In San Francisco, the art that unveils the mysteries of the universe

SAN FRANCISCO — The past two years and the count, with their plague and political upheaval, have suggested that uncertainty is the order...


SAN FRANCISCO — The past two years and the count, with their plague and political upheaval, have suggested that uncertainty is the order of the day. While it can be hard to remember what pre-pandemic stability was like, looking for signs to make sense of it all seems fair.

The Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco turned to the New York artist and designer Tauba Auerbach for the answers. Characteristically, Auerbach — a Bay Area native — responded with more questions, doggedly searching for new ways to induce tiny transformations in our perception of chance. Recognizing that the very existence of chance moves us forward, the artist has engaged in a practice that maps the limits of what can be known.

Since 2009, Auerbach – whose pronouns are they/them – has maintained a rigorous commitment to the investigation of scientific and spiritual concepts, drawing inspiration in equal parts from the precision of mathematical proofs, the intuitive characteristics of reiki (a form of healing energy), qigong (a gentle system of motion) and the inherent entropy of the cosmos. Consequently, Auerbach does not 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 agility of an expert, Auerbach offers each project a truly refreshing contribution to contemporary art, namely the belief that the world is still full of wonder.

This idea is at the heart of “S vs. Z”, Auerbach’s first museum survey, which opened in December after some pandemic-induced delays. Curated by curators Jenny Gheith and Joseph Becker, the exhibition brings together some 16 years of Auerbach’s creative output on a single floor of the museum. (The exhibition is accompanied by a remarkable catalog co-created with designer David Reinfurt; it features essays by curators and art historian Linda Dalrymple Henderson – all printed in a custom font based on the own artist’s handwriting.)

The exhibition’s open plan features gently angled freestanding walls and display cases that encourage visitors to experience Auerbach’s art in a non-chronological fashion, letting every facet of the 40-year-old artist’s practice speak for itself. -same. Sometimes it is difficult to keep in mind the scope of this practice: the works include a Bible in which all the text is rearranged alphabetically; album covers for fellow musicians 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 “To fold” (2009-12). Three are on display here, and they function as a key to the artist’s sensibility: To make these paintings, Auerbach folded pieces of canvas to create deep creases, then rolled out the material and sprayed acrylic paint on his area. When stretched and hung, traces of the once three-dimensional folded canvas transform into gradient patterns, resulting in a textured surface of light and shadow. (They were included in the New Museum Triennial and the Whitney Biennial in 2009, and in Greater New York in 2010).

Some 10 years later, the “Fold” paintings continue to charm with their subtle balance of beauty and precision, Auerbach’s diligent process fully complementing the colors and delicate lines of the canvases. What they demonstrate is that an artist’s hand is a tool – much like a brush or pencil – that can be used for transformation.

the The “Grain” series, started in 2017, builds on this idea, but takes it to new heights. For these paintings, Auerbach designed excision instruments inlaid with fractal and helical patterns, which were then scraped onto a canvas covered with layers of semi-wet paint. The canvases, each encased in heavy, free-standing aluminum frames, are titled after the specific variation of the curve embedded in the cutting tool and oscillate somewhere between painting and sculpture. You are immediately drawn to the clash of electric blue against the sinister neon yellow in “Branching Fret Leveler” and an interlocking red and black patchwork slash on a white background in “Meander Arch”(both from 2018). In these paintings, Auerbach’s emphasis 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 silicone droplets vibrating at different frequencies in the cone of a loudspeaker to illustrate a theory (since disproved) of quantum mechanics, which deduces that a substance cannot exist in two materials at that time.

Near this installation hangs a set of blurry and multicolored abstract photographs, the “Static” series of 2009, which represent the interior of cathode ray tubes. An adjoining gallery houses “7S, 7Z, 1s, 2Z.” A large kinetic sculpture from 2019, made from twisted steel cables and a 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 compelling – hypnotic, even – I’m skeptical of their ambitions. They seem both overly obscure and simplistic, as if the artist is trading in the scientific naivety of the viewer, aiming to dazzle rather than guide us through the technical ideas at the heart of the work. I had the same visceral reaction to these works as to “immersive” art experiences – that my own interpretive faculties were underestimated and had to be numbed by flashy gimmicks. This sentiment can be especially tenacious in a city almost turned into a corporate city by the scions of Silicon Valley, where the influx of venture capital and sky-high real estate prices have all but eliminated venues for really subversive underground culture.

To my surprise, Auerbach and the conservatives anticipate this criticism. A project from 2016, “There has been and there will be a lot of San Francisco” is an artist’s book published by Diagonal Press that tackles the shifting and slippery transformation of Auerbach’s beloved hometown. The pages of the book are made up of black and white images of the facade of an unnamed building in San Francisco. The museum has stacked them obliquely and encased them in a showcase. Seen from different points of view, the volume looks like an opaque blur, more akin to abstract sculpture than to printed publication.

Unlike more immediately eye-catching works that are inspired by scientific phenomena, “There Have Been and There Will Be Many San Francisco” revolves around deeply personal stories for Auerbach. On their website, the artist called the book a love letter to San Francisco – “its good sides and its good people and the specialness that goes right 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 cannot step twice in the same river.

While I initially thought Auerbach was a con man bent on making the viewer feel small and naive, what I later realized is that they are far more invested in making the ‘ordinary alive and fresh. Nowhere is this clearer than in “The new ambidextrous universe” (2014), a sculpture made by cutting a curved piece of plywood with a water jet and rearranging the pieces in reverse order.

You don’t need to know that the impetus for this project was a popular mathematical text on asymmetry to recognize its eerie sparkle and quirky charm. Here is a work of art, a little offbeat, that makes you wonder if you have already really looked at a piece of plywood. To produce this work, Auerbach relied on a familiarity with mathematics, access to specific equipment and machinery, and a network of skilled technicians. But more than that, the sculpture required Auerbach’s willingness to admit that his own knowledge and skills were in fact incomplete.

This is what makes Auerbach a fascinating artist and this show a dormant success: Auerbach possesses a sense of humility about what we can know and performs experiments that revel in curiosity rather than end results. .

At the center of the exhibition stands the Auerglass organ, a behemoth of an instrument built in 2009 by Auerbach and musician Cameron Mesirow, who performs under the name Glasser. Fantastic, as straight out of the Willy Wonka factory, the instrument was designed to be played simultaneously by two performers who must carefully adjust their movements to match their partner’s rhythm.

Something clicked for me watching their performance in the gallery. The colors in the “Fold” the paintings seemed Following iridescent; the abstract symbols and glyphs of Auerbach’s drawings seemed to pulse and vibrate. That’s not to say that I suddenly deciphered the scientific underpinnings of Auerbach’s work. But I was able to appreciate that the method and the madness can work in tandem and even be transporting.


Tauba Auerbach, S vs. Z

Until May 1, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third Street, San Francisco. 415-357-4000; sfmoma.org.

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