SAN FRANCISCO — The past two years and counting, with their plague and political upheavals, have suggested that uncertainty is the order of the day. If it can be difficult to remember what prepandemic stability looked like, searching for signs to make sense of it all only feels right.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has turned to the New York-based artist and designer Tauba Auerbach for answers. In characteristic fashion, Auerbach — a Bay Area native — has responded with further questions, doggedly seeking out new ways to induce tiny transformations in our perception of randomness. Recognizing that the very existence of randomness keeps us going, the artist has committed to a practice that maps the limits of what can possibly be known.
Since 2009, Auerbach — whose pronouns are they/them — has sustained a rigorous drive for investigating both scientific and spiritual concepts, drawing equal inspiration from the precision of mathematical proofs, the intuitive features of reiki (a form of energy healing), qi gong (a gentle system of movement) and the inherent entropy of the cosmos. Consequently, Auerbach doesn’t stick to one medium, favoring instead an eclectic mix of painting, photography, design, music, sculpture and typography. Combining the curiosity of a novice with the nimbleness of an expert, Auerbach offers with each project a truly refreshing contribution to contemporary art — namely, the conviction that the world is still full of wonder.
That idea sits at the heart of “S v Z,” Auerbach’s first museum survey, which opened in December after some pandemic-induced delays. Organized by the curators Jenny Gheith and Joseph Becker, the exhibition gathers some 16 years of Auerbach’s creative output across a single floor of the museum. (Accompanying the exhibition is a remarkable catalog cocreated with the designer David Reinfurt; it features essays by the curators and the art historian Linda Dalrymple Henderson — all of it printed in a custom-designed font based on the artist’s own handwriting.)
The show’s open-ended plan offers slightly angled, free-standing walls and vitrines that encourage visitors to take in Auerbach’s art non-chronologically, letting each facet of the 41-year-old artist’s practice speak for itself. At times, it’s difficult to keep the scope of this practice in mind: Works include a Bible in which all the text is rearranged in alphabetical order; album covers for musician friends like Greg Fox and Meara O’Reilly; and publications made through their imprint, Diagonal Press.
Auerbach’s most recognizable works are a series of paintings titled “Fold” (2009-12). Three are on view here, and they work as a key to the artist’s sensibility: To make these paintings, Auerbach folded pieces of canvas to create deep creases, then unfurled the material and sprayed acrylic paint onto its surface. When stretched and hung, traces of the once three-dimensional folded canvas is transformed into gradient patterns resulting in a textured surface of light and shadow. (They were included in the 2009 New Museum Triennial and Whitney Biennial, and Greater New York in 2010).
Some 10 years later, the “Fold” paintings continue to charm with their keen balance of beauty and precision, Auerbach’s assiduous process fully complementing the canvases’ delicate colors and lines. What they demonstrate is that an artist’s hand is a tool — just like a brush or a pencil — which can be used for transformation.
The “Grain” series, begun in 2017, builds on this idea, but takes it to new heights. For these paintings, Auerbach designed excision instruments embedded with fractal and helix patterns, which were then scraped across canvas topped with layers of semi-wet paint. The canvases, each encased in free-standing, heavy aluminum frames, are titled after the specific variation of curve embedded into the excision tool and hover somewhere between painting and sculpture. You are immediately drawn in by the shock of electric blue on lurid neon yellow in “Branching Fret Leveler” and a slash of interlocking red and black patchwork against a blank background in “Meander Arc”(both from 2018). In these paintings, Auerbach’s focus on method and material does not sacrifice a compelling visual experience.
But the artist’s fixation on scientific theorems and rational systems can sometimes be frustrating. For the 2018 video “Pilot Wave Induction III,” Auerbach recorded droplets of silicone vibrating to various frequencies in the cone of a speaker to illustrate a (since-disproven) theory of quantum mechanics, which infers that a substance can’t exist in two materials at once.
Near this installation hang a set of fuzzy, multicolor abstract photographs, the “Static” series from 2009, which depict the insides of cathode ray tubes. An adjoining gallery houses “7S, 7Z, 1s, 2Z.” A large kinetic sculpture from 2019, made from twisted steel cables and soap solution, it continuously produces large bubbles modeled on fascia, the connective tissue that holds our bones and organs in place.
While each of these pieces is mesmerizing — hypnotic, even — I’m skeptical of their ambitions. They seem both too arcane and oversimplified, as if the artist were trading on the viewer’s scientific naïveté, aiming to dazzle rather than guide us through the technical ideas at the core of the work. I had the same gut reaction to these works as I do to “immersive” art experiences — that my own interpretive faculties were being underestimated and had to be numbed by flashy gimmicks. That feeling can be especially nagging in a city all but transformed into a company town by Silicon Valley scions, where the flow of venture capital and sky-high housing prices have all but stamped out venues for truly subversive underground culture.
To my surprise, Auerbach and the curators anticipate this critique. A project from 2016, “There Have Been and Will be Many San Franciscos,” is an artist book published by Diagonal Press that tackles the shifting, slippery transformation of Auerbach’s beloved hometown. The book’s pages consist of black-and-white images of an unnamed San Francisco building’s facade. The museum has stacked these at an oblique angle and enshrined them in a glass case. Seen from different vantage points, the volume resembles an opaque blur, veering closer to abstract sculpture than print publication.
Unlike the more immediately eye-grabbing works that take scientific phenomena as their inspiration, “There Have Been and Will be Many San Franciscos” hinges on histories that are deeply personal for Auerbach. On their website, the artist called the book a love letter to San Francisco — “its good parts and good people and the peculiarity that runs all the way to its center.” At the same time, the work is a “way of making peace with the fact that the same place will always be different. You can’t step in the same river twice.”
If I initially thought that Auerbach was a trickster intent on making the viewer feel small and naïve, what I realized later is that they’re far more invested in making the ordinary alive and fresh. Nowhere is that clearer than in “The New Ambidextrous Universe” (2014), a sculpture made by slicing a piece of plywood into curves with a water jet and rearranging the pieces in reverse order.
You don’t need to know that the impulse for this project was a popular mathematical text on asymmetry to recognize its uncanny spark and quirky charm. Here is a work of art, ever so slightly off-kilter, that makes you wonder if you’ve ever really looked at a piece of plywood. To produce this work, Auerbach relied on a familiarity of mathematics, access to specific equipment and machinery and a network of skilled technicians. But far more, the sculpture required Auerbach’s willingness to admit their own knowledge and skills were in fact, incomplete.
This is what makes Auerbach a fascinating artist and this show a sleeper hit: Auerbach possesses a sense of humility about what we can know and executes experiments that revel in curiosity rather than end results.
At the center of the exhibition sits the Auerglass Organ, a behemoth of an instrument built in 2009 by Auerbach and the musician Cameron Mesirow, who performs under the name Glasser. Fantastical, like something out of Willy Wonka’s factory, the instrument was designed to be played simultaneously by two performers who must carefully adjust their movements according to the rhythm of their partner.
Something clicked for me while watching their performance in the gallery. The colors in the “Fold” paintings seemed more iridescent; the abstract symbols and glyphs in Auerbach’s drawings appeared to pulse and vibrate. This is not to say that I suddenly deciphered the scientific bases of Auerbach’s work. But I could appreciate that method and madness can work in tandem and even be transportive.
Tauba Auerbach, S v Z
Through May 1, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third Street, San Francisco. 415-357-4000; sfmoma.org.