New York

Gabriel Orozco

THE MIDCAREER RETROSPECTIVE can be tricky business. A case in point was “Gabriel Orozco,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this past winter, which joined a recent spate of surveys of artists who came to prominence in the 1990s—from Matthew Barney, Olafur Eliasson, Douglas Gordon, Chris Ofili, Elizabeth Peyton, and Rirkrit Tiravanija to Kara Walker. Like those of his peers, Orozco’s exhibition raises serious questions: Is the midcareer retrospective the most illuminating way to make a case for the importance of these artists? Or does it risk atomizing even the liveliest of ideas?

In a way, Orozco’s work has always courted this kind of paradox, suggesting both dispersal and visibility, diminution and ambition. Such oppositions stem directly from his practice: For example, the artist is a supreme manipulator of form, but his pieces were often impossible to ground within established formal parameters. His interventions were open-ended and aleatory (the ghostly shape of evaporating breath on the lid of a lacquered black piano in Breath on Piano, 1993); they invested in the poesis of the ordinary (tires reengineered into a sculpture in Recaptured Nature, 1990). What’s more, Orozco’s heterogeneous media (sculpture, collage, photography, performance, drawing, painting) prompted new reflections on conditions of production and reception. Consider his masterpiece La DS, 1993, for which the artist took the iconic postwar French car, the Citroën DS, and split it into three sections, discarding the middle one and suturing the outer two to form a sleek, supine figure, comparable to a Matissean odalisque or to the déesse/goddess on which the car’s name puns. The work thus rearticulated and detourned the grammar of the readymade. It linked cerebral rigor with material object relations, conceptual procedures with haptic sensuousness.

So, too, the artist has wedded the photographic and the sculptural—recalling the splitting actions of Gordon Matta-Clark, Ana Mendieta’s “Silueta” series, and Robert Smithson’s mirror displacements. In the now-classic My Hands Are My Heart, 1991, a photographic diptych shows the artist’s bare-chested body as his fingers mold a lump of soft, brick-red clay into a heart-shaped impress, and then the result moments later, an organ held in his palms and in front of his breast as if excavated from his body. The images present the temporal, proprioceptive process of the sculpture’s making, hovering between event and actuality; the clay object itself is also displayed, now a tactile presence in space. Like many of Orozco’s photographs, the work bridges icon and index, readymade image and readymade object, the documentary and the conceptual.

These disparate pieces were well represented in the MoMA show—organized by Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture, and curatorial assistant Paulina Pobocha—demonstrating the clarity of Orozco’s powerful and dialectical imagination and the subtlety with which he redirects our perception of quotidian materials. Yet there was something awry here: The extremely formal arrangements made the works appear ossified, more visually pleasing than structurally adventurous. And the absence of a broad overview of the artist’s conceptual means was curious. The radical editing of the oeuvre, to my mind, gave the survey an impression of slightness, not forcefulness. Works that seemed timely before began appearing like repetitive games played out with obsessive calculation. The subversive and playful Orozco suddenly looked proper, disciplined.

Granted, overfamiliarity with these works might have contributed to my impression. And one cannot ignore the changed conditions of contemporary art. The means that Orozco employed twenty years ago for his early triumphs, using humble, found materials, have been thoroughly assimilated into the mainstream artistic lexicon. Yet the MoMA installation augmented such a reception—demonstrating, perhaps, the intractable and always already obsolete nature of these works. It focused on those aspects of Orozco’s work that engage calcification and consumption and excluded much of his photographic practice, as well as some of the more active, playful pieces: Ping-Pond Table, 1998; My Hand Is the Memory of Space, 1991; Penske Work Project, 1998. This contributed to a general effect of stasis.

In the main galleries, the supports—a shelf crowded with a gaggle of organic-shaped objects; a large white table that took up most of its room, strewn with more material; a vitrine hosting a scroll of cut telephone-book pages—appeared less provisional than mercantile in display. The artist’s once-lowly tables of objects were literally lifted up from the floor. Yet despite its congestion, the last room of the main gallery offered a kernel of promise, with its makeshift and portable ambience. This pell-mell environment gestured toward the perambulatory and transient nature of Orozco’s practice, its rejection of conventional installation and its evocation of the studio as temporary, tabular work surface.

By contrast, perhaps the least successful part of the installation was the forbidding atrium housing the biggest work in the show: the mammoth sculpture-cum-drawing Mobile Matrix, 2006, made from the skeleton of a gray whale excavated from the loamy sands of a nature sanctuary in Baja California Sur, Mexico. The piece, which is covered with thousands of discs and circles thickly drawn with black graphite, was rigged up on a crane of tensile wires and painted steel bars. To see the work properly, one either had to look up from below or, standing on a balcony, down from above. Regardless of vantage, the skeleton floated in the gigantic space forlornly. Even odder is the fact that Orozco conceived the piece as a site-specific sculpture for the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, the national library in Mexico City. The displacement to MoMA seemed completely inauspicious, not a nod to nomadism but an enshrinement.

Thus, while there was a premium on size, the corresponding space did not always match the needs of the work. A critical example was the area allocated to the once-sensational Yogurt Caps, 1994, the piece with which Orozco introduced himself to the New York art world with such audacity, ambition, and confidence at Marian Goodman Gallery. In its first presentation, Orozco deployed four blue-rimmed transparent plastic caps from Dannon yogurt cups, affixing each dead-center onto the shimmering white walls of the expansive gallery. Nothing more.

For a young Mexican artist in his early thirties, such confidence rose to the point of arrogance, and it was perfect. Michael Asher could not have done it better. And Orozco’s exploration of the mythical transparency of the white cube was free of the ideological obviousness of so-called institutional critique. Unfortunately, at MoMA the space accorded this important work was too small. To round the corner into the vestibulelike gallery holding Yogurt Caps was to experience the reduction of the caps to artifacts. If a work needed the kind of space Mobile Matrix occupied, it was this one.

Yet to fully understand the tensions around Orozco’s works and their assembly here, one must read the exhibition catalogue. More so than the show itself, this volume undertakes canonization full throttle, even as it attempts to complicate the discourse surrounding the artist. The locus of such frisson is that of globalization and cultural difference. Orozco, we know, is one of the most prominent contemporary artists to have emerged in a period of radical geopolitical transformation brought about by globalization. As Temkin’s essay elucidates, in the early ’90s, the Mexican artist’s works began appearing regularly in circuits of artistic distribution; he adapted his quixotic transformation of mundane objects to the global metropolis. His ambulatory practice, traveling with no fixed orientation, revealed patterns of migration and displacement that represented a conceptual shift among many artists in the ’90s. Perhaps no work exemplifies this leitmotif of movement as acutely as Yielding Stone, 1992, a ball of Plasticine corresponding to the artist’s weight. Orozco rolled the ball down the streets of the cities where it was exhibited, allowing the piece to carve a path through the locations of its display, incorporating the traces of the various streets the artist traversed.

This was a timely work, marking a specific moment in the trajectory of globalization. But what is striking about the extensive catalogue is the near absence of the contemporaries Orozco journeyed with and of how foundational the schematics of postcolonial migration were to all artists coming from outside the centers of power in the West. We seem to follow the ball but not its surroundings; we never understand what enables work or artist to enter into the system of the art world. Yes, there is an authoritative essay on twentieth-century sculpture and Orozco’s relationship to it by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, written with characteristic clarity and intellectual force. And Buchloh specifically takes on the danger of “Mexicanismo,” of Western projections onto the other and the need to dissolve such objectifications amid Orozco’s globalized itinerary—concerns he has addressed in other texts on the artist. However, in jettisoning supposedly obsolete categories such as the nation-state and collective cultural identity, do we not also risk giving up historical and geographic specificity, as well as references beyond the modernist standards? Where are, for example, Mendieta, Hammons, Gonzalez-Torres, Oiticica, Meireles, and Lygia Clark, to mention a few obvious names? Likewise, Briony Fer provides a fascinating account of Orozco’s notebooks but adheres to a rather traditional context, even comparing them to those of Charles Darwin. The catalogue thus presents us with a genius largely without peers, in an exhaustive, blow-by-blow chronological narrative covering nearly thirty years.

For a contemporary artist, a retrospective at MoMA carries the greatest imprimatur. It is, in fact, the ground against which most assumptions of radical practice can be tested. And it was the overwhelming influence of MoMA that Orozco confronted in his first appearance at the museum in 1993. That presentation was deliberately tenuous, hovering in anomalous spaces. In the sculpture garden, for example, he installed a limp hammock between two trees; inside, he chose the gap between the escalators to show Dial Tone, 1992, and a corner near windows overlooking the sculpture garden for Recaptured Nature. Home Run, 1993, a still life of fresh oranges arrayed in white cups, was perched on the windowsill of an apartment across the street from the museum. Most visitors surely would have missed the work. The display showed Orozco’s rigor in challenging received notions of modernism and its canons. By choosing a careful if shallow distance from the mythos of institutional authority, his actions evinced the alert mind of a trickster. Yet as if warding off any whiff of nostalgia, these early self-effacing gestures were absent in the new retrospective. It will be interesting to see how subsequent venues handle this dilemma.

I suppose there always comes a time when we must abandon our innocence and embrace our fate. A midcareer survey, rather than being merely celebratory, can only suggest a caesura, a potential commencement of a new cycle at the porous boundary between past and future. At MoMA, Orozco joined the pantheon. In so doing, his work shifted from the speculative tenuousness of his artistic beginning, thus possibly vitiating what was most essential to his practice: a sense of risk and adventure.

“Gabriel Orozco” travels to the Kunstmuseum Basel, Apr. 18–Aug. 10; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Sept. 15, 2010–Jan. 3, 2011; Tate Modern, London, Jan. 19–Apr. 25, 2011.

Okwui Enwezor is a curator and critic based in New York.