If the history of contemporary art up to the millennium were a lecture in five slides, the first picture would be of a (male) painter inside his studio. After the second—the requisite photo of Andy Warhol—the third image would show a wacky artist sculpting great mounds of earth or, failing that, sitting inside a gallery with a coyote. Then would come a group shot of a satisfied bunch of (again, male) painters, jackets slung over their designer jeans. Like the previous four slides, the last image would also prove an art historical cinch: It would show the talismanic photo of Gabriel Orozco’s hands and torso opening and closing on a heart-shaped lump of brick-red clay.
Gabriel Orozco owns the art of the 1990s in a way that can be contested by no other artist of that period. (Damien Hirst didn’t get his first U.S. exhibition until 1997 and saved his best or worst, depending on how one cares to see it, for 2008’s $198 million Sotheby’s bamboozle.) It wasn’t just that Orozco represented the idealism of ’90s art radicals—folks who pitted “post-studio” art ephemera against “art objects” after the ’80s market bubble burst. It’s that he did so while tapping into larger cultural mythologies that, for a time, dovetailed perfectly with the alt-narratives shot out of sniper nests like CalArts and October magazine.
Part Johnny Appleseed, part Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, Orozco also casts back to postminimal art’s ur-founding myth: that of Charles Baudelaire’s peripatetic flaneur, which, for those still unfamiliar with the term, basically conjures up a Francophone Walt Whitman with a Jersey contractor’s love of asphalt. In Orozco’s time, that asphalt has often been swapped for skymiles logged while attending the proliferating biennials that supplanted much shell-shocked museum and gallery culture. It’s no wonder then that, in 2001, at the Yokohama Triennale, the Mexican-born Orozco—who boasts multiple residences in New York, Paris, and Mexico—displayed his many airline stamps and his suitcase as his sole contribution to the show.
On the occasion of this writing, thankfully, we have a lot more of Orozco’s work to consider. This comes in the form of a 20-year retrospective of the artist’s work at MOMA, the one institution that can justly claim credit for having helped launch his career, with a modest “Projects” show in 1993. At that time, Orozco wowed everyone by filling the museum’s nooks and crannies with feathery interventions that nearly bowled over the building’s foundations. A hammock strung up in the museum’s sculpture garden made the question mark ghosting the idea of monumentality languorously explicit. Another work, cleverly titled Home Run, placed fresh oranges in the windows across the street from the museum: For those moved by the unexpected, it was clear the artist had slugged it out of the park.
The knotty problem Orozco’s works pose to this day is as brain jolting as it is fundamental: “Is this sculpture?” A sculptor without a medium, he has used photography, video, drawing, collage, what others call installation (he does not), and even painting—much to the chagrin of the painting and anti-painting camps, both of which, like the political left and right, tend to agree only on ideological purity—to make art whose main motif is the ordinary surprise of chance revelations. “There is,” MOMA curator Ann Temkin says in her catalog essay, “no way to identify a work by Orozco in terms of physical product.” That may be, but there remains—irrespective of the planning and scale of some recent efforts—a creative through-line that guides Orozco’s best work toward a revelatory terrain that he has, in the manner of Cortez, colonized by staying one step ahead of battlefield expectations.
Take the many photographs Orozco has made of found or slightly altered landscapes (hot breath atop a shiny black piano, an arrangement of street junk that mimics Manhattan’s pre-9/11 skyline); the 3-D works he crafts with unexpected materials (a human skull covered in a pencil diamond pattern, a large ball of encrusted plasticine he rolled down Broadway); or the recasting of simple, everyday objects into sculpture (the empty shoebox he offered at the 1993 Venice Biennale, the lone yogurt caps on blank walls he presented to point up the problem of empty space). All of these works challenge the idea of sculpture itself, raising issues about art, life, and the libraries of unexamined expectations surrounding both. A notebook entry Orozco made when planning for Venice (which MOMA reproduces in the current catalog) speaks volumes: “occupy empty space with empty space.” No better art koan exists to match his empty shoebox.
Orozco’s art, created with a gossamer touch best suited for modest-size works, has unfortunately recently jumped the shark to embrace the hugeness of his blockbuster career. One enormous sculpture at MOMA literalizes his artistic influence, which, particularly in Mexico, at times today appears frankly domineering. Consisting of a 35-foot whale skeleton that Orozco and 20 assistants covered in concentric rings of graphite, the work was borrowed from Mexico City’s Biblioteca Vasconcelos, the latest Mexican state-funded Titanic, and presently hangs inside MOMA’s giant atrium. In a phrase, the sculpture is like having François Truffaut direct Tora! Tora! Tora!. The results, while not uninteresting, disappoint in exact proportion to the way they throttle simplicity for the sake of a bloated budget.
Other older, large-scale pieces of Orozco’s in MOMA’s show still pack a punch worthy of this most global of Mexican champions. His most recognizable creation, a Citroen DS he sliced up in 1993 and reconfigured into a car-size bullet, remains a tour de force of artistic transformation. Ditto his deft rearranging of four bicycles into a block of rubber, plastic, and metal that suggests nothing less than an Amsterdam of movement. Everyday somethings that have their familiar meanings displaced while essentially retaining their basic identities, these art objects have their feet—or wheels, as the case may be—firmly on the ground in a way that Orozco’s big fish does not. One is lifeless, the others speed away into perpetuity.
Editor’s note: The Voice is happy to welcome back Christian Viveros-Fauné as a freelance art reviewer. Christian wrote for us in 2007-2008; because of a potential conflict-of-interest with another art-world job of his at the time, though, we decided that it was best that he stop reviewing for us. Christian has now left that art-world position in order to focus on art writing, so we’re pleased to have him back reviewing for us in the Voice.