Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Gabriel Orozco at MoMA

Gabriel Orozco is one of my favorite artists. From the New York Times issue of December 13, Holland Cotter reviews Orozco's show at MoMA:

Gabriel Orozco’s 1993 solo debut at the Museum of Modern Art was a barely there, very un-MoMA affair of a few photographs, a ball of clay, a hammock and some fresh fruit. His one-man show at Marian Goodman the next year was sparser still, with four plastic Dannon yogurt lids nailed to the walls of the gallery’s otherwise empty big front space.

Mr. Orozco got instant mileage out of thinking light. He was tapped by museums in Chicago, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and Mexico City, where he grew up. He became an object of admiring critical scrutiny, and a hero to many young artists, especially in his home country. In 2000 the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles organized a traveling career retrospective, and now at 47 he’s getting another one, called “Gabriel Orozco,” at MoMA.

He has, in short, received a degree of intense and sustained attention that relatively few artists, young or old, ever get. Why? The question lingers, only half-answered, after seeing his retrospective, a taut, attractive, but oddly conventional looking survey, heavy on painting and sculpture.

At least part of the reason for his continuing appeal can still be traced to the memory of that charmed first MoMA show, and the young, footloose artist who produced it. Born in 1962, the child of a leftist mural painter and teacher, Mr. Orozco studied art in Mexico City and then left for Spain, Brazil and New York, in the process immersing himself in international culture.

He learned what he liked and didn’t like. He was turned off by the big, expensive painting that defined a bloated 1980s market. He was attracted to the spare, idea-driven, Dada-inflected art of older figures like John Cage, Joseph Beuys and Piero Manzoni, and Brazilian conceptualists like Cildo Meireles and Lygia Clark.

Dodging commitments to mediums or styles, he took improvisation as his baseline method, and turned personal quirks into assets. Studios made him antsy, so he did without one. Instead he wandered, poked around, made art from what he found, often where he found it. Sometimes he created, added to or tweaked a situation. He photographed the results: a mist of warm breath on a dark wood surface; a pattern of circles traced by wet bicycle wheels; oranges, like little celestial bodies, placed, one per table, on a receding line of tables in a outdoor market.

Some of these photographs were in the 1993 MoMA show, along with the ball of soft clay that Mr. Orozco had rolled through Manhattan streets until it was black with grime. He hung the hammock in MoMA’s sculpture garden; anyone could use it. The fresh fruit? He arranged oranges in neat rows in apartment windows across the street from the museum. You looked up and there they were: bright dots connecting art and life.

It’s useful to remember that this pixilated exhibition came just a few years after the stock market had bottomed out, pulling the art market down with it. A revulsion against 1980s materialism had set in, and many young artists were heading in the opposite direction. In addition, identity politics, simmering through the previous decade, had come into its own, and the appearance of Mr. Orozco, a young Mexican artist, at MoMA was a political event.

Even if his art wasn’t directly shaped by any of these factors, it was a timely package. And this took a particularly succinct form in his contribution to the 1993 Venice Biennale: a single empty cardboard shoebox left on a gallery floor. This was a perfectly judged gesture: commanding in its modesty, vulnerable in its openness, and obliquely critical. Intended as a sly reference to the cramped exhibition quarters he’d been allotted, the piece might also be read as a comment on the scant room given to Latin American artists in history.

Gestures tend to lose some of their energy when they’re repeated. The shoebox is in the MoMA survey, it’s the first thing you see in the galleries. The dirty ball is there too. So are the yogurt lids, nailed to partition walls. But they feel archival.

The shock and delight of puzzlement, of seeing nothing turn into something before your eyes, are gone.

No one’s to blame; this is the way certain art operates in time. But the consequence in this case is a show dominated by a different, more traditional aspect of Mr. Orozco’s activity, namely his steady and increasing production of paintings, drawings, and sculptures, many — too many — of elaborate ingenuity.

The large early sculpture “La DS,” made in Paris in 1993, is basically a ready-made à la Duchamp, but seriously altered. He cut a 1960s Citroën DS lengthwise into three slices. He extracted the center slice, which held the engine, and rejoined what was left to create a skinny, doofy-looking, nonrunning vehicle that accommodated one passenger in front, one in back. One of Mr. Orozco’s best-known images, it has invited varied interpretations — it’s about technology gone batty, about consumerism, about French national amour-propre. What it is is an audacious joke, a 3-D cartoon, not much more.

Mr. Orozco has since designed things of even more complicated cleverness, like a Ping-Pong table with a lily pond in the middle; a sculptural house incorporating pianos; an outsize chessboard in which all the pieces are black, white or brown knights; and four bicycles welded together and going nowhere fast. The MoMA organizers — Ann Temkin, chief curator of sculpture and painting, and Paulina Pobocha, a curatorial assistant — have passed on these cumbersome bagatelles, but have included two of Mr. Orozco’s largest works.

One, “Mobile Matrix” (2006), is composed of an intact whale skeleton, its bones decorated with circular designs drawn in graphite. Suspended in midair in the MoMA atrium, it seems to have “Why?” written all over it. Yes, the Mexico City library that commissioned it had a large space to fill, as does MoMA. But Mr. Orozco’s demonstrable — and wonderful — Zen-like gift is for doing much with little, not for providing architectural filler.

Filler is also the word for “Samurai Tree Invariants” (2006), a series of more than 600 digital prints representing all the possible permutations of the red-yellow-blue-black-white-gold palette used by Mr. Orozco in sleek abstract paintings. The prints, which cover four walls of a second-floor gallery like wallpaper, are in turn being used as templates for a new line of paintings being turned out, atelier-factory style, with Mr. Orozco involved long-distance, submitting designs by e-mail.

The colors and forms in these series suggest the utopian, total-environment spirit of early modernism. Mondrian comes to mind; so does the Bauhaus, as exemplified in another show now at the museum. But what is Mr. Orozco really up to? Is he mocking these models? Revisiting them, as many artists — refugees from postmodernism — are, with a sense of relief? Either way, seen in the context of his earlier art, the prints and paintings come across as the work of a former maverick turned mainstream player.

This impression is reinforced by the sheer volume of scholarly writing devoted to Mr. Orozco, including catalog essays by the scholars Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and Briony Fer, both of whom enshrine him in wordage. Possibly because he has been careful to distance his art from overt Mexicanness, he has become in some academic circles the canonical contemporary Latin American artist, in much the same way that William Kentridge, a white South African, has become the token African artist.

All of this is, of course, peripheral to the art, and Mr. Orozco’s intelligent inventiveness is not in question.

The dozens of small sculptures set out on shelves and tables in the last gallery are proof. Some are sketchy or merely busy, but others do what Mr. Orozco has always done best: find the cosmic in the commonplace, sweeten abjection with wisdom and wit. And at some point he may decide which he really wants to be: the artist of poetic epiphanies or of institutional product. In this show he is both.

“Gabriel Orozco” continues through March 1 at the Museum of Modern Art; moma.org

I have highlighted a couple of lines from this review. I really like the notion of "puzzlement" and of nothing turning into something.... doing much with little. Isn't this what we all aspire to.....

No comments: