One recent afternoon I stood dumbly looking down at a low blue table laden with 3-D-printed objects fastidiously arranged by Tauba Auerbach. Black, white and gold forms might have been machine parts, but they seemed largely decorative. The tableau, one of three tabletop displays in this exhibition, to me resembled schematic illustrations of the Giza pyramid complex or the Forbidden City palace in Beijing. Both sites reinforce metaphysical beliefs about power and immortality through geometrical precision, their ordered layouts both comforting and imposing.
On my way out of the show, I paused at the amply stocked bookcase, which normally houses catalogues for gallery artists. This time it held, instead, 50 or so titles from Auerbach’s own library, arranged as neatly as the tabletop items in the main room. Titles like Space Structures: Their Harmony and Counterpoint and The Algorithmic Beauty of Sea Shells helped solidify the casual association I had made between the sculptures and the two famous cultural sites: these shelves were packed with books proposing relationships between mathematics and the eternal.
Claude Bragdon’s Primer of Higher Space (1913) and Projective Ornament (1915), both of which were recently reprinted by Auerbach’s Diagonal Press, occupied prominent positions among the other titles. The latter work, which inspired the show’s title, “Projective Instrument,” argues for the importance of basing modern ornamentation in geometric form. Bragdon grafts esoteric, mystical mathematics to interior design, endeavoring to summon architecture back to the realm of nature or “divine transcendence,” according to the show’s press release.
Four paintings from Auerbach’s “Weave” series (2011-16) hung in the entryway gallery. In lieu of paint, their surfaces are covered with complex patterns of canvas strips that appear to be woven by machine rather than by hand. Rendered in muted neutral colors, the works’ motifs subtly materialize upon close inspection and bear a vague resemblance to computer motherboards. Their titles (like Chiral Fret (Meander)/Extrusion/Ghost and Shadow Weave—Metamaterial/Slice Ray), however, pay homage to ancient Greek meanders (early paragons of math-based decoration) and to metamaterials (engineered substances with unnatural properties). In the main gallery, a second series, “Grain” (2015-16), served as a fitting backdrop for the table sculptures. For these paintings, single smears of paint have been raked across vibrant, speckled surfaces with a tool of the artist’s own design, the varying textures and weights attesting to a range of gestures.
Auerbach’s practice, which encompasses album artwork and jewelry in addition to her fine art and publishing venture, explores the kind of decorative and commercial qualities generally considered suspect by art purists who wish to keep design relegated to a separate sphere. Her works often occupy a middle ground between the utilitarian and the aesthetic, rejecting the perennial debate between the values of form and function by championing both in equal measure.
For “Float,” her first solo show at Paula Cooper, Tauba Auerbach continued to pursue a demure minimalism while touching on the mechanics of color and the vagaries of perception. While her exhibition, which included paintings, sculptures and installations from 2012, was short on big sparks, it was absorbing in its conceptual rigor and mind-bending optical dexterity.
On display were five new works from the artist’s “Fold” series, begun in 2009. These trompe l’oeil paintings are made by unfolding a folded-up canvas, tracing the lines and shapes of the creases with paint from an industrial spray gun, then flattening out the fabric and presenting the result stretched. With their many apparent ripples and ridges, the “Folds” on view—some single-color, others two-toned—persuasively conjure the illusion of volume and depth. A few verge on ornate: one, in brilliant pink, seems to have been made by repeatedly imprinting the canvas with the surface of a highly decorative frame; another, in purple, evokes the sumptuous look and feel of plush silk. The “Folds” were the strongest works in the show.
Less impactful, despite their intricate system of fabrication, were five paintings from a new series called “Weaves,” in which the artist intertwines thin strips of raw canvas, fashioning them into chevrons, crosses and squares. Because there is no color, we find it difficult to follow these patterns, to discern their ins and outs. Like the “Folds,” the “Weaves” toy with our perception of depth and volume, but they are too mired in craftiness to function adequately as paintings. However, placed on plinths in the center of the room were two prism sculptures made of lead crystal cast within urethane resin, which supplied the paintings with some refreshing chroma. A peek through the sculptures produced the illusion of rainbows along the edges of the “Weaves”—an effective use of a science-lab tool that expanded the paintings’ optical possibilities. (The prism-gazing helped to explain the low hanging of the canvases, which at first seemed odd.)
Auerbach again played with viewers’ expectations in a bookwork, Bent Onyx, which appears dead-heavy but is actually made of super-fine paper printed with images of layered slices of an onyx block. For a nearby wall installation, Prism Scan I, Auerbach digitally scanned the images of flowers from behind corrugated glass. The ripple pattern produced a prism effect, refracting light and separating color. Vertical strips were cut from the resulting photographs at the spots where the prismatic effect was most pronounced. Mounted on 13 Plexiglas-and-aluminum planks, the colorful images, after these manipulations, resemble tribal patterns more than plants. Like the “Folds,” the plank installation was beguiling.
Photo: Tauba Auerbach: Untitled (Fold), 2012, acrylic on canvas, 60 by 45 inches; at Paula Cooper.