In 1997, a decade before Damien Hirst made a platinum cast of a human skull and covered it in pavé diamonds, the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco made an arguably more important memento mori. Orozco’s skull was real, and a graphite grid of diamond-like forms covered it, snaking into the recessed eye sockets and hovering above the grimacing and broken teeth. Its image was hard to shake in the ’90s, when it loomed large in the Western contemporary-art consciousness. Even now, seeing it in person for the first time in the artist’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, I was taken aback by how long I studied it and by its strange, intractable spell. Time, its ostensible subject (and process: it took weeks for Orozco, at home with a collapsed lung, to draw on it), was also what it claimed of its viewer.
If Hirst’s skull hits one over the head with its magisterial concern with death (it is titled, rather unsoberly, For the Love of God, 2007), Orozco’s skull is more attendant to life and the way death weaves through it. The sculpture’s embodiment of time, with its obsessive routine of work, and the serialization of form that is its manifestation, may be an act of staving off death while acknowledging its presence. Its title, Black Kites (1997), is at once allusive and studiously elusive, conflating the figurative and the abstract, the life of the body and the life of the mind. Black Kites also conjures the objective correlative that has become the artist’s signature. In his sensitive and subtle revisions, shoes, stones, socks, yoghurt lids and bicycles become unerringly beautiful, weirdly inevitable ideas of themselves and their form.
This is not to say that Orozco is not interested in the grand gesture. His largest work to date, Mobile Matrix (2006), Black Kites’ outsize relative, opened his MoMA survey. Suspended from the ceiling of the museum’s vast atrium, the 11-metre-long grey whale skeleton, which Orozco excavated from a whale burial ground in Baja California, has been pieced together then overlaid with a geometric collusion of graphite circles. The work is impressive – its size sobering, its concentric circles dazzling – but it can’t quite shed it natural history museum-like vibe. More compelling was the c-type print nearby, which showed the whale’s bones mostly buried in the stretch of pale-white sand where the artist found them. A stripe of blue sky strikes an austere note above, while a track of human footprints circles the sandy grave, indicative of the human touch that all of the artist’s photographs are imbued with.
As his survey demonstrated, Orozco’s most successful works are also often his least (seemingly) monumental: the earth-toned photograph of a man holding a piece of clay in the shape of a heart (My Hands Are My Heart, 1991), a sleeping dog or a deflated football filled with rain water; numerous notebooks with their Constructivist-tinged collages; and the innumerable objects like seashells drowned in perfect circles of plaster. MoMA curator Ann Temkin acknowledged this strength of Orozco’s practice, and the show highlighted the provisional aspect of his body of work. While crowd-pleasers such as his Citroën car (La DS, 1993) reduced to the artist’s exact size, are on view – along with a room papered in Samurai Tree Invariants (2006), an installation of digital prints with an ever-mutating geometric pattern based on the knight’s move in chess, which as wallpaper thrills but is otherwise unenlightening – the show mostly concerned itself with the smaller works that have such pull.
Working Tables, 2000–2005 (2004–5) offers unfired clay rounds, painted egg containers and wood elements that are as evocative and carefully arranged as an archeological dig. Attesting to Orozco’s preoccupation with circles and off-hand fetishism of objects, he describes the work as ‘leftovers of an artist who works with leftovers.’ They’re ‘evidence of a process’, he adds, and a lot of his work is just that. But if this emphasis on process and the provisional might seem a bit lacklustre for a MoMA retrospective, the survey deftly corrected a few ideas about the artist. For one, Orozco’s works are often derided for being overtly sentimental: his photographs and objects have a humanism and beauty that beg for adjectives like ‘lovely’ and ‘poetic’. But, as this survey illustrated, there is a Minimalist austerity that runs through his work: from its palette of earth tones to an interest in the serial nature of forms, Orozco’s oeuvre – despite its sincerity – has a rigour that usually (though not always) steers clear of the saccharine.
Furthermore, Orozco’s influence on younger contemporary artists is estimable. The contemporary Mexican art scene is visibly indebted to him (as can be seen in the work of artists such as Gabriel Kuri or Martin Soto Climent), but so is the international school of young artists who are newly plumbing Surrealism and its rich legacy. Though Orozco is often given the Conceptualist label, his work seems closer in certain respects to the Surrealists and later post-Minimalists whose sensual experiments with materials rode a similar line of representation and abstraction. See, for example, Horses Running Endlessly (1995), its enlarged chessboard – the Surrealist platform par excellence – covered in knights. The horses’ movement – like Orozco’s practice – is mapped and determined by a strict grid and yet is remarkably unconstrained by it; his knights are as free to roam as any wilfully wild herd.