Gabriel Orozco - Biography and Legacy
Mexican-American Sculptor, Photographer, and Conceptual Artist
Biography of Gabriel Orozco
Orozco had a dynamic childhood where dialogue surrounding art and politics dominated conversations in his household. Born in 1962 in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, to the classical pianist Cristina Felix Romandia and the muralist Mario Orozco Rivera, Gabriel was first exposed to modern art in Mexico through his father's art and his work as a professor of art at the Universidad Veracruzana.
Orozco's father, an active member of the Mexican Communist Party, was known to have experimented in multiple art forms, including poetry and music composition, in addition to painting. In 1964, Rivera became assistant to the prominent muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros and relocated the family to Mexico City, where he worked on various mural commissions and managed the studio of Siqueiros. In Mexico City, Orozco and his sister were influenced by their father's fervent political beliefs, attending ideologically progressive schools and participating in the Young Pioneers, a distinctly communist scouting organization. The young Orozco accompanied his father to many of the sites of these commissions. In fact, as a teenager when he wanted to purchase a car, Orozco worked on several murals with his father in order to earn the money, learning the formal technique of mural painting in the process. By the time Orozco decided to pursue his studies in art, he not only had some formal artistic training, he also had a sophisticated understanding of the progressive role of art in social and political discussions.
Orozco attended the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plasticas (ENAP) in Mexico City between 1981 and 1984, where his practice focused primarily on drawings and abstract, geometrical paintings. Frustrated with the traditional (and what Orozco considered to be unnecessary conservative) program at ENAP, and, interested in moving away from the strong Surrealist tendencies in Mexican art, Orozco moved to Madrid, Spain in 1986. There he studied at the Circulo de Bellas Artes, becoming familiar with a wide range of artistic practices and developments of the post-war European and American avant-garde. In contrast to the large studio practices that had become predominant in the 1980s, Orozco's work in Spain rejected the notion of the studio and the traditional medium of painting, focusing on utilizing found materials and remaining unattached to any specific locale. He was fascinated by the atmosphere of cultural awakening taking place in Madrid at the time, noticing in his strolls around town the budding habits and features of a city reentering the global stage after nearly forty years of fascist rule. During his walks between his small apartment and the school, Orozco began a practice of assembling nomadic sculptures with items he found along the way. This manner of making work spontaneously and engaging with random elements from everyday environments would remain central to his practice.
The ephemeral sculptures created by Orozco and the nomadic lifestyle that defined the artist's experience in Spain are fundamental themes of the artist's oeuvre, and it was out of this practice that Orozco's use of photography emerged in the mid-1980s. At first, Orozco used the camera as a tool to record and archive his ephemeral outdoor sculptures. Over time, and echoing artists like Constantin Brancusi and Robert Rauschenberg whose photographs function as both a byproduct and discrete work of art, Orozco began photographing his readymade sculptures on the street and his interactions with various passersby.
Returning to Mexico City in 1987, Orozco began meeting with other young art students who were similarly interested in expanding their purviews beyond traditional, nationalistic teachings in Mexico. Orozco took these younger students under his wing, hosting weekly "workshops" where they would discuss current concerns and take time to experiment with different creative impulses. Orozco participated in the Espacios Alternativos (Alternative Spaces) salon in 1987, contributing a large-scale installation that combined wooden beams to form an intricate structure, called Scaffolding for Our Modern Ruins, deliberately referring to the failure of the Mexican government to rebuild the infrastructure and respond to the needs of citizens in the wake of a devastating earthquake that hit Mexico in 1985. The salon was controversial and quickly closed. Lacking significant public recognition and exhibition opportunities, Orozco looked elsewhere to continue his artistic investigations.
In 1991, Orozco left for a brief sojourn in Brazil, where he continued to experiment with photography, documenting the sites he encountered and his own personal interventions in the existing spaces and landscapes. Then in 1992, Orozco went to New York City, where his future wife, Maria Gutierrez, had enrolled at New York University. In the early 1990s while in New York, Orozco emerged as a leading figure in contemporary art, providing a welcomed change from the recent trends in expressionist painting and dramatic economic swings affecting the contemporary art world throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Orozco's art was recognized through several signature shows, including his first solo museum show, an exhibition entitled Projects at The Museum of Modern Art in the fall of 1993, where he displayed works in public areas typically devoid of art. During this period in New York, Orozco also emphasized how an artist should accept his own financial limitations. Rather than working a day job to maintain the costs of a studio, Orozco preferred a different lifestyle, traveling lightly and using the various shapes, patterns, and objects that he confronted in the urban landscape as sources of inspiration. He and Maria Gutierrez married at City Hall in New York City on August 2,1994.
Orozco and his wife's only child, their son Simon, was born on November 26, 2004, in Paris.He currently lives with his wife and son between Mexico City, New York, and Paris.
Orozco has continued his itinerant lifestyle and artistic practice in the 2000s, participating in a number of international exhibitions and absorbing into his work many qualities of these international locales and cultures, including Mexico City, Istanbul, London, New York, and more.
In 2004, after years of producing intriguing and often understated sculptures, photographs, installations, and videos, Orozco began a series of paintings, confusing many of his art enthusiasts. He kept this new project completely secret until its unveil at the Serpentine Gallery in London in July of 2004. Addressing the painting series directly, Orozco stated that "I knew they were going to be read as paintings, and I think they are not about painting. They are diagrams. The idea of a diagram has the pretension to explain how things work, how objects behave and how plants grow." As surprising as his return to painting was, Orozco continued to implement many of the same techniques and investigate several of the themes that had characterized his previous work, such as diagrams, blueprints, and procedures, and games that informed both creative and everyday pursuits.
Orozco's approach to painting continued his fascination with several familiar themes and methods: playing with existing shapes and patterns in ways that simultaneously exposed inherent features and questioned customary interactions with them. Orozco has continued indulging his curiosity of the inherited and fabricated environments in which we live.
The Legacy of Gabriel Orozco
While Orozco's work in the mid to late 2000s has drawn much skepticism, he represents an important bridge between 20th- and 21st-century art movements, spanning Social Realism, Surrealism, abstraction, and Conceptual art. He remains an important and influential international artist, working both in painting and in more performative methods, as seen in a recent show at the Kurimanzutto Gallery in Mexico City, where he transformed the gallery into a functioning Oxxo convenience store.
In truth, and in part due to the artist's intense independence in his practice and refusal to be classified by one label or influence, Orozco's legacy and lasting influence on 21st-century art movements is yet to be defined. Recent exhibitions, including the 2013 exhibition Asterisms at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, demonstrate the artist's continued evaluation of objects as both cultural touchstones and works of art, interrogating their abilities to recall human interactions with natural and fabricated environments, and also his willingness to employ unexpected materials and spaces to confront a range of social, political, and economic forces at work in today's world.