thinks. With nearly 100 separate objects, including five hours of video and a soundtrack, it’s almost a museum show. The great Leo Durocher said, “You win some, you lose some. Some get rained out, but you gotta suit up for every one.” Orozco really suited up for this one, but you begin to wonder if he isn’t overdressed.
The most memorable moments in this exhibition are the first ones. Entering off the elevator into this beautiful sculptural Garden of Earthly
Delights, you move among a sea of objects that are spread across the floor or lean against walls. Orozco is a melancholy believer in modernism. He knows it’s over or ending but he believes in some of its ways and means. The works in this room represent three, typically modernist, forming procedures Orozco commonly uses: the found object, craft, and traditional casting. A lone bucket, filled with debris and french fries, hangs from the ceiling; the yogurt caps from ’94 have been reinstalled. There are 20 sculptures made from detritus he collected from New York dumpsters. All part of something he calls the Penske Project, they were assembled on site, loaded on a truck, and transported to the gallery. These readymades, or “readydeads,” as the artist has called them, are cardboard, metal, rubber, styrofoam, glass, and whatnot. They are comely but mostly they feel old-fashioned and resemble drained renditions of Arte Povera, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Tuttle, or Fischli & Weiss.
The vacuum they create may be the point, but they still feel derivative.
Orozco’s meticulousness is present in a group of works titled Dent de Lion, or dandelion. Lovingly crafted of fabric and paper, each of these beige tumbleweeds has seven branches with seven clusters of seven leaves. The nine silvery ectoplasmic sculptures called Pinched—presumably because Orozco pinched little pieces of clay, then cast the shapes, magnified many times, in aluminum—demonstrate his most consistent and guiding idea: the small gesture writ large. At his best he gets you to see an empty moment take on palpable volume.
One at a time, most of the works in this room are nothing special; together they’re magic. Gliding through this ethereal, material tide pool, you get an inkling of how thought mingles with and embeds itself in material, then flits away again. Objects seem simultaneously important and beside the point. It’s like he’s trying to get beyond the structure of an exhibition. This is Orozco’s great gift. It’s what all the fuss is about. It’s not that he’s a Marxist of immateriality—redeeming cast-offs of consumer culture—as his supporters claim, or that he’s some kind of romantic nomad, which is colonialist code for “He’s Mexican, you know.” It’s that occasionally he breaks through a secret cognitive barrier where works of art are bigger in the imagination than they are in reality. And the sensation this produces is wonderful, strong, and poetic.
The trouble starts when he overplays this poetic hand or when his objects have to stand alone; then his melancholic modernism turns stagey. We see Orozco the magic-realist architect in Maman, or Mother, a finely made houselet that would be at home in the Luxembourg Gardens, if this structure didn’t have two pianos inserted into the walls. You can go inside, and passersby can play the pianos. Orozco wants us to play his art, to become part of it. But he’s too literal, too sensitive. Any reaction you have inside the house feels stilted and mirrors the self-consciousness of this three-dimensional Magritte. Plus, it looks like a late entry in a Neo Geo show. The same goes for Ping Pond Table, so called because it’s a four-way Ping-Pong table with a water hazard in the center. It’s fun to play, and the metaphors fly, but in the end this
hypnotic- looking, hard-edged object is just a surreal riff. Both these 1998 works are didactic, shallow, too clever, and suggest that Orozco is in a state of
quiet crisis and capitulation.
Orozco is best when he finds his art in the world, in little gestures, in sweet nothings. For his 1993 MOMA Projects show, he placed oranges in apartment windows across the street from the museum. In 1995, while in Berlin, he rode around on an East German motorbike called a Schwalbe. Whenever he saw another yellow Schwalbe he pulled his alongside and took the bikes’ double portrait. It’s a fabulous, ridiculous love story, a fairy tale of serendipity, wandering, and being lost—of finding something you are looking for, then looking for it again. It’s simple, sexy, loaded, and understated. Orozco alludes to this aesthetic in a number of color photographs here, but they are not enough to offset the sense that he’s temporarily lost. It’s true that in the Penske Project he finds his art in the world, but now he’s doing it in a rented truck with the help of an assistant. Something’s off about that.
The need to try his hand at the big exhibition or to have New York know how important he is may have led him to this place. Orozco, the master of understatement and invocation, has overshot his mark in ways that recall another artist who, perhaps out of sheer fear, overdid his last New York exhibition: Damien Hirst. To his supporters, Orozco is the anti-Damien. Hirst is brash, Orozco is eloquent. Where Hirst is everywhere, Orozco is a spectral shadow artist: here and gone. One is a pure showman, the other, supposedly, pure. But now Orozco is presenting too many small ideas. This show is so chockablock with stuff it suggests desperation or worse, hubris—that he’s playing to the courts of power or that he has simply given in to the convention of the exhibition.
Maybe Orozco was right the first time: he is better in smaller, less spelled-out, less defined doses. It wasn’t that he didn’t care, it was that he cared so much he was willing to look for other ways to make exhibitions. Those yogurt caps alluded to things: to emptiness, presence, the white cube, consumer culture, and the letter O, but they never said anything. That is what was so inspired about them. After the first gallery, the best thing in this show is the quiet recorded sound of Orozco playing the piano in the background. It permeates the space, soothes it, unifies it, and gives substance to his agile imagination. It reveals him gently making, looking, experimenting. Originally, Orozco seemed to suggest he wanted his art to move beyond the format of exhibitions, which was tantalizing, but this show does the opposite. It’s ready for consumption. He should stick to his guns. It’s riskier, but it’s what he does best.