Gabriel Orozco at The Museum of Modern Art

Gabriel Orozco, Yogurt Caps (detail) (1994), four yogurt lids, each 7.9 cm. in diameter; courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery

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Necessity, as the old adage has it, is the mother of invention. It can also be the engine of dubious theorizing. Take, for example, the work of the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Or, rather, read the accompanying wall texts and catalogue, without which the casual viewer will be baffled by the sundry objects on display. With the absence of a unifying visual rationale, words provide the only link between a dis- placed elevator, an elongated automobile, a preponderance of photographs, pseudo–High Modernist abstractions, and Mobile Matrix (2006), the skeleton of a whale overlaid with graphite markings.

Writing in the catalogue, the exhibition’s curator Ann Temkin details the artist’s “post-studio” art-making. Arriving in Manhattan in 1991, Orozco “developed a practice accepting of limitations.” Aghast that an artist should have to work for a living to afford workspace—rent restricted his “freedom,” don’t you know—Orozco made due with a cramped Twelfth Street apartment. An obedient heir of Dadaism as filtered through the puritanical tenets of Conceptualism, he proceeded to challenge “the problematic legacy of a modernism whose ideals no longer seemed wholly compelling.” This led him to tack a Dannon yogurt lid on the wall. After months of contemplation, Orozco decided the gesture was, well, not boring. Out of such rigorous standards art is born.

You’ll find not one but four yogurt lids installed at MOMA, along with the self-explanatory Empty Shoe Box (1993), which greets viewers as they enter the exhibition. There are drawings done with spat-out toothpaste.Maria, Maria, Maria (1995) is a page from a phone book that is erased save for when the name of Orozco’s girlfriend appears on it. These low-budget efforts indicate, we are told, deeply held aesthetic and social principles. The studio, being a privileged enclave, “valorized … genius at the expense of the community, and celebrated the object at the expense of the idea.” Which begs the questions: What community is the artist serving and what is the worth of those ideas?

Given that Orozco is a figure of international renown and is being feted by one of the world’s preeminent museums, we can assume that his community is comprised of well-heeled tastemakers who can afford to indulge the easy-breezy nihilism that is the contemporary scene’s lingua franca. As such, the merits of the ideas espoused are less important than the transitory frisson of provocation they promise. The reverent nailing of yogurt lids engenders a near mystical experience by expanding our notion of what art might be—or so Orozco’s admirers claim. Nothing pleases certain elements of elite culture more than having its collective leg pulled in the name of avant-gardism.

Abjuring chronology, Temkin and Orozco arrange the exhibition as a “new landscape”—a vista that “celebrates the experimentation that lies at the heart of [the artist’s] practice.” But that’s a highfalutin’ ruse. A chronological outlay of items would have underlined an absence of artistic vision, formal invention, and forward momentum in the selection: MOMA’s elegantly scattershot installation confirms the facelessness of the work. Orozco, it turns out, is a nowhere man. A little bit of this, a little bit of that—all of it is predicated in an anti-aesthetic so attenuated, sterile, and overweening Duchamp wouldn’t recognize it. In a culture where it’s a commonplace that anything can be considered art, questioning art’s parameters is little more than a parlor game. Orozco’s radicalism is safe enough to ignore.

Self-aggrandizement is the true core of Orozco’s art. Conceptual Art and its variants are inherently narcissistic—the art object is forever secondary to the artist. The reality of art as an independent entity shaped according to its own internal logic is foreign to an aesthetic that can’t see beyond its own blinkered purview, and this is where the bad faith inherent in Orozco’s enterprise is most blatant. With numbing consistency, he places the viewer’s focus squarely on his own ever-loving self. Would that Orozco was as profound as he advertises himself to be. But he’s not. And no one should mistake dabbling for the real thing: Gabriel Orozco is simultaneously lightweight and top-heavy with conceit.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 2010 edition of The New Criterion.

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