by Renny Pritikin
Tauba Auerbach’s first museum survey at SFMOMA reveals a comprehensive body of work that exhibits no signature style. While it coheres logically in the densely packed galleries, its coherence rests less with an identifiable visual style than with the artist’s methodology: an intense curiosity about how the world appears, down to its most minute detail, investigated through exhaustive research, manifesting in objects that illuminate, contradict or embody the science of perception and consciousness. The exhibition’s title, S v Z, serves as a sample of just that kind of thinking. The letters S and Z, for example, seem to be mirror images of each other, but they are not; Auerbach’s 3-D printed steel piece, ZS Letters (3D) (2015), demonstrates the seemingly infinite variations that can be wrung from those two shapes. Auerbach returns to this duality often; she’s intrigued by the world-defining ramifications of the tiniest distinctions among phenomena.
Auerbach was born and raised in San Francisco and attended Stanford University. Auerbach is an outlier among the Bay Area artists who have leaped to international acclaim in recent decades. She is one of the few women to do so and the only artist not associated with a particular movement, unlike, for example, Barry McGee (graffiti), Nayland Blake (queer studies), Lynn Hershman (feminist tech), Kehinde Wiley (new Black painting) and Trevor Paglen (political resistance).
Stereographic (North America Surrounds) II (2021), the first piece in this survey — located in the lobby — epitomizes the artist’s eclecticism and refusal to be pinned down. It consists of a world map on aluminum hung in an elaborate device with grommets and straps. Wall text identifies it as a painting, but it could easily be seen as an installation or wall-mounted sculpture. It investigates the stereographic projection work of Athelstan Spilhaus, a geophysicist in the 1940s. The piece shows a map in which Antarctica lies at the center, with the West Coast of the United States and the Bay Area greatly exaggerated, occupying the entire circumference. Auerbach approaches many projects this way: problematizing a familiar design, like a world map, and making it so strange that it challenges how we see, think and comprehend. She doesn’t just question authority; she questions everything, teasing our egotism as the center of all things and our belief in objectivity. She discovers obscure thinkers, designers and scientists and bends their work to her aesthetic ends.
The initial piece in the first gallery, an almost unrecognizable, elaborated letter F, in ink on paper (2004), reflects an early love of typology (parallel to that of her Bay Area near-contemporary, the late Margaret Kilgallen). The next group of small works — gouaches (with graphite) of digital numbers and other conceptual pranks, such as typing the whole alphabet or all the punctuation marks on top of each other — produce smudgy black marks. Here, the highlight is a tour-de-force representation of a Bible, in which all the text has been alphabetized, yielding a book-length concrete poem. In a nearby vitrine, Bent Onyx, a blank book in which the pages were individually dipped in ink, results in wave-like marks on a wave-like object.
The following gallery is dedicated to the artist’s design work, created under her own imprint, Diagonal Press. It displays a meticulous, up-to-the-minute graphic sensibility that encompasses almost everything in the show, including typefaces. Austere and stripped-down, the work wastes no effort on decorative tangents. It includes many different projects, from merch art, like a 24-hour clock in Roman numerals, to an altered digital watch, to multiples such as flags, pins, posters, calendars, etchings, vinyl records and album covers. The overwhelming values in these projects are precision and rigor; improvisation and haphazardness are anathema.
After the unremitting perfectionism of this gallery, viewers exit into a larger space to encounter a floor sculpture titled New Ambidextrous Universe III (2014). It shares the exactitude of the design section, and like the map at the exhibition entrance, it is another case of Auerbach encountering a now-obscure scientist’s work, in this case, the 20th-century science writer Martin Gardner. The concept she explores, chirality, has to do with asymmetry. Human hands, whose mirror images are unalike, are a perfect example. (The opposite, or achiral state, is epitomized by a sphere). Fascinated by this, Auerbach reacted by slicing up a piece of plywood and putting it together backward to become its opposite, a feat not possible in nature without cutting.
The most accessible work in the exhibition is a large musical instrument titled Auerglass Organ, designed by the artist in collaboration with Cameron Mesirow. It is a kind of wooden pipe organ played by two people pumping pedals at opposite ends, producing soothing, meditative sounds from meticulously conceived mechanical parts. The piece ties back to the artist’s interest in collaborative interactions that yield unpredictable results and the Bay Area’s rich history of instrument makers. They include, most notably, Paul Dresher and Bernie Lubell, a maker of large-scale kinetic wooden sculptures that require cooperation to accomplish simple non-musical tasks. There’s also Trimpin, a Seattle sculptor and composer who, for years, has made computer-driven analog wooden organs.
Auerbach established her reputation as an original thinker a decade ago when she showed several suites of painting-like objects, paintings and drawings that investigated the boundaries between two and three dimensions and how patterns emerge on surfaces. In Bitmap Gradient Ray I (2013), she wove canvas strips using craft techniques out of which geometric patterns emerge on the surface. Several selections from a series called Untitled (Fold) from 2011 and 2012 are trompe l’oeil acrylic paintings that appear to be embossed pieces of paper executed with the subtlest hues and shadings. They’re actually the result of subtle combinations of folding and novel techniques for applying paint. In such ink-on-paper drawings as 50/50 XV and XVI (2008), abstraction and representation echo each other. Is this decorative patterning or an exact reproduction of the security patterns found on envelopes?
Non-Invasive Procedure (2018), an adjustable chrome medical table on which rests a set of long glass tubes (reminiscent of the early work stations of Nayland Blake), offers a simplified, moving summary of Auerbach’s sense of the mysteries of the world. In it, a pair of polarized filters that might be easily overlooked transform the transparent tubes into colorful arrays: a magical reiteration of hidden realities that our senses must be prodded to perceive.
The exhibition culminates with 7S 7Z 1S 2Z, a major work from 2019, bringing together all the themes within Auerbach’s passion for learning about how the world works by taking things apart, altering them, and putting them together back together, changed. It reads like a homage to Rebecca Horn, only less playful. A spidery ceiling-hung object consisting of moving cables (made of helixes), weights and streams of soapy water, it performs complex chemical reactions akin to the structures within living things.
This challenging and provocative survey contains far too many objects to discuss in a review such as this. Like the archetypal American garage tinkerer, Auerbach is unafraid to take any machine apart to learn how it works. She doesn’t just disassemble machines; she dissects the language used to discuss them, the sensory apparatus we use to perceive them, and the consciousness involved in orchestrating their dismantling.
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Tauba Auerbach: “S v Z” @ SFMOMA through May 1, 2020.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his new book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020.