In New SFMOMA Show, Tauba Auerbach Creates a World All Their Own

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A wooden organ-like instrument on a red circle of carpet
Installation view of ‘Auerglass Organ’ in ‘Tauba Auerbach — S v Z’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (Matthew Millman Photography, courtesy SFMOMA)

S v Z is one of the many shows that got waylaid by the pandemic, part of a backlog of promising exhibitions finally washing up on institutional shores. As a result, Tauba Auerbach’s first museum survey straddles the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s long closure in telling ways. Its catalog—luxuriously printed and meticulously designed, more artist book than exhibition publication—came out in 2020, long before SFMOMA announced it would “reduce the number and scale of publications.” The show’s newest work, and the first piece viewers see, speaks directly to the pandemic that allowed for its inclusion: a painting of the Earth made wildly unfamiliar by custom mapping software.

S v Z is a product of both the before- and now-times, but it also serves as an example of what SFMOMA could yet become: an institution that gives contemporary artists the space and support to manifest a world all their own.

Painting in hues of green that looks wrinkled.
Tauba Auerbach, ‘Untitled (Fold),’ 2011. (©Tauba Auerbach; Photo: Steven Probert, courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York)

Born in San Francisco and currently living in New York, Auerbach might be most familiar to viewers for their Fold paintings—canvases creased and sprayed with acrylic paint before being stretched tight, yielding an opalescent trompe l’oeil of former wrinkles. These paintings are mesmerizing; the desire to run a hand over their now-smooth surfaces is difficult to contain. But S v Z, organized by SFMOMA curators Joseph Becker and Jenny Gheith, demonstrates this was just one experiment in the artist’s wide-ranging and continually inventive practice.

Contained within the survey are all manner of artistic approaches: drawings, paintings, kinetic sculpture, glasswork, video, artist books, multiples, wearable “marginalia,” printmaking, flags—even a version of a mural once applied across the surfaces of a New York City fireboat. Auerbach routinely examines that which is often taken for granted (e.g. the “components” of the alphabet), tapping into mathematical and scientific theories and mastering new modes of making with each interconnected project.

Even when the concepts underpinning a piece are beyond the grasp of the casual non-STEM-educated observer, Auerbach translates their research into tangible, sublimely beautiful forms. The New Ambidextrous Universe III, a single sheet of plywood cut into wavy strips and rearranged in reverse order, approximates what the object would look like if it rotated through four-dimensional space and “returned as its mirror image.” It’s a mind-boggling premise, but the eye takes in what the brain cannot. The effect is something akin to moving an image as a scanner passes over it—a blip in the space/time continuum.

Yellow on black painting.
Tauba Auerbach, detail of ‘Extended Object,’ 2018. (© Tauba Auerbach; Photo: Steven Probert, courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York)

If the mechanisms or materials don’t yet exist to bring an idea to fruition, Auerbach creates custom tools and formulations. The painting series Extended Objects—glossy surfaces of wobbly color—relies on a custom-formulated additive that allows acrylic paint to flow through “unique pouring tools.” In 7S, 7Z, 1S, 2Z, a custom mix of soap creates a bubble-like film between expanding and contracting interwoven steel cables. And in the exhibition’s most tucked-away corner, 26 original type specimen posters from Auerbach’s imprint, Diagonal Press, hang like heraldic flags on one wall.

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What is an artwork but an invention called by another name? In that mindset, Altar/Engine, a broad and low blue table covered in sculptural forms, begins to look like the exploded parts of a custom Auerbach machine. Evenly lit and made up of what the artist calls “profound shapes,” Altar/Engine practically glows with otherworldliness. What could these 126 carefully placed parts cohere into? What future technology—or theoretical something—are we seeing made real?

S v Z is an exhibition, but it is also a glimpse into a laboratory of ceaseless and prodigious making. Vertical display strategies and iterative series gesture at a barely contained practice. Every aspect of the presentation asks visitors to look around them as Auerbach does: more closely, noticing patterns and arrangements of objects in space. (Keep an eye out for the intermittent punctuation of Diagonal Press pins stuck directly into the exhibition’s black walls.)

View of exhibition space with black walls, paintings and sculptures.
Installation view of ‘S v Z‘ with ‘Altar/Engine’ in the foreground. (Matthew Millman Photography, courtesy SFMOMA)

Even if one doesn’t immediately grok the 30-degree axis along which the show’s pedestals sit, there’s a pleasing harmony in the gallery space, all of which can be taken in from the exhibition’s center. We feel Auerbach’s hand here too, a sense of being guided through a well-orchestrated arrangement.

Speaking of arrangements (and instruments), the most elaborate and complex of Auerbach’s sculptures is another invention of sorts, this one assembled and in working order. Auerglass Organ, a massive, collaboratively played wood instrument, sits on a circle of red carpet like the VIP it is. Created in 2009 with the musician Glasser (Cameron Mesirow), the organ is another near-symmetrical thing. A full keyboard is split between its two sides, each player pumping the foot pedals that provide air for their partner’s notes.

Auerbach and Glasser have written three pieces for the instrument, and will perform on it at a Feb. 3 event. But SFMOMA has also invited students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco State University, and alumni from Mills College to create new works for an April 28 performance, which means others will be manipulating this strange and elegant beast of an organ for the first time.

It’s fitting that S v Z, a show based on the principle of “and/or” (not “versus”) is a survey that acknowledges the involvement of many hands beyond the artist’s own. This extends from the assistance of New Bohemia Signs in painting the Flow Separation mural to the double-tiered vitrines displaying objects and ephemera from the artist’s studio—materials that excite Auerbach’s art. In S v Z, surrounded by helixes and waves, I vaguely remembered a concept from high school physics that Auerbach seems to put into practice. When two waves superimpose to form a single wave of greater amplitude, that’s called constructive interference.

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‘Tauba Auerbach — S v Z’ is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through May 1, 2022. Details here.