Orozco’s Sculpture of the Mundane

orozco atomist Orozcos Sculpture of the MundaneGabriel Orozco, the Mexican-born international art star whose mid-career retrospective is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, is by general consent one of the leading artists of the global biennial age.

Since the early 1990s, Mr. Orozco has created a body of conceptually driven art of ad hoc form that reliably adds a deft and surreptitious element to the art-festival circuit of jet-setting cognoscenti and crowd-crushing installations.

This one, organized by Ann Temkin, the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, gathers 80-odd sculptures, photographs and drawings ranging in size from a fist-size lump of clay to an excavated whale skeleton. So how important is he, really? Stature of Mr. Orozco’s kind still counts for something in the scattered present tense, although less than you might think.

Born in 1962, Mr. Orozco grew up in Mexico City in a family of left-leaning artists and intellectuals. After graduating from art school, the artist left for Madrid, where he was introduced to the work of Manzoni and John Cage, among others. The first supplied a slouchy wit; the second, an ideas-driven asceticism. Moving between New York, Mexico and Brazil, Mr. Orozco traveled light and learned to improvise. Early on, Mr. Orozco, who does not have a studio, hit upon a practice that put a premium on the artist choosing, shaping or otherwise subtly altering an object—say, a ball of clay rolled through the streets of Manhattan, or debris scavenged from a dumpster and made into an on-site sculpture.

Often Mr. Orozco made art out of nothing. In 1993, at the age of 31, he had his first one-man show at MoMA as part of the museum’s “Projects” series spotlighting younger artists. A decade and a half and innumerable debuts later, people are still talking about Home Run, Mr. Orozco’s best-remembered contribution to the show. For the piece, Mr. Orozco arranged fresh oranges in the apartment and office windows across 54th Street. There is something infinitely touching and consoling about the gesture, as though everything in the world were on its way to becoming sculpture. But if one asks why Home Run has lasted, the answer probably has to do more with generational romance.

It was the early 1990s. A show by a contemporary Latin American artist at the modernist temple was deemed a political event.

In any case, Mr. Orozco’s appearance heralded a future era—ours, or just about—when art would move seasonally (Miami in December; Kassel, Germany, in June) and hometowns no longer counted. At MoMA, that sense of youthful traveling to improbable places has settled into something that looks a lot more familiar—call it mid-career success.

Ms. Temkin includes a selection of his most successful works and a couple of his less successful ones, too. See the whale skeleton hanging in the museum’s second-floor atrium. See also Mr. Orozco’s more recent series of circle paintings in tempera and gold leaf. Ask yourself why. Beauty occurs on a case-by-case basis. The best of Mr. Orozco’s work intensifies or alters a familiar or mundane object such that it registers with the force of strangeness.

This is the case with La DS (1993). To make it, Mr. Orozco cut a 1960s-era Citroën DS sports car into three horizontal slices and removed the center: streamlined to obsolescence.

What may tip Mr. Orozco in the balance of your favor is this idea of him as a one-man street team for the beautification of aesthetic byways you didn’t know existed or, more likely, had never taken the trouble to think about before. Or maybe not. Part of the exhibition re-creates Mr. Orozco’s debut, in 1994, at the Marian Goodman Gallery on East 57th Street. For the show, Mr. Orozco pinned a clear plastic Danon yogurt lid, price tag included, onto each of the gallery’s four walls. That’s all, folks.

A couple of thoughts about Yogurt Caps. The first thought is that pinning a yogurt lid onto the gallery wall was a brave thing for Mr. Orozco to do, a gesture of irreproachable purity that focuses the viewer’s attention on issues like setting, context and perception.

The second thought, which follows harshly on the heels of the first, is, so what? Didn’t Duchamp do something similar, albeit at the start of the last century rather than its played-out end? Can you think of a more time-honored tradition than the Duchampian ready-made? Mr. Orozco may be a major artist, but he sometimes seems stuck playing in minor key.