I recently spent a weekend consuming all the information available online about Tauba Auerbach, an artist whose work I recommend looking into and spending time with, but who leaves me with lingering questions and reservations.
Born in 1981, Auerbach has already enjoyed a tremendous amount of commercial success (one of her famous “fold” paintings sold for 2.28 million at a recent Phillips auction). She is an artist of significant intellectual depth. She is intelligent, her work witty and provocative, at times poetic, often beautiful.
New York Times columnist Roberta Smith describes her work as existing at the intersection of “Conceptual Art, abstraction and graphic art,” going on to say that it “still manages to give didacticism a good name.”
Auerbach explores issues of perception, communication, and formalism in her art and influences ranging from James Turrell to Bruce Nauman to op-art can been seen in much of her work.
Auerbach is probably best known for her series of “fold paintings,” subtle and beautifully colored acrylic works which explore what she refers to as the dimension existing between two-dimensional space and 3 dimensional space. To create the trompe l’oeil effect of the paintings, Auerbach folds, rolls, and binds her raw canvases, leaving them to “cure” until the wrinkles and folds are well established in the fabric. She then unfolds or unrolls the canvases, laying them flat on the ground, and spraying them at different angles to create an uneven dispersion of paint that looks convincingly three-dimensional, even after the canvas has been stretched perfectly flat.
Unlike traditional trompe l’oeil, the illusion of 3D space in Auerbach’s work relies on manipulations within three-dimensional space (folding and rolling) rather than virtuosity of brushwork and manipulation of perspective. As she explains in this talk given at MIT, Auerbach hopes that by bringing 3D and 2D space a little closer together (or perhaps burrowing into the liminal space between these dimensions) she may, if only by analogy, tear a little rent in the divide between 3D and 4D space (the dimension she is truly interested in) and thereby peer into the 4th dimension. How big a hole she creates, how far we can see into the 4D world, and what we may learn when we peer through this hole (apart from the fact that our perception is, as we well know, limited and flawed) remains to be seen.
Auerbach is interested both in how we process and convey information, whether it be the conversion of the two-dimensional data we receive through our ocular receptors into an idea of three-dimensional space in our brain, or the creation of various systems of signs and symbols to communicate with one another.
Auerbach studies the use of symbolic systems in language, with particular interest paid to the ways in which such systems are inconsistent or flawed. She seems to treat all systems of communication like one would treat a formal mathematical system: searching for inconsistencies, looking at its purely formal nature.
Auerbach’s first show, “How to Spell the Alphabet” at New Image Art in Los Angeles in 2005, included a piece in which she used a logical progression of synonyms, to show how “yes” can, in a sense, be equal to “no.” In another piece, she rearranged the letters of the bible in alphabetical order, a work which hints at the absurdity of taking any one word too seriously or becoming overly attached to a particular meaning or interpretation. In the beginning, there was the word: an inherently meaningless collection of symbols.
More recently, Auerbach set herself the challenge of representing an object from the inside out. She applied this task to a piece of wood and slab of marble, scanning one surface of the object, sanding away a layer equivalent in depth to one sheet of paper, and then rescanning the newly created or exposed surface. Auerbach repeated this process until the object had been fully transformed into dust and digital data. Auerbach then compiled these scans into a book in which you can “read” the layers of the object, from the inside out.
The resulting beautiful books present themselves as having accomplished the task at hand. By slowly and mechanically uncovering new layers of “interior” (forcing them, in succession, to become a new exterior) we supposedly come to know the interior of an object. Byron Cook, a Microsoft research with whom she collaborated to create new mathematical symbols for Cook to use in his work, describes the books as visual representations of the path a worm might take through an object. But I’m not convinced.
Taken metaphorically, the work suggests that if we only submit each question to the same mechanized investigation, eventually its inner truth will be revealed. If we methodically remove one layer at a time until the entirety of the original entity is gone (presumably destroyed), and we are left with a systematically organized representation of the resulting data, have we really come to know the thing throughly from the inside out? Is it even possible to come to know the interior of a thing: an object, idea or person?
The work fails to push beyond itself, to indicate the limits or problems with such a mechanized approach to excavating and understanding mysterious interiors. It fails to acknowledge the paradox inherent in uncovering the unknown. In the end, Auerbach has not turned a log or a stone inside out. She has dissected it, created many new “outer” layers—leaving many inner layers untouched, leaving us with a formal—albeit beautiful—organization of the data.
While I admire Auerbach’s exactness, her precision and rigor, I miss some human quality. Though there is, deep down, something tragic in her work—taken one way, her projects often focus on human failures or shortcoming: our failures of perception, our failures of communication, our failures of representation— she seems able to coolly and casually avoid the pain of these failures. Her projects all possess a formal and almost clinical coolness, a sometimes-verging-on-dessicated vision of life, in which we may examine riddles of perception, toy with the shortcomings of communication, all without feeling the anxiety of being unable to express. The work misses the isolation of failing to communicate and the loneliness of being unable to connect. The issues she brings up are just as much problems of the heart as they are intellectual puzzles, but I do not feel that sense of heart in her work. I am left wanting something more expressive, something messier, more full of feeling and humanity.
Some element of mystery, some hinting at an otherness does come through for me in some of the fold paintings, but there is only one piece in which I find the presence of humanity is undeniably felt. Auerbach collaborated with long time friend and musician Cameron Mesirow to design a two person pump organ which they called the “Auerglass”.
By pressing on a pedal, one player gives a kind of breath to the other, enabling the second player to sound the notes on the keyboard on their side of the instrument. It is a vision of poetic collaboration: two are required to create music, we cannot do it alone.
I will continue to follow Auerbach and her work. I may never feel that she has communicated something verging on the inexplicable, yet undeniably important, the way I do when I look at Van Gogh or Turner. She may never touch me in any deeper way than piquing my intellectual curiosity as a riddle might. But her work has a lot to offer. After looking at her work, I was inspired to learn more about 4D space, a subject which I knew next to nothing about before. Explanation is required for much of her work to make sense (a fact that Roberta Smith feels may be a bit of a drawback) but once you understand what Auerbach is getting at, the work opens up and can inspire thoughtful conversation, a hallmark, in my mind, of work worth your time.