In his “Samurai Tree” works, Gabriel Orozco reconfigured a composition of circular forms according to the movements of a knight on a chessboard, yielding 667 possible variations in a restricted palette of four colors. This rules-based, mathematical method resulted in shifting, whirlpool-like surfaces; paintings that appear to turn in on themselves.
“Art is not always composing,” Orozco writes in a 1992 notebook. “ … Chance. Imprecise accumulations. Not to compose.” That free, caution-to-the-wind philosophy of artmaking may seem anathema to the formal exactitude of his abstractions. A new book of his writings illuminates the nuances in Orozco’s thought and working processes, revealing how the artist invokes both chance and design to subvert established systems.
Written Matter (MIT Press, 2020) is a compilation of the artist’s journals from 1992 through 2012, translated to English from a first edition in Spanish by Gabriela Jauregui with help from The Song Cave in Brooklyn. (The artist’s sketches and handwritten texts, scattered throughout, have been kept in the original Spanish.) Ambling seamlessly through streams of consciousness, excerpted passages, photo collages, and back-of-the-napkin-style drawings, Orozco invites the reader to retrace his steps. Recurring references to yogurt lids, bicycles, shoe boxes, and supermarkets afford early glimpses of some of his most well-known works, while taxonomical lists and charts index a fascination with reclassifying those objects, making new sense of an existing world.
What makes this book different from some artists’ journals is that one need not be familiar with Orozco — or even the legacy of Conceptualism to which his work is tethered — to enjoy it. When the author employs humor, his musings reflect the deadpan delight of a good New Yorker cartoon (“Notes for the show at Pompidou: Pomp I do: buttocks pressed against a window. Make it into a decal,”); he spins mundane observations into morphological verses with the easy rhythm of an e. e. cummings poem (“Today I saw a brick. Today I saw many bricks. Today I saw so many bricks.”) He grapples with the contemporary art world, its overproduction and overconsumption; he dwells sincerely on his own shortcomings (“How many forgotten objects have I left behind.”)
For nomadic artists like Orozco, who resist the concept of a traditional studio, a diary can perform some of the functions of a physical space, serving as mobile testing ground for ideas and a repository of raw material. But keeping a regular record of life’s moments — a found leaf and a gum wrapper; an entry that reads simply, “María and I got married” — is perhaps especially meaningful to the practice of this artist, whose primary medium is the everyday.