Gabriel Orozco at The Museum of Modern Art, New York
December 3, 2009 – March 1, 2010
11 West 53rd Street
New York City, 212 708 9400
This first major museum retrospective of Mexican Gabriel Orozco has been viewed as controversial, and not entirely for reasons of taste. Few Latin American artists have had such an honor bestowed on them by The Museum of Modern Art, particularly with such fanfare. Curator Ann Temkin exclaimed during remarks at the press debut: “I’m getting a bit annoyed with people asking me the question – Why Orozco?” The curator went on to explain that she endorsed the artist not only as one who “resists categorization” through his heterogeneous body of objects, but as a global trend-setter who has moved his practice outside the proverbial isolation of the studio into direct interaction, on a communal level, with everyday life.
Her point is well-taken, but a gnawing problem of how to contextualize Orozco, who was born in 1962, remains, given that he is certainly not the first artist – let alone, the first Latin American– to produce works in different mediums, such as photography, sculpture, painting, drawing, readymades, printmaking and installation. An argument made in favor of Orozco is that he does not fit the traditional romantic stereotype of the Latin American artist. Rather his career has moved in the direction of conceptual art where the idea foregrounds the object. Yet one can point to an array of Latin American conceptual artists who have preceded him, including Luis Camnitzer, Liliana Porter, Cildo Moreiles, and Regina Silveira. On the other hand, a younger generation of specifically Mexican artists appears to hold Orozco in great esteem, largely for having established an international reputation that goes in opposition to this perceived cultural stereotype. This still leaves his work strangely exempt from critical considerations. While the spatiality of Empty Shoe Box (1993) and Yogurt Caps (1994) may hold a philosophical discourse, what takes that discourse further than Marcel Duchamp or Yves Klein took it?
It would appear that Orozco’s rhetoric lies somewhere outside the form, whereas the non-objects of Duchamp and Klein assiduously internalize the concept. The same could be said of Orozco’s half-circle paintings, collectively titled Samurai Tree Invariants, painted by hired hands in other parts of the world who are in touch through the air waves at any given time. While such methods were intriguing in the early enamel plaques by László Moholy-Nagy (1928), or Tony Smith’s Cube (1961), they fall flat with Orozco. Again, the problem appears to be one of locating the conceptual support. For Orozco, the textural referent is too cynically removed and therefore out of place, detached in ways that remove the Invariant permutations from having any core of elasticity. As a result they are suspended within the infinite universe of a hypothetical game of chance where no resolution is foreseen, and where variations appear arbitrarily chosen. In contrast, his early chromogenic photographs function visually in a way that the recent paintings do not. In works like Sleeping Dog (1990), My Hands Are My Heart(1991), and Sand on Table (1992), the poetry is never in doubt. The text is foreseen within the reality of what we empirically observe.
Mobile Matrix (2006), installed in the 2nd floor atrium, carries the subtitle “A Monumental Sculpture of Reassembled Whale Bones”. According to the accompanying description, Orozco discovered the bones at the Isla Arena beach in Baja California Sur and had them exhumed and cleaned by a team of experts, then sent to Mexico City where they were reassembled using metal armatures. In the meantime, the artist employed assistants to apply a drawing to the skeleton consisting of a series of optically equidistant concentric rings. Finally the mammoth skeleton was suspended overhead in the Biblioteca Vasconcelos in Mexico City. This work bears a distinct relationship to two earlier works by Orozco: a series of gouache and graphite circular drawings called Twelve Korean Notebook Pages (1995) and a chessboard graphite drawing over a human skull, Black Kites (1997). In fact, there is a third response that does not belong directly to Orozco. The more I examined Mobile Matrix, I saw a more elegantly refined response to the aesthetic of deceased whales, certainly more satisfying than Damien Hirst’s macabre shrunken shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1992). With the Hirst now at the Met, it is ironic that at major museums in New York, at the same time, two noted postmodernists are both represented by relics of large sea creatures.