Dont Knock the White Box
Dont Knock the White Box
Today’s New Yorkers are a largely understanding group when it comes to art appreciation, rarely provoked to anger or the “my kid could do that” argument. They have, after all, served as the audience for a substantial portion of the avant-garde’s ambushes over the past century. Glenn Beck aside, they take what they’re given and deal with it.
The flip side of that permissiveness is that they’re also a difficult population to impress, and so, seeing the crowd of people flooding into the Museum of Modern Art last night for the opening of the museum’s Gabriel Orozco retrospective, it was hard to guess what they would make of his often humble, occasionally grand, but always pleasantly confounding work.
Emerging from an elevator onto the museum’s sixth floor, guests were first greeted by Orozco’s Elevator (1994), plucked with great difficulty from a condemned building in Chicago, its ceiling modified to match the height of the artist. Visitors seemed charmed, posing for photographs, their smiles coming easily as a phalanx of security guards — there to protect the wife of Mexico’s president, Margarita Zavala, and its ambassador to the U.S., Rubén Beltrán — looked on.
Viewers’ greatest test, however, was ahead and hidden in plain sight: an unassuming white box sitting precariously on the floor, nearly blending into the white wall at the entrance of the exhibition space. About half the crowd spotted it, many alerted by the apparently orphan label off to the right side of the wall. “Hey!” one middle-aged man in a suit shouted to a companion, looking delighted. “It’s called Empty Shoe Box!” (He had spotted the sculpture first.) His friend, nonplussed, read the materials list. “Interesting. It’s made out of a shoe box,” he said.
Orozco has written about repeatedly having to replace the piece when it was first installed at the 1993 Venice Biennale, running around the flooded city hunting new boxes as each was errantly kicked or accidentally removed. But despite the steady flow of drink at the open bars on the museum’s first and second floors, there appeared to be no such problems last night. Joseph, a MoMA security guard stationed near the box, reported a few close calls, though not a single misstep. “People are being careful,” Joseph explained. “The artist said people threw money in it one time, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
Orozco's work attracted the interest of quite a few corners of the art world. Spotted venturing through the exhibition were critics Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith (whose remark “Beauty is the state of operating at stunning efficiency…” comes to mind in the case of the artist’s empty box), as well as dealers Casey Kaplan and Edward Winkleman, the photographer Paul Graham, New Museum curator Laura Hoptman, Studio Museum director Thelma Golden, and the MoMA upper echelon: director Glenn Lowry, financer Henry Kravis and his wife Marie-Josée, and curator Ann Temkin.
Academics, who have long applauded the artist’s engagement with broader social concerns and the acuity of his writing, were also out in force, including Princeton's Hal Foster, Columbia's Branden Joseph, and Harvard's Benjamin Buchloh, one of the leading experts on Orozco’s work.
“Many apparently immediate works attract attention for a long time,” Orozco wrote in a 2001 statement that could perfectly describe Empty Shoe Box. Works born of great labor can, of course, leave an equally strong impression. Looking down into the museum’s atrium from the sixth floor, one can see his Mobile Matrix (2006) sculpture — a nearly 36-foot-long whale skeleton which Orozco and a team of assistants obsessively adorned, using up 6,000 pencils in the process. It hung silently over the hulking crowd, looking indifferent to all those staring and snapping photographs beneath it.