Gabriel Orozco

Mexican-American Sculptor, Photographer, and Conceptual Artist

Born: April 27, 1962
Jalapa, Mexico
I try always to intimate with the world... with everything I can, to feel love for it, or interest in it. To be intimate you have to open yourself, to be fearless, to trust what is around you, animate and inanimate. Then you start to change the scale of things, of the public and private.

Summary of Gabriel Orozco

Gabriel Orozco is a contemporary artist who refuses to stay in one place. Preferring to work and live in various cities around the world, Orozco's art reflects his nomadic experience, choosing to make use of found materials and everyday life while rejecting the isolated studio practice. Pushing the limits of the readymade object, Orozco forces viewers to imagine both unseen and overlooked features of the urban and natural environments around them. At the same time, he pushes the limits of traditional artistic media - such as sculpture, painting, and photography - testing the traditional rules and techniques that artists have adhered to throughout previous generations, questioning their relevance for today's rapidly changing social realities.


Progression of Art


Dos Parejas (Two Couples)

In this photograph, manmade objects are positioned in two pairs in the foreground, demonstrating the playful quality in Orozco's work when he first experimented with photography. Referring to these pairs of objects as couples, Orozco anthropomorphizes them, leaning them towards one another as if in intimate conversation or contact. Orozco does not hide the materials (wood) and other physical features of these objects, which suggest their use within a construction site or other industrial environment. When confronted with both the title and the image, viewers can at once recognize the inanimate, fabricated essence of the objects in the picture and also imagine more human traits expressed by them too. Viewers are invited to project emotional readings onto the objects, which are usually devoid of such aspects, allowing these photographic subjects to evoke thoughts and feelings without denying their authentic material components.

As curator Ann Temkin suggests, "there is no way to identify a work by Orozco in terms of physical product. Instead it must be discerned through leitmotifs and strategies that constantly recur, but in always mutating forms and configurations." With photography, Orozco used the camera to study his surroundings in a more attentive manner, finding surprising ways to portray commonplace spaces and everyday objects that give them unexpected lives and stories. This investigative strategy carries through much of his early photographs, as does his insistence on the ability of the flat, photographic image to convey an impression of physical weight and volume just as much as a work of sculpture. For Orozco, the photograph is not a document of something else, or a picture of an object, but rather is a complete composition in its own right that can encourage new discoveries and meanings every time it is viewed. Depicting banal items in ways that suggest personal histories or narratives forces the viewer to rethink the documentary role of photography and the lives of ordinary objects at the same time.

Silver dye bleach print - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

C. 1993

La D.S.

One of Orozco's more paradoxical works, La DS (pronounced to sound like "la déesse," meaning "goddess" in French) is a Citröen automobile that has been dissected and then reassembled. Indulging a childhood belief that a thinner car would be faster, Orozco systematically removed the middle third of the car over the course of a month in Paris with his artist friend and assistant, Philippe Picoli. The outer thirds were reattached to each other, achieving a cartoonish appearance that provoked both fascination and anxiety. Though sleek, the car lacked an engine, making it impossible to use or control as a traditional car. And though it still contained places for two people to sit inside, the seats were now arranged one behind the other, making for a very cramped, potentially claustrophobic, experience.

The DS model had been a celebrated product of post war France, symbolizing innovation and hope for the future. Exhibiting in Paris, Orozco assumed his audience would recall the popular history of the car, enhancing the effect of his alteration to a recognizable cultural icon. As in much of his sculptural output, Orozco's La DS questions the traditional identity of an object, deactivating its original use and place in society while inviting completely new experiences of it. Viewers were encouraged to touch and explore the sculpture, treating the gallery space as if it were a showroom to facilitate a sale. Orozco teases his viewers by maintaining the essential visual qualities of the car, obscuring any evidence of his personal manipulation of it, but ultimately he forces viewers to understand the impotence of the object in front of them.

Altered Citroen DS - Fonds National d'Art Contemporain, Paris

C. 1995

Horses Running Endlessly

In this reimagined chessboard, Orozco prompts the viewer to examine the game of chess - its rules, regulations, and patterns - by altering the basic elements of the game's objects and platform in subtle yet significant ways. As Orozco presents it, the board contains 256 squares, four times the amount in a standard chessboard, and includes four different colors of squares instead of the regular two. In addition, the artist has replaced all of the game pieces (knights, pawns, castles, bishops, kings, and queens) with only knights, also known as horses, which are the only pieces that can "jump" over other objects as they move across the board. Orozco not only highlights their unique abilities by removing other types of actors from the chess board, but he also forces viewers to imagine movements that are not visually rendered, effectively asking viewers to engage in completing the art work in their own minds. Though these imaginary movements may be more generally understood through wide familiarly with the game, they are nevertheless intimately personalized as each viewer pictures something different.

Orozco's intervention in the classic game is both physical and psychological: the physical modifications are easily apparent, and the busy arrangement of horses facing all directions within their individual squares offers a humorous and carefree scene. Though the horses are still contained within the little squares and the larger board, they demonstrate a distinct rejection of the traditional constraints they are expected to obey in the context of the game. Orozco here questions the usefulness of traditional situations, subverting certain strict expectations in favor of exploiting particular, inherent features in order to push the limits of what is possible with given skills, talents, and parameters. He challenges viewers to consider whether they are satisfied with the rules and spaces they have become accustomed to, or whether they can imagine new possibilities, using familiar symbols of intellectual acumen to suggest the absurdity of our inherited habits and confines.

Wood board and pawns - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

C. 1997

Black Kites

Orozco builds upon the repeated checkered pattern in his work Black Kites, which consists of a real human skull upon which the artist has meticulously drawn lines, squares, and other geometric shapes in an endless, recurring pattern across every part of the surface. The skull is essentially a drawing in three dimensions. On the one hand, Orozco's work closely references a memento mori, a visual reminder in works of art of the temporary nature of life, often symbolized by a skull. On the other hand, Orozco recalls the cultural traditions of his native Mexico, where skulls are prominent motifs in popular culture, art, and religious holidays, especially the Dia de los Muertos, when individuals build altars devoted to deceased loved ones in their homes and sugar skulls are favorite, celebratory treats. Yet, even as the work shares obvious resemblances to these artistic and cultural symbols, Orozco asserts a startling difference that viewers must grapple with: what is presented as a work of original art is ultimately the remains of a person. As Orozco explained, he was not interested in creating another symbol of death, but rather wanted to present something that was "something natural, real death (if that is possible)."

The endless black and white pattern in Black Kites entices the viewer to follow the lines and shapes across the curved surface of the skull in a studied, meditative manner. As the viewer's eyes trace the lines and explore the changing pattern on the skull, they linger over the subtle bumps and angles and catch the shifting light shining on the surface, eventually ending up where they began. This extended engagement allows for a closer look at an essential but hidden part of being physically human, while nevertheless acting as a constant reminder of the inevitable fate that faces every human on the planet. Quinn Latimer sees the work as "an act of staving off death while acknowledging its presence." Orozco carefully photographed the work as well, staging it under a spotlight against a black support and backdrop. This eerie, altar-like context forces a kind of double-take and transforms the skull into both an object of solemn veneration and a work of art worthy of contemplation typically afforded other sculptures and readymades.

Graphite on Skull - The Philadelphia Museum of Art


Nike Town

Orozco's photograph Nike Town provides a bird's eye view of a game being played, though the precise game, along with its rules and objectives, is left unspecified. The camera angle and the cropped features of the other players place the viewer in the midst of the game, heightening the interest and investment in the actions at hand. Games are frequent subjects in Orozco's works, and he treats them as readymades - items with specific use and recognition outside the fine art context but reinterpreted to be creative objects through their treatment and placement by artists within the art world.

In this depiction, as in others by Orozco, enough features are shown to let the viewer imagine some particular actions involved: a crude outline of a fish is drawn onto the ground, and several marbles appear within and around these drawn lines. Orozco seems to force the viewer to ask what the participants are expected to do, and what stakes they are playing for. By titling the work as if labeling a location, Orozco draws attention to the broader concepts at hand. Two of the supposed players are barefoot, and one is wearing shoes so worn that the socks poke through. Nike is a famous brand of athletic shoe, typically worn by celebrity athletes and other icons of success. Presumably, a Nike Town would be a place where citizens adorn the celebrated footwear. Yet, Nike is also a brand infamous for its questionable manufacturing conditions in developing countries, where individual workers have been exploited for corporate profits. Through his striking image, Orozco makes us wonder who the players of this game really are, as larger corporations continue to gamble with the livelihoods of others in search of financial gain.

Silver dye bleach print - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

C. 2005

Samurai tree - invariant 8

Orozco began creating a series of abstract paintings called Samurai Tree Invariants in the 2000s, surprising many critics and viewers who associated his work with more experimental art forms and subject matter. Yet, Orozco's approach to painting manipulated certain, core ideas and techniques of the medium. Rather than seeing the canvas as a flat space where scenes of illusion emerge, Orozco considered the canvas and support together as a "container for action." Using a computer software program, Orozco created diagrams that started from a central point with a circle drawn around it, then expanded into several tangential circles of various sizes that were subsequently halved and quartered, dictated by the movements of the knight chess piece in both horizontal and vertical directions. The process of splitting and extending these circles was repeated until Orozco found a design he liked. Finally, the halves, quarters, and remaining negative spaces were colored in with red, blue, white, and gold.

The creative process was methodically generated, perhaps seeming unimaginative and redundant in its systematic rendering; however, the possible number of design configurations is overwhelming, countering the implication that creative opportunities are lost when the subject matter is limited to only a few shapes and colors. Ironically, the more the pattern is carried out, the busier the image becomes and the harder it is to distinguish the formula, making the paintings with the most iterations of the formula the ones that appear the most impulsively inspired. Orozco uses simple means to complicate the assumptions of what something orderly - or disorderly - looks like, revealing art's ability to resist and undermine traditional expectations.

Acrylic on canvas - Tiroche DeLeon Collection

C. 2006

Mobile Matrix

Commissioned by the National Institute of Fine Arts and the Ministry of Culture in Mexico for the Biblioteca Vasconcelos in Mexico City, this beautiful and gigantic work exemplifies Orozco's interventionist practice. Orozco imagined an enormous whale skeleton hovering over the central space of the library as he toured it during construction. Soon after, the artist obtained permission to excavate a whale carcass from from the sands of the Isla Arena, in the state of Baja California. Once excavated, the carcass was meticulously cleaned and the bones individually catalogued, then sent by train to Mexico City, where the entire skeleton was further documented, reassembled, and attached to a metal structure that would allow it to be suspended from the ceiling.

Similar to his choice to draw a checkered pattern upon the human skull in his earlier work, Black Kites, Orozco decided to use drawn lines directly onto the surface of the whale bones to allude to the impressive abilities these individual pieces created through their collective collaboration to power the whale's body. Using the movements of the whale as a point of departure, Orozco directed twenty assistants over the course of two months to draw circles on the skeleton using pencils and compasses. As with the Samurai Tree Invariants, the circles expand from central points (this time from specific origins of physical motion), and the circles multiply and overlap in "a dizzying effect of movement." Of course, the myriad circles and lines are not actually moving, but Orozco has effectively activated the whale skeleton in the minds of the viewer, who must crane their neck to fully see the underside of the sculpture. Just as a mobile gracefully hangs from above, gently moving in response to any changes in the surrounding environment, so too does Orozco's piece seem to gently sway or vibrate from its hypnotic pattern.

From its placement overhead, viewers may not immediately notice the intricate details of the patterns on the whale skeleton. Furthermore, viewers of the work are accidental viewers of art, as they are assumed to be in the same space as the work - a library - for an entirely different purpose than viewing art. As such, the work generates a halting experience all around, prompting viewers to ask questions about the purpose of the skeleton within this context, the reason why the skeleton's exterior was altered, and how the remains of an animate being can transform into an inanimate object for studied contemplation and creative expression.

Gray Whale skeleton and graphite

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.

Early Training

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.

Mature Period

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.

Current Work

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.

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