Bob Dylan wrote that there are "maybe a thousand kings in the world," and for a time in the 1990s, the Mexican-born artist Gabriel Orozco was one of them. Orozco was a primal navigator -- a canny artist who effectively inspected the gap between physicality and immateriality, the micro and the macro, the industrial ready-made and everyday detritus. Few contemporary artists mined the space between the ordinary and the strange better than Orozco did.
These days, however, his work often feels more ordinary than strange, and the Museum of Modern Art’s 20-year survey provides the perfect window to compare the good and the bad. Arresting works are spread out over two floors, among too many tasteful objects and a flock of medium-size mediocre found-object sculptures. The show is sometimes stirring and surprising, sometimes only elegant, and occasionally empty, knowing decoration.
You see the good Orozco right up front. His photos from the early ’90s show the artist finding his art in the world and turning the world into his art. They give everyday things the weight of thought: A sleeping dog looks dead, and stacked stuff eerily mimics New York’s skyline (with the World Trade Center). An empty shoe box just sits there, like Duchamp’s urinal but more casual -- still confounding viewers, transcending itself restlessly.
For a real wallop of that sensation, visitors can step into a small gallery where MoMA has installed Orozco’s Yogurt Caps, the artist’s ultimate small-gesture-with-strange impact work and an homage to the Empty Gallery as Work of Art. Made in 1994, and consisting of four clear blue-rimmed Dannon lids, each nailed to the center of one wall of an otherwise bare room, it’s one of the most vexing artworks of the past two decades. Somehow Yogurt Caps transforms the gallery into something both more and less visible. The space becomes about emptiness and fullness, caring and not caring, the drained and the charged, passivity, portals, pissing people off, location, dislocation, irony, sincerity. It destroys the temple of Richard Serra. (It’s also, weirdly, about the first, third and final letters of Orozco’s surname. There are so many circles in his art that you might think Orozco walks around the world seeing and re-creating his initial. He turns Walt Whitman’s omnipresent ‘I’ into an ‘O,’ and it’s wonderful.)
After opening an enormously influential swath of esthetic space for himself and others, Orozco settled into what appears to be a self-satisfied complacency. Here’s where we start to see the bad Orozco, who -- instead of continuing to make those mystical connections -- opts for being intentionally clever, cranking out lyrical logos and tasteful sculptures. Most of his paintings look like high-tech heraldry designs or screen savers. They feature gold, red, white and blue circles. They’re also contrived, unimaginative, banal and risk-free. Like much of his later work, they feel esthetically celibate and intellectually chaste. Orozco has said that, with his paintings, he "wants to disappoint." He succeeds, and you feel the energy draining out of this show.
Fortunately, there is Mobile Matrix, from 2006 -- an enormous reassembled whale skeleton covered with what look like tattoos of concentric circles. It’s hanging in MoMA’s atrium, and it’s too small for the space, but it has a cosmic harmony missing from the rest of his later art. It’s the only recent work where we see that old ambition, that incessant movement. Otherwise, Orozco’s garishness and aggression are faded. We’re left with visual punning and the survey as artistic experience. A once flowing artist now seems frozen.
"Gabriel Orozco," Dec. 13, 2009-Mar. 1, 2010, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.