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Chiara Mannarino: "Tauba Auerbach 'Free Will'"

Walking into Paula Cooper Gallery’s space on 534 West 21st Street for the opening of Tauba Auerbach’s new solo show, I was struck by each of the welcoming details I encountered. A floral arrangement, complete with eccentric protea flowers, greeted visitors at the front desk; their unique blooms, reminiscent of pincushions dotted with thin sewing needles, were harbingers of the artwork yet to be seen. Nearby, the exhibition’s title, “Free Will,” is written in the artist’s unique handmade typeface, then scanned for vinyl reproduction. This feature is one of Auerbach’s signatures, rooted in their interest in typography and experience working as a sign painter in San Francisco following their undergraduate studies at Stanford University. The title’s affect is simultaneously humble and arresting. It is not reproduced in a large font size or in bold, but it commands viewers’ attention. It is as if the characters are suspended in midair, impervious to gravitational forces. The text’s openness and tactfully balanced ratio of thick to wispy line density makes it feel organic, almost like an amoeba captured moments before shifting shape. This spirit and sentiment permeates the entire exhibition and is concretized in all of the artworks on view.

“Free Will” is the artist’s first show at the gallery in five years. It includes three bodies of almost entirely new works that are harmonious in thematic nature and sensibility. While sculptural in that their visual language speaks to the same engagement of space, volume, and depth enacted by sculpture, they vary widely in form, indicating Auerbach’s remarkable ability to work in a seemingly endless variety of mediums and scales with ease. Regarding what drives them to keep evolving their skill set, Auerbach notes, “I am curious to my own detriment.” 1 It is this insatiable curiosity that led them to experiment with glass-making.

For the first glass sculpture they envisioned, they hired a flame-worker to fabricate it and teach them about their process along the way. They were so intrigued they began taking classes, and during the early days of the pandemic bought a glass kiln, in which they made many of the sculptures now on view at Paula Cooper. Entitled “Spontaneous Lace,” these works, nestled in specially crafted aluminum armatures, embrace the elements of chance and risk inherent to glass-making. As Auerbach says, “Glass is very humbling. It’s fussy and can hurt your body and break your heart.” 2 These glass objects are undeniably striking — amalgamating free-flowing and delicate, lace-like patterns in pools of rich, solidified color.

These fluid forms are mirrored in Auerbach’s series of “Foam” paintings, whose process of making is many-layered. Auerbach first sprays a misty background with several coatings of colored dots. Then, they photograph soapy suds, bubbles, and foams through a microscope and use digital software to create projection-ready files. Based on the pixels that appear in the eventual projection, Auerbach creates a meticulous landscape of particles that are suspended in time and space. Their detailed and scrupulous layering results in paintings that vibrate with energy, so much so that it feels as if they are living organisms themselves. This quality is heightened by their compositional resemblance to skeletal structures, molecular bonds, and cellular forms. As an undergraduate student, Auerbach spent a year designing machines in Stanford’s mechanical engineering department. Their interest in math and science continues to serve as a source of inspiration and adds a unique element to their creative approach.

The final group of works on view is composed of intricately woven glass beads. Between their geometric constructions, which reference both mathematical and natural worlds, their likeness to lace clothing collars, and their delicate yet strong composition, these pieces palpably dialogue with their exhibited counterparts. For example, one of the beaded pieces is inspired by a mathematical phenomenon that can be physically modeled with the aid of soap film.

Auerbach says these bodies of work grew in parallel to one another: “Each of them is particulate — painted dots, woven beads, glass lace made from powders fused together.” They are, in the words of scholar Donna Haraway, “bound in [a] spiral dance” of connection that starts at the most granular level and proliferates beyond, without constraint. The installation at Paula Cooper highlights the symbiotic and generative relationships between the works. Auerbach was not able to consider all of the Foampaintings collectively until they got to the gallery, so much of the dialogue they created through placement happened organically — fitting for an exhibition titled “Free Will.” In response to how Auerbach hopes their works will interact with one another in the space, they say, “I hope they dissolve and coalesce, seem transparent or suspended.” 5

In “Free Will,” the artist seems to come full circle. Just as they string together each of the individual glass beads comprising their “Org” sculptures to create bonded wholes, each of their artworks adds to an ever-expanding and -entangling thread of thematic connections they explore in their practice. The new paintings and sculptures at Paula Cooper are soon to be put together with older works by the artist for a summer show at Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany. This occasion has spurred Auerbach to consider the ways in which their past and present creations are linked, and to imagine how they may inspire those they have yet to conceive. Collectively, their works are mesmerizing in both aesthetic and concept, and reflect the ceaseless potential of their inquisitive, shape-shifting maker.

1 Tauba Auerbach in a written response to a question from the author.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Donna J. Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” inManifestly Haraway(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 68.
5 Auerbach in a written response to a question from the author.