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The book form is well suited to considerations of time and dimensions. These are concerns that preoccupy artist Tauba Auerbach. Auerbach’s research-based practice explores scientific forms and patterns — for instance, geometric structures such as waves and helixes. These interests manifest in a precise design sensibility that is apparent in every aspect of S v Z, the exhibition catalogue that originally was meant to accompany her postponed survey show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, curated by Joseph Becker and Jenny Gheith. A simplified color palette of silver, light gray, and black (except for full-color art reproductions) cohere this book as an object, reflecting Auerbach’s signature marbled papers, which serve as end-pages for this book and adorn the page edges. While the front and back covers are study hardcover, the spine is an exposed cloth ribbon, ornamented with a helix design featuring the artist’s name, as well as the exhibition title, and publisher, with each letter inside a string of the helix.
In addition to her installations, prints, typeface designs, and digital projects, Auerbach has produced a number of artist books and even created her own imprint, Diagonal Press, under which she still publishes. Her publications are often housed within elaborate book containers with openings, interlockings, and folds, that also stand alone as sculptural objects. For example, Pilot Wave Induction (2013), published by Diagonal Press, documents Auerbach’s experiments related to the titular quantum physics theory regarding the movement of particles and waves. Two books with metal and plastic disc bindings are stored together in a custom rectangular four-part box with velcro and stickers, which interlocks around the stacked books, so the spiraled edges emerge on the right and left sides.
Even her simpler books incorporate interlocking parts. A Partial Taxonomy Of Periodic Linear Ornament (2017), which features a new typeface by the artist, is 150 staple-bound laser-printed pages encased in a Bristol board cover that folds closed like puzzle pieces. Much like her bookworks, S v Z deserves to be examined as a sculptural object before we unfold its cover and consider its contents.
Within S v Z are exhibition catalogue conventions: scholarly essays and color reproductions of her work. But it shares much with Auerbach’s other bookworks. It was “synthesized” (to use the colophon wording) by graphic designer David Reinfurt (co-founder of Dexter Sinister and the Serving Library), and uses a custom font “based on Auerbach’s bi-directional handwriting.” The artist creates typefaces and type specimens to examine text as a visual as well as verbal communicator, so it is no surprise she would create one for the catalogue. However, the font (which is best described as thin-lined uppercase letters in sharp italics), is extremely difficult to read, making the introduction and image captions a challenge to decipher. Mercifully, the lengthy essays, already dense with scientific references, are printed in a roman version of this font that is much more legible.
The book is broken into 16 16-page sections (the curators call these “signatures”), spanning 16 years, which are marked by a tesseract symbol in lieu of chapter headings. Symbols related to scientific forms and notations are present throughout the book and on the artist’s website. (In fact, the book bears a striking resemblance to the website, which is a detailed labyrinth of Auerbach’s work as well as a noteworthy example of digital design.) The gray backdrop of the book pages flattens the art image, in contrast to traditional catalogue images, which often strain to express the full presence of an artwork even as it is only represented on a page. Auerbach’s design mocks the notion that any two-dimensional reproduction could fully capture the complexity of her physically, conceptually, and scientifically rigorous works.
The title’s two mirroring letters are separated not by “versus,” as one may assume, but, according to the curators’ forward, by the mathematical symbol for “and/or,” suggesting both selection and inclusion. They write, “the book’s structure addresses the notion of reflection, with two halves that mirror each other as they slice through Tauba’s practice on different scales and levels.” As this catalogue’s construction and Auerbach’s broader practice evidence, her interest in mathematics and science complement her focus on craft; she considers concept and form as equals, with an attention to parts fitting together.
When I first read this catalogue, as an artist book enthusiast I was frustrated that her bookworks were represented only by images of their closed containers, refusing the reader access to their complex construction. But perhaps this is intentional. This catalogue, though exhaustive, is just one piece of a whole practice. And the practice requires continued engagement, further looking and research, to fully grasp the totality of its contents and Auerbach’s art.
S v Z by Tauba Auerbach is published by D.A.P./SFMOMA. The exhibition, postponed to October 2021, is curated by Joseph Becker and Jenny Gheith.