I can’t for the life of me remember why I was so bad-tempered the first time I saw a show of Gabriel Orozco years ago in New York. Orozco’s mid-career retrospective at Tate Modern (till 25 April) seems so genial and ingenious and above all so modest. It puts together a body of well-made and various work: good photographs, peculiar abstract paintings, found objects (usually modified), small sculptures in terracotta or plasticine, larger ones made from burst tyres or lint from the laundromat, etchings, drawings, and some show-stopping art-world toys: a squeezed Citroën DS, a version of billiards with the red ball hanging from a Foucault pendulum-string (you’re invited to play and it’s fun), an empty shoebox on the floor.

Maybe when I saw Orozco in New York in the 1990s I was still partly living in the past. The found objects and useless devices seemed to issue from a dim Dada high ground, and therefore I expected them to hurt, or be biting. But they were friendly. They asked me and the art world to calm down. Art was play. And I see now what the best critics saw then: that this was a welcome, post-adolescent reaction to the Sturm und Drang of the previous decade – all those Nazi/anti-Nazi pictures made from straw and dung – and also, possibly, a way of keeping the Dada flame lightly burning. Well, possibly – that remains the Orozco question.

‘My Hands Are My Heart’, 1981.

‘My Hands Are My Heart’, 1981.

Orozco is a scavenger. He does many things, and is capable of manic, repetitive concentration, but his essential tactic is to tread nimbly through the world on the lookout for objects and moments to snap or snap up. The example that comes to mind from the Tate is a photograph of water filling the flat roof of a clapped-out storehouse somewhere, its mirror disturbed by soft grey ripples. Or in another photo, breath condensed on the top of a piano. Or a heart-shaped, deep-scored small piece of terracotta, like a beaten-up face or a single vertebra or a lump of sand excavated from a wave-marked beach, which – so accompanying photos demonstrate – was made simply by folding a piece of clay in two hands. These things are beautiful (I’ll get to the question of beauty in a moment), and they are disarming. They lack pomposity. Orozco is the kind of artist who can make four black-painted terracottas of human body parts – leg bones, a squashed torso, another face in deep trouble – and somehow have them be free of the taint of catastrophe. He refuses to enter the Auschwitz stakes. He is the anti-Joseph Beuys.

So far, so good. But my first reaction to Orozco has not entirely gone away. Admiring an artist’s modesty is one thing; being convinced or shaken or surprised by the result of the modesty – realising that one will for some reason never get a particular modification of the world made by the artist out of one’s mind – is another. I find it hard to be sure why the second kind of engagement never quite happens for me at Tate Modern, and particularly hard to explain my detachment in ways that will not immediately seem heavy and clangorous. Why can’t lightness be all?

Orozco is a ragpicker. He takes the modern art background of minimum intervention in the world – the tactics of the ready-made, the found object, collage, assemblage and installation – for granted. They give him his syntax and vocabulary. He knows he comes late on the scene, and he is not interested in making a great fuss about his (or our) belatedness. The shoebox on the floor is infinitely knowing, art-historically speaking: it is aware that it is a rerun, almost a parody, of many previous moments meant to challenge the gallery visitor to ask – maybe splutter – ‘Is it Art?’ etc. And it expects the viewer to know that spluttering is likewise a rerun, a parody. This could be irritating – to be honest, I am slightly irritated by the sophistication of the built-in double bind – but it is the accompanying shrug (the ‘So what else do you expect?’) that seems to me to let Orozco get away with it. The ‘So what else do you expect?’ is addressed to the art world. And Orozco knows – this is the great thing he knows – that the art world expects (loves) the question to be posed in a hectoring or victimised tone of voice. The sound coming out of the shoebox, however, is lightly pessimistic. This is a frisson nouveau.

But for me it is not enough. One way of putting what I want and do not get from Orozco would centre on the question of beauty. Going through the rooms at Tate Modern I found myself asking – again, I was trying not to be the avant-garde police – what kind of visual sensibility is on show here? Certainly one that is tactful and fastidious. Maybe the choice of objects exaggerates this. I would have liked more examples of Orozco’s small-scale almost-found-object sculptures, which are sometimes less well behaved. Part of the time (in the etchings, for instance, or the more elaborate drawings) the work strikes me as tasteful to the point of near vanishing, but usually its low key is its strength. Even the lint hung limply on wires across a room – Lintels, the piece is titled, and it has something to do with the dust-inbreathed aftermath of September 11 – just manages to stir, spookily, with its own grey form-life. It may be true that cuteness looms a lot of the time as an Orozco temptation. The Foucault pendulum billiard table is cute, and so are the pairs of yellow motorbikes snapped in the city, and the axiometric two-wheelers. I couldn’t give a toss for the squeezed Citroën myself, but maybe that is because I couldn’t give a toss for the unsqueezed original – all clunky French futurology, it seemed to me, with the glass always looking five inches thick, as if the least important passenger expected to sit on the elephant leather was Malraux or De Gaulle. But even the pieces I disliked in the show struck me as beautiful. And that was the trouble – because none of them struck me, even the successes, as much else. And the beauty (Orozco himself is characteristically clear and unapologetic about this in an accompanying video) is conventional: it is oriented towards the intricate and symmetrical and carefully casual. He likes the random and momentary in the world, but never the discomposed. (He has learned nothing from the line of photography stemming from Walker Evans.) There was no single object in the exhibition in which I thought I sensed something else besides an intuition of order or balance: something more difficult and unmanageable, something shied away from in the original instigation of the piece, pulling the work in a direction the artist only half understood.

I know these last may seem strange things to be looking for. But for me they come with the territory. Orozco, to repeat, is a scavenger. He knows that ultimately the tactic of finding and pasting together, in the art of the 20th century, was either employed in the service of an unapologetic romanticism, full of a passion for the neglected and discarded, or, just as productively, spurred on by a kind of crazy hatred for the rubbish saved from extinction. Extinction, said the collages of Ernst and Schwitters, is what modernity deserves. Commodities are the most terrible, pitiable things ever made by humans because they are designed not to last. Orozco knows all this – his art history is impeccable – and he even gestures occasionally towards the sarcasm and soft-heartedness that is the temper of collage at its best. He has a word-piece at the Tate called Obits, made up of headlines for the New York Times dead. ‘Cool Master of the Commonplace’. ‘A Poet of Depth and Haunting Vision’. ‘Eccentric Even for England’. ‘Built Empire on Optimism’. (Twice.) But again he strikes me as keeping his distance from the banalities he assembles. The fatuities roll by. They never touch him: there is never a danger that they, or something very like them, will weave their way inside his private language (and therefore ours). Compare Jenny Holzer.

For Orozco, in a word, the everyday is a treasure house; or is it that art is a treasure house, to which the detritus of the world is admitted only on pain of sublimation? The everyday is arty in Orozco. One knows from the moment he begins to collect shredded and burnt-out tyres from the Mexico freeways that they will eventually be laid on the gallery floor – splashed with Serra-type aluminium puddles – like precious charred fragments from Teotihuacan. Orozco might justifiably round on me and ask if what I want instead is a cliché rehash of Godard’s Weekend or Kaprow’s bouncy castle. The answer is no. But I still think it possible to avoid Beuys-type portentousness and not end up making trash tasteful. I’m not saying it is easy.

There are historical reasons for this. The Lintels, for instance, made me think of another installation in which bits and pieces of debris hung on strings across a room: Ilya Kabakov’s great 16 Ropes of 1984, which I was lucky enough to see re-created later in Boston. I shall never forget the horror and comedy of the exhibit, with its tatters of late Soviet rubbish seeming to brush all the pathos of a dying totalitarianism onto one’s skin, indelibly, as one stumbled onwards looking for a way through. Between Kabakov’s despairing laughter and Schwitters’s loony rabbit warren there once was a royal road. These were the terms – the ambitions – of collage, which as a medium for major art is now a thing of the past. Happy the collagiste, in other words, for whom debris – wastage, obsolescence, Ford or Brezhnev mass production – could still seem historical. Meaning that it could be made to tell the story of a culture careering forwards or falling into the abyss. Orozco knows that this is no longer possible. All honour to him for not faking it.

This is a strange moment in the visual arts. The ascendancy of the large colour photograph made for the gallery wall, and the increasingly finely calibrated short-film-for-an-art-world-setting, are shifting the balance of avant-garde power. Aesthetic intensification – intensification of a reckless and maybe domineering kind, certainly one that sloughs off Orozco’s kind of modesty – is back. I was haunted at the Tate by the memory of a five-minute film by Philippe Parreno I had seen at the Serpentine Gallery a few days before, called Invisibleboy. Insofar as I understood Parreno’s five minutes, they seemed to be about the entry of a (Chinese) child into the psychic order of globalisation – so the stakes could hardly be higher. The film could serve as my representative of ‘something more difficult and unmanageable’. And it is off-putting – brilliant, incomprehensible, coercive, sentimental, deeply moving. Orozco’s art already has the look of a rearguard action against this new wave of dangerous dreaming. Which is one reason to go and see it.

Oh, and by the way, there is one work in the exhibition, Elevator, that made me stop dead in my tracks: assessing my height in relation to the stranded steel box I was invited to enter, and thinking for a moment about the risk I might run in ‘participating’. Elevator is the piece at the Tate where the recent past of art is most heavily visible – Minimalism meets Kienholz with a dash of Serra rust. Menace, the work says, is a second-hand effect for me. The ruins of capitalism are other artists’ terrain. Again I admire the honesty. But I thought the object, apart from the heart terracotta, the best thing of Orozco’s on show.

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