Tauba Auerbach’s Architecture of Connectivity

On the occasion of Auerbach’s survey exhibition at SFMOMA, the artist speaks to Fanny Singer about disputed science experiments and irregular approaches to artmaking

BY Fanny Singer AND Tauba Auerbach in Interviews , Opinion | 01 FEB 22

Fanny Singer Your current survey at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art [SFMOMA], ‘S v Z’, is unlike any other I’ve experienced at that museum: it’s a completely unorthodox configuration of space, with the gallery blasted open, and every wall painted an absorptive matte black. Was that design chosen to ensure a non-hierarchical approach to the curation? Since you work across art, design and publishing, I’d imagine there might be a temptation to neatly group things according to a media-specific rubric that I don’t find particularly germane to your practice.

Tauba Auerbach You pretty much nailed it. There isn’t a set sequence to the show: I wanted to make it inviting for someone to meander and ricochet around the room, building a messy web of connections across the space that feel comprehensive but inconclusive. Things are organized according to two superimposed grids: one aligned to the walls, another that’s rotated by 30 degrees, which determines how the free-standing objects are installed.

Tauba Auerbach, Ligature Drawing, 29 March 2021, 2021, ink on paper with date stamp, 82 × 69 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; photograph: Steven Probert

FS I love that there are conceptual structures at work in the display that, although not obvious to the viewer, can nonetheless be intuitively felt. You have a protean capacity to move between media and presentation: ‘S v Z’ comprises everything from painting, drawing and sculpture to murals, jewellery, film, books, posters, musical instruments and sound. What does it take for you to embark on a new path with a medium or method?

TA Probably too little! I’m running out of room in my studio for materials, and I have too many different zones set up for different processes. But there are so many good ways of making things, and so much insight embedded in techniques that have been perfected over long periods of time that extends far beyond the object that gets made along the way.


Tauba Auerbach, Shadow Weave - Metamaterial/Hole, 2015, woven canvas on wooden stretcher, 152 × 114 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; photograph: Steven Probert

FS At what point do you feel confident enough to introduce a new technology or craft into your arsenal?

TA It varies, but I am absolutely a non-expert in most of the techniques I use. I will probably always be a beginner in glass – that is the most humbling material – but it’s important to me to do my own flameworking. I’ve done a lot of weaving and there are certain things I know about weaving in a very deep way, but I’ve never used a loom. I’m invested in having a detailed and sensitive understanding of processes and materials, but I think the notion of ‘mastery’ should be up for debate.

FS Your broad-ranging practice makes me think of Marcel Duchamp’s borderline iconoclastic insistence on irregular approaches to artmaking. As revealed in his notes in The White Box [1966], he was also fixated on creating a visual approximation of a theorized fourth dimension. This aligns with your own interest in chirality in relation to your series ‘The New Ambidextrous Universe’ [2013–14]. How did you get so engaged with the concept of the fourth dimension?

TA Some of the most popular current theories of cosmology propose several additional spatial dimensions, which would be right here extending from every point in 3D space, so who knows? I like spending time trying to get my head around 4D shapes as a way to condition myself to be more of the kind of thinker I want to be. If I can get better at imagining 4D, then I’ll be a better conjuring things further outside of my experience. I was recently listening to an audiobook about the British mathematician John Conway and found out that he wore around a helmet that he made with strategically placed periscopes to cultivate a better 4D intuition. Another mathematician whom I've just read about, Alicia Boole Stott, didn’t need any help at all. By the time she was 17 in 1877, she had made the first models of cross sections of 4D shapes, just by visualizing them in her head.

Tauba Auerbach, Heat Current V, 2020, c print, 65 × 91 cm. Photo: Vegard Kleven. Courtesy: the artist and STANDARD (OSLO)

FS How important is it to you to be accountable to the science you engage with?

TA Important, out of respect for other people’s work. I’m constantly checking in with scientists and mathematicians, and the times I’ve made errors have kept me awake at night. But, right now, I’m most into poking around with things that the scientific community doesn’t have a consensus on – like interpretations of quantum physics or theories of cosmology and consciousness – where there isn’t a clear right answer. One of the pieces in the SFMOMA show, Pilot Wave Induction III [2018], is a video of a restaged physics experiment, first done in France in 2005 by Yves Couder and Emmanuel Fort, in which droplets of oil bounce strangely on their own waves in a vibrating speaker. Some physicists argued that the behaviour of these droplets supported pilot wave theory – an unorthodox and mostly rejected interpretation of quantum mechanics originally devised by Louis de Broglie in the 20s and later expanded on by David Bohm – in which a particle follows a certain path around a field of possible positions, guided by ‘a hidden variable’. Even though I can’t follow the math, I made it my business to comprehend the form and meaning of this theory and its competitors. But making the video, I wasn’t ‘doing science’. Free from having to collect data, I was able to use interpretive lighting, shoot some of it extremely out of focus and edit the footage to align with music. The video is as much about the qualities of the observer’s gaze as the behaviour of the droplets.

FS Over the past several years, you’ve also engaged with topology, which you elegantly define as an ‘architecture of connectivity’. Put that way, I understand it to be the unifying philosophy behind your work. Could you elaborate on how you work within that concept?

TA Topology is about the features of the architecture that stay the same no matter how the shape is deformed, which I really love. I slowly started to think about everything in terms of topology: looking at the shape of connections between ideas or people, between stages in a process; looking at where there are holes, inherent restrictions, directionality, different domains or sides. This seems to result in me making lot of interlocking shapes, like woven canvas and glass, or surfaces that try to hover between dimensions.

Tauba Auerbach, Grain - Branching Fret Leveler, 2018, acrylic and paste on canvas / wooden stretcher and metal frame, 229 × 122 × 5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; photograph: Steven Probert

FS In a 2005 interview with San Francisco Arts Quarterly, you said you were driven to ‘make something – an object, an image, a sound, anything – that act[s] entheogenically, bringing a person into greater contact with whatever might be divine for them’. I don’t think there’s a clearer distillation of art’s truest, or perhaps purest, purpose across the ages. It also obviates the need for art to ‘work’; it can just be. Because so much of what you make is deeply informed by science, there is a temptation to ask if it’s attempting to solve a problem or contributing to scientific discourse. Do you ever feel under pressure to make a piece ‘work’?

TA The only time I’ve ever felt like that was with a kinetic sculpture, 7s7z1s2z [2019]. The line between success and failure for a painting is totally subjective, and maybe doesn’t exist, but with this sculpture I felt that if it didn’t move, the piece would fail to even exist.

S v Z’ is on view at SFMOMA until 1 May.

Main Image: Tauba Auerbach, Extended Object (detail), 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; photograph: Steven Probert

Fanny Singer is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA. Her first book, Always Home, was published by Knopf in 2020.

Tauba Auerbach is an artist based in New York, USA.