You are an alien scientist, fascinated by life on earth. You keep finding new mysteries in a city of constant change, where a playground on a pier extends New York's Greenwich Village onto the Hudson. You return more than once to the coast of Mexico, where a wildlife reserve serves whales as at once a mating ground, a cemetery, and a sanctuary. You try to collect and to categorize what washes up on each, for a taxonomy of the differences—kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. And yet life and its order escape you the harder you work to find it.
Gabriel Orozco has already dredged up a midcareer retrospective and a whale skeleton—and of course I have been describing him all along. Barely two years later, with his "Asterisms," he has added thousands of human and inhuman objects from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. But has he found life, and what does that say about the pressure in art these days to build a career? For all his brilliance, all he can manage is to lay objects side by side, like the detritus of a forgotten order. At his best, he is breaking narratives. At his worst, he is offering a pale excuse for them.
As 2009 came to an end, two of art's most flagrant realities were bound to collide. It may seem unlikely, given the extremes of extravagance and austerity. Yet Gabriel Orozco, at forty-seven, could well be the child of their collision. Like my imagined scientist, Orozco is still searching. He is also caught between theory, mere fashion, and the creative act, and he may be running out of ideas. Still, a premature retrospective has its promises and puzzles.
Of the two flagrant realities, think first of mammoth installations redolent of destruction? Like Pipilotti Rist earlier this year, Orozco tames MoMA's atrium. This time an entire whale skeleton hangs from above. He excavated it from Baja California, on commission from Mexico's libraries in 2005. Then he covered it with graphite arcs. It took six thousand pencils.
The skeleton, Mobile Matrix, looks anything but mobile. On the same floor, in the galleries for works on paper, Samurai Tree Invariants looks anything but invariant. Over the course of nearly seven hundred digital prints, five rectangles change color while circles in primary color spread like elements in a video game. They appear together in miniature on an entrance wall, as a tight grid lacking two corners. It runs peacefully, too, on a video monitor. Then a healthy selection takes over the room.
Think instead of the austerity of art in a recession? Upstairs, Orozco greets visitors with an elevator cab with just two buttons, both for the first floor. It, too, is clearly not going anywhere fast. Then comes a shoebox on the floor, in a room almost to itself. Around the corner, one meets nothing but four yogurt lids—one each to a blank wall. Their four colored circles make even Minimalism seem excessive.
Other work combines extravagance and austerity. Roberta Smith made these trends the subject of two attention-getting reviews. The couple may sit uneasily together, but Orozco embodies them both. The artist personally rolled a large ball of Plasticine along the streets of New York until it acquired its coat of black grime. He sliced the heart out of a Citroën DS lengthwise, turning an emblem of motion into a sleek, silvery toy. Naturally the dissection means that it is missing its engine.
If this sounds all too contemporary, think again. The black ball appeared in Orozco's previous show at MoMA, in 1993. So did My Hands Are My Heart, the impression of the artist's hands in red modeling clay. The white shoebox appeared in that year's Venice Biennale, where it punned on the white box of a gallery—and the limited space available to him. The yogurt lids appeared the next year, as the entirety of a show at Marian Goodman. Conversely, the largest work dates from a decade of boom and austerity.
However, the whale, its circular matrix, and the room of digital prints also recall a sparer esthetic. Like Sol LeWitt, the Mexican artist sets a pattern, leaves it to assistants, and lets it overflow the limits of perception. He also relates it to organic form and organic materials, a theme of the older work as well. Living things grow, but they also die. The transparent yogurt lids, framed by colored plastic circles, even bear expiration dates. Maybe only a cynic would ask if the art is past its date as well.
The themes of ordinary objects, flight, dysfunction, and the fragility of human life give Minimalism and conceptual art a human side. They also enter into an early construction of four bicycles. A big black balloon fashioned from inner tubes looks like a wrecking ball. They suggest an artist's daring, but also an artist never fully in control. They also suggest an artist obsessed with vivid, momentary insights. At his best, he can share those perceptions with others as well.
Orozco seemed self-conscious from the very start, with his 1991 red-clay heart. If the elevator cab feels a little cramped, he made it exactly his height. (Fortunately for you and me, he is fairly tall.) He had to become more self-conscious, though, in 1997. Recovering from a collapsed lung, he covered a human skull with a black-and-white grid. Again pushing Minimalism's rigor toward conceptual art, he lets the rectangles change shape, to follow their projection on the three-dimensional surface.
In a sense, he never did recover. A midcareer retrospective often feels premature or suspect—as it does for another critical darling, Urs Fischer at the New Museum. Orozco's virtually stops over ten years ago. Most of the work dates from the early 1990s. So does the exuberance. The bicycles might have tumbled into place, but he is no longer riding the streets or digging up dirt.
His early abstractions bridge art and nature, pattern and decay, concept and materials. They began with spit. More and more, though, the abstraction takes over, like a digital Jennifer Bartlett. At the show's end, a huge table also holds miscellaneous sculpture, molded into cake with green and white icing, CDs, and whatever else strikes his fancy. It offers a peek at the artist in his studio. It also offers an artist struggling without the edge of conceptual art and appropriation, as if to prove (sorry, Roberta) that old-fashioned media and the hand-made count for little after all.
My favorite sculpture (also exhibited back in 2002 in "Tempo" at MoMA QNS) pays homage to Dada, but runs quietly amok. From 1995, it fills an oversized chessboard of elegant wood with nothing but knights. Horses Endlessly Running alludes to Marcel Duchamp, with his love of chess—but all with pieces that never follow a straight line and will never get stuck in place. Like Fischer's, this show seems too large, ambitious, and empty, and few will last an hour at either one. At least, unlike Fischer, Orozco refuses to gloat, to pander, or to follow straight lines. Even the great white whale is covered with black arcs.
From the whale, why not move on to the entirety of life? From the city, as my imagined alien scientist, you seek purpose in filaments of fabric and string, the wrinkled compression of candy wrappers, and the hardening ooze of chewing gum. You recover shells, small stones, and the compact form of the ends of zippers. They rest inert in a display case, waist or maybe waste high, and in gridded photographs, enlarged as if to memorialize your discoveries. What does it say about New York? Surely a scientist would know.
From Baja California, you find glass bottles and light bulbs miraculously intact. You stumble upon oars, construction helmets, and the orange plastic buoys strung along lines to keep them afloat. A tree trunk is stripped of its branches, roots, and leaves but still nearly whole. Their scale demands much of a tower gallery at the Guggenheim—along with more photographs, this time reduced compared to the scale of life, as if lost at sea. Either way, you place like with like, without concern for hierarchies or history. You have gathered twelve hundred objects, but they inspire mostly disbelief that you have even found life.
Of course, in what I might call real life, scientists know better. They have no trouble distinguishing the organic and inorganic—give or take that, with the human imprint on the planet, the boundaries can get a little tricky or downright depressing. They know the difference between gathering and truly systematizing the artifacts of biology and culture. Artists are a different story. Their version of art and science is often closer to observation than to theory, like an older natural history. And then there is the return of Gabriel Orozco, whom I have been describing all along.
Orozco is still captivated by decay, especially when he can get his hands dirty. He left imprints of them in his midcareer retrospective—where the chessboard with only knights was a far more playful version of like with like. Here, too, he is the installation's implicit subject. He looks for nature and culture in his own backyard, but how closely is he looking, and will anyone else linger for more than a glance? "Asterisms," curated by Nancy Spector, puns on constellations and patterns in minerals, two inorganic forms filled with natural light. Orozco sheds little light on two biospheres, other than a forced difference in scale. He never does discover life on earth.
Astroturf Constellation comes from the Astroturf of pier 40, at the end of West Houston Street, near where he lives. Art has emerged there before, in 2009 and 2010, when the same pier served the art fairs. Sandstars returns the artist to Mexico, which before supplied the whale skeleton that he covered with the traces of six thousand pencils. The newer work, also including a video of whales and gulls, has no such ambition. As process art, it seems mechanical. As sculpture or installation, it lies dead.
Found materials have often returned art to the everyday, as for Robert Rauschenberg and his combine paintings. And refuse in art has its own history, as with Kurt Schwitters or Joseph Beuys, whose personal myth also had room for light bulbs. Just in the fall of 2012, Leonardo Drew connected three rooms, floor to ceiling, with blackened wood, like the art world itself as a treacherous wasteland. Now if only Orozco, so soon after Hurricane Sandy, could communicate as well the visual promise and the dangers. Perhaps he could spend less time pretending to grand narratives—and more time making and breaking them.