Butts, Rubber Ducky, Lime M&M Make You Sad; Tough Boxers

'Stag at Sharkey's'
"Stag at Sharkey's" (1909) by George Bellows. The iconic ringside depiction of boxers is among 120 works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's retrospective running through Feb. 18. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg

Gabriel Orozco, born in Mexico in 1962, is a treasure hunter who turns the tradition of the readymade nearly on its head.

The Guggenheim Museum’s sculptural and photographic installation “Gabriel Orozco: Asterisms” comprises more than 2,000 items of detritus the artist scavenged from two sites. Here the found object is closer to the visual poetry of Joseph Cornell than the predictable gamesmanship of Duchamp.

This hasn’t usually been the case. In his recent, smug midcareer retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Orozco displayed an empty shoebox and hung four plastic yogurt lids, one per gallery wall.

At the Guggenheim, tiny objects Orozco found on an AstroTurf playing field near his home in New York City are exhibited in a tabletop vitrine, as if in a jeweler’s case.

Cigarette butts, chewing gum, wadded foil wrappers, twisted hairpins, zippers, matchsticks, tangled bits of thread and a single lime-green M&M all take on magical weight and promise.

Arranged on the floor, also in a rectangular grid, are hundreds of larger bits of worn and weathered debris recovered from a coastal wildlife reserve in Baja California, Mexico.

Rubber Ducky

Orozco has collected oars, buoys, bottles, light bulbs, hardhats, a rubber ducky, a scuba flipper and dozens of waterlogged rolls of toilet paper that resemble conch shells and driftwood. Some of the bottles contain rolled-up messages.

Everything on view is grouped systematically by shape, color, material and texture, to suggest progression, migration, kinship and evolution.

This is further enhanced in Orozco’s large photographic grids, in which each object, documented on a white ground, has been scaled up or down to postcard size.

Orozco’s installation is understated and coldly scientific. Yet he has lovingly attended to his trove. The overall effect of its archaeological homogenization is melancholic -- akin to putting the ruins of our own civilization under the microscope.

“Gabriel Orozco: Asterisms” runs through Jan. 13 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-423-3500; http://www.guggenheim.org.

George Bellows

The most famous paintings by the American artist George Bellows (1882-1925), such as the ringside boxing scenes “Stag at Sharkey’s” (1909) and “Dempsey and Firpo” (1924), may be among the least compelling works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s enlightening Bellows retrospective.

They’re both good paintings. But we’ve seen these iconic pictures so often in reproduction that their sinewy, muscled athleticism and their expressive, cigar-chewing cronies suggest illustrative period caricature more than dynamic realism.

These two paintings bookend -- and strong-arm -- the Met’s show of some 120 pictures, in which we get the full range of Bellows’s oeuvre, from satirical to tender. Here are portraits, seascapes, landscapes, city scenes, views of Coney Island and politically charged images of New York City slums, election scenes and racially motivated killings.

Dark Urgency

Bellows had many influences. He quotes Velazquez, Manet, Courbet and Titian. In the portraits of friends and family, his dark urgency, nearer to that of Blake and Goya than John Singer Sargent, probes deeper than Sargent’s florid fascination with Edwardian surfaces.

Bellows’s drawings and prints are forceful, at times so thick with people and activity that they take on Dickensian magnitude. But sometimes, as in his densely packed urban series “Cliff Dwellers” (1913), Bellows seems to have lost steam. The works on paper are exciting, but the canvas is lackluster.

The show could have been better edited. Its mediocre pictures, weakened by flaccid drawing and strident or muddy color, distract from the strongest works, such as his late landscapes and nudes.

Still, this exhibit proves that Bellows was a more complicated and greater artist than I imagined. He is grittier, rougher around the edges, more vulgar than many of his fellow countrymen.

Whether he is considered a major modern illustrator or a minor modern painter, Bellows is an American original.

“George Bellows” runs through Feb. 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-535-7710; http://www.metmuseum.org.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Rich Jaroslovsky on tech and Jason Harper on cars.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE