1.6 / Review

Gabriel Orozco

By Rachel Adams January 13, 2010

The first time I visited the current Gabriel Orozco exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, I was overwhelmed by the massive amounts of visitors. The second time, I was overwhelmed by the stuffy installation. MoMA did not dedicate enough space to Orozco. Compared to his 1993 exhibition at MoMA, for which the artist chose to have no dedicated space and instead exhibited his work in unutilized spaces around the museum, this retrospective leaves little room for breathing, let alone proper viewing. The two main rooms are crowded with both small and large works, all of which deserve more space than they are given. Orozco has worked to inspire new and compelling perspectives in contemporary sculpture, paying particular attention to how it is viewed. By cramming his work into just two upstairs rooms, MoMA has done him a great disservice. Then, in an unfortunate act of overcompensation, it has set aside the entire atrium for Mobile Matrix (2006), a whale skeleton covered with Orozco’s distinguishing circular marks. Ironically, the whale seemed quite dwarfed by the space, and the atrium felt sparse.

Orozco is known for his repositioning of the everyday object. He is truly a cross-disciplinary artist, never settling for just one medium. Although at first the work may seem scattered, a closer inspection reveals a strong thread that connects his practice. Along with the use of common materials and found objects, elements of humor, chance, and game play are spread throughout the exhibition. As I walked through for the second time, I heard one visitor comment that "an empty shoebox isn't art." She was referring to one of Orozco's seminal pieces, Empty Shoebox (1993), which greets visitors at the entrance. Surely, we have moved past the fact that an empty shoebox or a urinal can be placed in a gallery and called art. Further, I find it helpful to regard the readymade with humor as well as judgment. Much of Orozco's work in this exhibition is quite comical, and although he has done much to seriously change how one views and understands sculpture, I am inclined to focus on the lighter side of his practice as well.

I hail originally from the New York area and one of my favorite Orozco pieces is An Island Within an Island (1993). This photograph depicts the lower Manhattan skyline made out of debris, with the actual one looming in the background. The World Trade Center stands tall in the background, which now burdens the image with the unintended weight of a memorial. Nevertheless, the crude depiction is childlike and whimsical, and looks quickly rendered. In these early photographs and sculptures, there is modesty to Orozco’s gesture and his materials, which conveys his ironic imagination and inventiveness.

Orozco's work creates the endearing feeling that he just happened upon a strange and beautiful scene. They resemble quirky documentary photographs, and it almost appears that Orozco is following a younger counterpart around, documenting the remnants of playtime. Surely, this playfulness is seen in Cats and Watermelons (1992), in which cans of cat food sit atop a crate of watermelons in a grocery store. The sculptures take after the Surrealists’ Exquisite Corpse game, with the face of the wide-eyed and hungry kitten as the top half and the watermelon as the bottom half of the imagined body. The watermelons, like the oranges in Crazy Tourist (1991), are examples of Orozco’s famous usage of circular marks and objects. Crazy Tourist reminds me of a play on the beloved Hansel and Gretel story; Orozco leaves his signature oranges on the wooden tables of an abandoned marketplace, scattered like breadcrumbs. The compositional strategy of installation art sets up the image, creating an innovative and successful merger between sculpture and photography. [1]

With the combination of chance and formalism, Orozco's photographs act as the extensions of an encounter. In Yielding Stone Image (1992‑2009), he moves a Plasticine ball across a street grate and positions it at the end, so the marks of the grate are embedded in the ball. An actual Yielding Stone (1992) sits in the gallery, not far from the photograph. The ball represents the steps of the artist with the accumulation of a chance encounter with the world. 

An Island Within an Island, 1993; silver dye bleach print. Courtesy of the artist and MoMA, New York.

Yielding Stone Image, 1992‑2009; silver dye bleach print. Courtesy of the artist and MoMA, New York.

For its creation, Orozco rolled the sculpture around the streets, collecting dirt and debris and accumulating marks from the pavement. Yielding Stone marks Orozco’s journey with the same mix of absurdity and poignancy that colors much of his early work.

The main room of the exhibition housed 12 photographs from the early '90s, as well as major sculptures such as La DS (1993), Four Bicycles (There Is Only One Direction) (1994), and Black Kites (1997). Although still crowded, this room was the most successful in the exhibition. La DS is the Citroen that the artist cut into thirds and then put back together minus the middle segment. I quaintly associate the sculpture with a cleaner version of a clown car. Four Bicycles (There Is Only One Direction) is four bicycles welded together, unable to move in any direction. Although both sculptures have been rendered immobile, I imagine them put to use in a high-scale circus. Orozco's practice transforms the object, but in these examples, the humor in the actual transformation amplifies. Missing from the exhibition is Ping-Pond Table (1998), a modified ping-pong table shaped like a flower with a lily pond located in the center. In all three sculptures, Orozco seems to find his fun in stripping his subjects of their utility. Perhaps the uselessness of his creations is precisely what he’s after.

Working Tables, 2000‑2005; unfired clay, straw, egg container, bottle caps, wiremesh screen, string, stones, shells, plaster, bark, polystyrene foam, painted wood elements, pizza dough, and other materials, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and MoMA, New York.

These early works are both humbling and arresting; however, as Orozco’s fame has risen, his new ventures have not followed suit. Working Tables (2000‑2005), located in the back room of the exhibition, is a conglomeration of unfinished small sculptures. The process of an artist is an interesting insight into their practice but not enough to stand on its own. Some of Orozco’s paintings are underwhelming as well. He uses the knight’s movement in a game of chess to create the patterns for his paintings, which unfortunately become reminiscent of the décor in a CB2 catalog.

In the final analysis, Orozco’s mid-career retrospective at the MoMA was a disappointment. In taking on the ambitious and ultimately unsuccessful task of selecting the most outstanding projects of an entire oeuvre, MoMA has gone the route of quantity over quality. Without the enhanced perspective offered by hindsight, they have pieced together a motley collection that can only be refined by time. MoMA’s selections from Orozco's later works reveal ideas under development that don’t seem to have hit their stride. The pieces' inclusion in this exhibition only seems to highlight their inadequacy in comparison to beloved earlier projects, which have proven salient over the past two decades. I might have preferred an exhibition titled "Gabriel Orozco 1992‑1998," if only to offer those pieces the physical space they deserved. Unfortunately, we will have to wait for the next retrospective to see a better representation of his work in the years 1999‑2009.

"Gabriel Orozco" is on view at The Museum of Modern Art in New York through March 1, 2010.

[1] Foster, Hal. Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes) (London: Verso, 2002), 142-43.


Rachel Adams is a second-year graduate student in the Exhibition and Museum Studies Program at the San Francisco Art Institute. She hails from the East Coast by way of Chicago where she graduated from the School of the Art Institute and founded the apartment project space Lloyd Dobler in 2006.

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