New YorkPaula Cooper
November 10 – December 15, 2018
On the occasion of her third one-person show at Paula Cooper, I took the chance to talk with Tauba Aeurbach about her work and its laterally-cutting through of ideas and forms related to somatic being and its symbolic tissue. The gestures of her works are often determined by the analog methods by which they are produced, which include arcane 19th Century processes such as faux bois and faux marbre, yet the conceptual basis for her paintings, drawings and sculptures press against the abstract boundaries of the fourth dimension. What follows is a discursive plunge into that, and many other, dimensions of her work.
Tom McGlynn: So, considering both the technological medium we’re using here to conduct our discussion and the resonances of your show at Paula Cooper, I’m tempted to ask, “What’s the frequency, Tauba?”
Tauba Auerbach: The frequencies are many!
Rail: The particle and the wave do seem central to your aesthetic. Is your determination to break down the parameters of aesthetic inquiry, to borrow Félix Guattari’s terminology, foment a “molecular revolution” of sorts? I bring up Guattari because he uses the language of science similar to you, but he uses it as an analog for politics, a poetic transposition.
Auerbach: I’m hesitant to say yes or no to an idea that I haven’t encountered directly—I haven’t read Guattari so I can’t really respond to that part of that question. But to speak to the rest of it, I don’t know if I’m trying to expand the parameters of an aesthetic inquiry. Do I even have that kind of power? But I’m trying to use all the ways that I have of getting at something, of accessing an idea even if it’s through the most absurd, makeshift, sideways means, which are less analytical and more through the experience of constructing, being with something, and having a relationship with it. I’m not interested in proving any scientific ideas, and much more in spending time on relationships that we believe have a particular structure—like the relationship between a wave and a particle—and trying to become sensitive to all the ways that relationship could be described. I want to hang out with ideas that aren’t just a stretch for me, but a stretch for us collectively—just at the edge of our understanding in general.
Rail: Perhaps the Guattari quote came to my mind because of your pertinent conversation with a musical collaborator of yours, Sam Hillmer, in a recent BOMB interview. In it I noted an interesting difference in his perception of the aesthetics of improvisation: his is like an explosion and yours is more like a continuity. I don’t know if he actually used the term “revolution,” but it was his idea of making something happen—an event of sorts—whereas it seems like your response to his idea of a break or rupture is that it’s just a cross-section of a continuance. Is this an accurate take on your interchange?
Auerbach: One aspect of it, yes. The other is that Sam is interested in “the aesthetics of emergency” as he puts it, and I was like “I really don’t want our first performance to be an emergency!” We have a similar interest in dwelling on the places/times when things start to come apart, but Sam’s and my relationships to this idea have different flavors. But more to your question: I am definitely quite focused on continuity—or connectivity—and the specific ways that things are connected to themselves and to their neighbors. So, for example, in the last year I’ve been watching some of these dissections that have been happening that are taking a very different approach to analyzing the body than historically has been taken, and they’re really dissecting for connectivity. The bodies are treated with different chemicals and then they’re cut with the intention of keeping facial planes intact. This is somewhat a revolution in the field of anatomy and I think it’s something we can learn a big lesson from in many areas. The first instinct when studying something is to take it apart, break it down into units, and separate, but the way that things are connected to themselves, in my opinion, sort of defines their character even more than the ingredients, because you can take the same ingredients and connect them to themselves in such a variety of different ways and you end up with completely different things. Even if you combine the same atoms into a chiral molecule that’s left handed versus the same molecule that’s right handed, it might have a totally different effect when used as a medicine, for example. So I’m really interested in the specifics of what the architecture of connectivity can tell us about a thing.
Rail: Is that a form of fascia recognition?
Auerbach: Sure, I’ll take it! [Laughter.]
Rail: I have an associate who’s a massage therapist and we have talked about the importance of fascia and that sometimes when the body is at rest, it recognizes fascia networks rather than when it’s being more radically manipulated by the masseuse.
Auerbach: Absolutely, and I think that one of the best ways to study that is with one’s own body, or through having your own body experimented on in various ways. I think that is another difference in approach that I have come to more recently. I used to just be in my head and a really analytical, cerebral kind of person and I’m just much more interested in what wisdom can come to me through my body than I ever was before. This sack of fluid with electricity running around in it is an incredible resource.
Rail: Well I have to say, Tauba, from my perspective, one really does feel a kind of respiratory pulse in your show at Paula Cooper.
Auerbach: That’s really so nice to hear. Thank you.
14 x 18 inches, frame: 15 1/4 x 19 1/4 x 3 1/2 inches. © Tauba Auerbach. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.
Rail: You’ve also said elsewhere, in so many words, that you are interested in setting up the conditions in which your materials and gestures become somewhat autonomous. Is this in order that their resultant trace activity is registered as necessary phenomena, rather than, say, merely the symbolic representation of such? Or is there more of a fluid relationship between physical phenomena and intuited symbol?
Auerbach: That’s a good question. And I think the answer is “both,” but more the former.
Rail: Let me follow it up with something because this is a thread that I picked up in your work. Your work does, at times, literally encapsulate the symbolic. You have even used the term “topological symbologies” in referring to your work in the past. There is this logocentric impulse in your previous sculptural designs of specific symbols such as in the recurring helix or something that resembles the continuity of a Greek “key” meander. You’ve cast these as discrete symbols in your Wiggle Black and your Vortex Helix pins, published by your imprint Diagonal Press. I’ve previously read the historian Oleg Grabar, in his 1992 book, The Mediation of Ornament, where he describes a certain spirit in ornament, which he calls a demon or a “daemon,” as an intermediary spirit that animates a design but is not necessarily part of it. Is this relevant to your work, this idea of the symbolic pattern derived from the animating spirit?
Auerbach: Yes . . . absolutely. I guess part of the reason I hesitate here is because I feel like I have somewhat recently undergone a change in terms of my answer.
Rail: That’s honest.
Auerbach: At one point I was really concerned with making models, and now less so, maybe because modeling is often a bit static and I don’t want to just represent or translate something. I don’t want to draw a wave, I want to ingest one, be one, or learn to better feel all the waves that I already am and have running through me, and then act from there. The change is that I'm more comfortable with the idea of myself as an active, inextricable, subjective ingredient in the situation, and have only recently come to really value the subjective and the relational.
Rail: That’s the gist of my question, the movement from symbol to experience. I mean, obviously, those pins date back to 2013. As with organic morphologies, an artist evolves.
Auerbach: Absolutely! But also, I do like the idea of carrying these little symbols around on your clothing. People wear crosses or pins that show allegiances to ideas, and I’m happy for the helix, the eddy, the wave to be part of that lexicon. That’s a parallel enterprise that still feels worthwhile, but it’s not something I’m motivated by in terms of making paintings or sculptures or drawings at this point.
Rail: Right. There is a relationship—say if it’s not a logo or something—there is a relationship between that and the form of writing so writing is symbolic as well and I know that you’ve kind of included that in your recent show.
Auerbach: I think also that a lot of forms that I’ve used in their symbolic capacities—I think a lot of those, for example, the meander that you’re talking about, for me that isn’t just a symbol. I interpret that ornament being everywhere in the world on everything from buildings to underwear—just every thing—and seemingly throughout history and all over the globe, I interpret these forms as a kind of collective automatic writing that we’re all doing together. For me, that’s not just a symbol, it’s an action, it’s a distillation of rhythm and spin, and I like participating in that because it’s as though something is moving through us.
Rail: And that’s exactly why I brought forth the Grabar reference because he does talk about “world ornament.” And he’s a particular specialist in Islamic design. In Islamic tradition there’s no anthropomorphic image, so the embodiment of the spirit is translated through these kinds of ornamental knots and meanders.
Auerbach: And I think it really registers! I keep asking myself: does form emerge from behavior or the other way around? I’m curious about these questions obviously and they’re on my mind and the uncomfortableness of not knowing and not having a completely clean answer is why they’re fascinating to me.
Rail: I tend to trust open-ended answers much more than the other kind. This probably relates: it seems that your work intentionally fluctuates between the form in formation and the symbolization of such, which is kind of what we were just talking about. So the flow of form and its concretion into what one might call symbolic essence is not fixed?
Auerbach: No, because for me it’s a slice or a cross-section through a constantly occurring process.
Rail: That’s a wonderful use of a dissection term.
Auerbach: The idea of a slice or cross-section is very big in my mind all the time. I’ve been thinking for years about this three-dimensional self being a cross-section of a four-dimensional self, because that’s the dimensional relationship of the cross-section—it’s a slice through something one dimension higher. It’s like a frame in an animation. The higher dimension could be time, but I’m more interested in it when it’s space in the idea.
Rail: And the analogy of the frame in the animation. I love that, that’s great.
Auerbach: I was going to say too—this is coming up again, strangely—the droplet for me is the slice—a slice—of a stream and it seems like perhaps this broken, separated, words like that that have a negative air to them, but I would like to kind of repurpose those actions as opportunities. I think that a cross-section is an opportunity and a slice is an opportunity—it’s like a way in, and it’s another way of seeing the same thing. So in the new paintings I’ve been working on, too, I tried to create a field of droplets that are then extruded in various directions to somehow build a space out of these particles, which are sliced up little streams.
Rail: Since you’re already on the droplet tip, let’s talk about your moving imagery at Paula Cooper. Your sumptuously chromatic video installation, Pilot Wave Induction III, combines images of silicone droplets in bouncing reaction to the resonate vibration of sound. Its musical soundtrack is an upbeat drum roll tattoo that includes surprise pauses and jaunty rim ticks. The drummer’s style has been aptly described by Sam Hillmer as “helicopter drumming.” This accompaniment reminded me of the musically lateral phrases that a jazz drummer might invent to move from one phrase of a composition to another: transitional licks. The droplets’ movement, however, seems incredibly slowed down so that they are momentarily suspended above the surface tension of their silicone liquid source. Could you talk about how you came to conceive this juxtaposition of sound and image?
Auerbach: It was actually really difficult to figure out what kind of sound I wanted to put with these images, because when I made the first of these videos I was making it with existing sounds in mind, with Éliane Radigue’s piece from 1970, OMNHT.
Rail: Was that the first time you did a collaboration with sound with another artist?
Auerbach: No, I designed and played a two person organ with my friend Cameron [Mesirow] about a decade ago and concocted a weird performance with Zs and some amplified calligraphy this year. Regarding the video though, I should first say that the image isn’t slowed down—it’s totally undoctored footage. The appearance of slow motion comes from how the frame phases with the cycle of the bounces. The camera is capturing just slightly offset moments of subsequent bounces, and when they’re seen all together they’ll look like one slow bounce. So, basically it’s slicing the cycle in different ways and then depending on the relationship between those rhythms, a different rhythm emerges.
Rail: I was just thinking about the slippage between the rapid helicopter drumming and the very elegant, processional rhythm of the droplets. It almost looks balletic like in Swan Lake where you have the company dancing in grouped ensembles.
Auerbach: Maybe it adds up that some of my favorite dance is Michael Clark’s choreography to The Fall, then. The droplets are never balletic for too long—the harmony always kind of falls apart: the droplets sort of fight with each other, they disappear, they reconfigure in various weird ways that just seem completely bizarre, and—and I think this is what seduces me about this experiment—their movement somehow manages to look both choreographed and entirely spontaneous. They periodically congeal into these hexagonal and triangular formations, but the paths they take to and with the formations are baffling. They’ll reverse directions, make sharp turns unprompted. I was thinking about these droplets as very fugitive and tenuous entities that exist for short periods of time and are difficult to capture because of it—something that you can maybe have focused in your mind for a moment, but not really hold on to. And if you accept the Copenhagen Interpretation, they exist the rest of the time, as sort of a cloud of uneven possibility.
Rail: Like a dust mote temporarily being revealed by a streak of sunlight.
Auerbach: Yeah, exactly. And more personally, I wanted to convey an idea of a tremor that feels fluttery and chaotic and comes and goes—like when you have a muscle spasm—and this rhythm emerges that isn’t perfect, it coheres somewhat and then disappears. Once I started to think about editing it into these vignettes, I realized Greg [Fox] was the perfect musician to convey that. He’s an expert polyrhythmic drummer, and he studied with Milford Graves, who talks emphatically about how a perfectly mechanical rhythm is the most dead thing possible, and draws on the irregularities in the human heartbeat as a resource.
14 x 18 inches, frame: 15 1/4 x 19 1/4 x 3 1/2 inches. © Tauba Auerbach. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.
Rail: Is Milford Graves a jazz guy?
Auerbach: Yeah. And a visual artist too.
Rail: That makes sense.
Auerbach: Music like free jazz really gets to me in the best way. I also wanted to work with Greg because I like really all the interstitial sounds he makes and the beginnings and ends of things. I asked him to make a bunch of short recordings to visual samples, and then I edited my footage around his snippets. We went through several rounds doing this. I didn’t deliver him a complete film to drum along to. We closed in on it from both sides, which is an approach I’m often fond of.
Rail: I’d like to linger on the sound issue a bit. Earlier this year you had an installation up at moCA Cleveland, INDUCTION, which ran from February 16th to June 10th, 2018, in which you created work that was responsive to an ambient sound work OMNHT from 1970 by the French artist Éliane Radigue. Can you talk a bit about how the collaboration came about and your subsequent experience in composing your work in relation to Radigue’s? How did you come to discover her work, for instance?
Auerbach: My friend Keegan [McHargue] introduced me to her work maybe a decade ago, and I’ve listened to it ever since. When I was asked to do the Cleveland exhibition, and was told I could invite another person to share the show with me, I immediately thought of Éliane. I think she's uniquely successful at using a gentle, slow touch to generate something extremely powerful. Both she and her music taught me a lot. I often think to work with musicians because, in a lot of ways, I think sound has been less reduced by language than image has.
Rail: That’s an interesting point: the irreducibility of sound.
Auerbach: I think it leaves more room for authenticity. I played and wrote music quite a lot as a kid, but it isn’t my calling the way it is for someone like Greg or Cameron or Éliane. Still, working with music feels like a natural extension of my thinking. I notice that I have more musician friends than artist friends.
Rail: It’s not a bad place to be. I was thinking about you collaborating with an older artist and also that the work was from the early ’70s and that, at the time in the international art world, there was a general interest in exploring phenomenology and authenticity, like you describe—the phenomenology of presence. So there was this specific period, milieu that perhaps Éliane was responding to.
Auerbach: I think you’re absolutely right about that.
Rail: Is that something you thought about?
Auerbach: Thought about the period in music history?
Rail: The incorporating, by default, of that discourse. That historical discourse.
Auerbach: Yes, because a lot of valuable thinking has already been done in that realm and I hope I have something to add to it, while also paying it the proper respect.
Rail: Well, that’s a form of continuity in and of itself. But let’s continue in the present. Everywhere in your show one sees evidence of the oscillation of waves. In the video, these plastically morph and then reform into colorful orbs. With the painting such as Grain - Meander Gate (2018), these appear to derive from a mechanical “graining” smear, and in the Ligature Drawings (2018), this oscillation is graphically regularized in what appears to be a cross between nineteenth century calligraphy exercises and manically compulsive pattern repetition. So you've re-described the wave form in different terms. Would you say that this type of multi-track re-description—a kind of choral harmonic of different iterations of the primary idea—constitutes a large part of your modus operandi? And as follow-up question, would you say that there's an organic bonding that you seek between these various re-descriptions?
Auerbach: Definite yes about the bonding, because I'm interested in that architecture of connections between the various expressions of an idea and what that structure is. Sometimes, for me, taking the same form and dealing with it in different media is a way of inviting it in through different doors or something, and then seeing what different scenes play out. I'm interested in patterns in so far as they are something that can fray, and fray in specific ways. I tend to try to hang out on the edge of where the thing comes apart, and I think that comes out in the Ligature Drawings because the pattern pretty much always breaks somewhere. They're imperfect, and when I’m making them, I really don’t have presentation in mind. I started the drawings just as kind of a practice—like playing scales—after a really long, unintentional break from drawing. And then once it became clear that we would incorporate them into a Zs [the musical group that Auerbach often collaborates with] performance, I started to zero in on certain forms that made good rhythms when amplified. We started calling these “neumes” which were a form of early gestural scoring, and these shapes have become the nodes I kind of branch off from in the drawings. The pattern comes apart almost always or there’s some error, a change of direction, a flipping of something just to figure out what it means to flip it. They are process more than an end result. I try to just let it flow. They are the closest I get to a personal automatic writing.
Rail: Yes, and I think that translates in the Ligature installation because one’s made to feel like it's just an anteroom to your studio. It feels like a process space, rather than a presentational one.
Auerbach: I was thinking about them as x-rays too, in the context of this show. There’s a subtle medical narrative: like, maybe you enter and there's some kind of scan or reading being taking in the first sculpture, and data is collected and sorted through in this drawings room. The video might be a form of “going under” with fitful dreams, and then there's a kind of extraction happening in the back space.
Rail: Well, that's interesting because, referring to our early discussion of the symbolic, in that room, there are these cycles of symbols that recur and it's similar to the Greek meander or to the ornament. It's interesting because it seems like you're still connected to that symbolic element. The Ligature Drawings form into recursive symbols. The symbolic kind of comes back in.
Auerbach: It certainly does. I’m interested in where things like the meander or Greek key meet up with, say, a Peano curve, or other plane-filling fractals, and what they have in common. They also of course reference more traditional calligraphy and “flourishing”—drawing those reciprocating, loopy ornaments that sometimes come off the ends of letters and or frame and punctuate a text. I've always been kind of obsessed with handwriting and I worked as a sign painter for some years, so I have a long standing affection for those things.
Rail: I picked up on the reference to nineteenth century calligraphy exercises because they are often contextualized as “women's art” too. Not in all cases, but it was similar to doing needlework or something like that.
Auerbach: Yeah, I’ve worked with a number of other craft forms like weaving and marbling that are thought of as typically feminine—even if they historically aren’t. I love the way that wisdom is embedded in these traditions. People who knit and crochet have an understanding of hyperbolic surfaces. Marblers have a wealth of haptic wisdom about fluid dynamics—about viscosity, surface tension and sheer. You can know something with your brain, you can write an equation about it, but you can also know it with your body, and I think women tend to be more in their bodies, for both internal and external reasons, good and bad. As someone who feels very androgynous in spirit I tend to bring these kinds of learning together. Often people are prejudiced against one or the other.
Rail: What about your own technical use of the artisanal gesture and genre in general? It’s a craft mode, which is redolent of a focused apprenticeship in hand-eye coordination with the requirements of mental concentration and fine motor skills. Is the deployment of specialized craft in your work a refutation of contemporary distractedness and deskilling?
Auerbach: I’m not fond of the devaluation of skill in general.
Rail: No, neither am I. But it’s the kind of sub-textual question your work asks.
Auerbach: I don’t want to fetishize the artist's gesture, but I value touch a lot. Every time I have to outsource anything for the making of my work, it's really difficult for me. At this point, it's only things with machines that I don't have. I don’t have a CNC [Computer Numerical Control] machine, for example, so anytime I need something CNC’d, I go to Michael DeLucia who bought one to make his own artwork and cuts things for others artists in order to pay for it. I want to give him the loudest shout out actually—he worked super hard with me on Non-Invasive Procedure. But I so rarely can turn over any part of the making process comfortably to anyone else. The first glass sculpture I came up with was fabricated expertly by Amy Lemaire, but in watching her make it I realized how glass is one of those materials that records your gesture, so I decided to learn, and have since done all my glasswork myself. Amy is one of my teachers. I’m not a very skilled flame worker, but I use what I’m able to do, which is a limitation I’m comfortable with because it's something I can take responsibility for.
medical table, lightbox and glass, overall 69 1/2 x 48 x 95 inches. © Tauba Auerbach. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.
Rail: That’s wonderful. Since you mentioned Non-Invasive Procedure, I’d like to follow up on this question. That sculpture, and Where there had once been a snag in the fabric (both 2018) contain elements directly appropriated from the therapeutic and medical fields: a massage table and an examination table respectively. Taking in these two works I was reminded of how artists as different as Matthew Barney (in the organic morphology of his performance “props”) or Thomas Struth (in his boldly documentary hospital operation theater series) have similarly invoked a clinical symbolism related to somatic sensation (to include, in varying degrees, the idea of somatic anxiety). I was also reminded of the tortuous inscription machine Kafka describes in In The Penal Colony. There is theatricality inherent to both Barney and Struth’s works. I’m aware that you come from a family that was professionally involved in theater production in the San Francisco Bay Area where you grew up. Do you think of the performative, the theatrical, as a residual influence in your work?
Auerbach: I really didn’t want to get into the family business and I didn't think about theater much until recently, but now yes, it is on my mind, less in the sense of creating a removed spectator kind of experience, like surgical theater where you're above from the scene and separated by glass, but more the way that theater can be totally enveloping and act on your senses.
Rail: Getting back to Non-Invasive Procedure, concentric tubes of blown glass surround rods of stressed plastic. Their stress points are revealed by looking through a polarizing lens. If you would allow me to extrapolate on the last item, would you say that throughout your work there's an emphasis on “the stressed plastic?” I ask this in relation to the French philosopher Catherine Malabou's research into psychic stress and neural plasticity which she actively researches to help scientifically ground her philosophical ideas of plasticity and the traumatized subject. In a very basic synopsis, Malabou is interested in a philosophic and scientific reevaluation of Hegel’s metaphysical use of the term “plasticity” in his book, The Phenomenology of the Spirit. I find aspects of your approach very similar to hers, in your thinking and in your work, the figurative and literal plasticity of which implies a fluid take on phenomenological “being.”
Auerbach: I don’t know Malabou’s work, but yes, there is an emphasis on the stressed plastic both literally and metaphorically. And the word plastic as a descriptor of the relationship between material and experience like trauma or any other kind of learning is right on.
Rail: I’m aware there are some other writings about your work which do reference the idea of stress and trauma.
Auerbach: Yes. I did a bunch of research about PTSD treatments this year and I was led by my interest in fascia—and I think this may be relevant to what you're relating about Malabou’s ideas—reading about how psychological trauma is manifested physically. I experienced something really wild this year, which I can only interpret as a fascial untangling of sorts, initiated by a tremor. The episode is what prompted Where there had once been a snag in the fabric.
Rail: So then, about this embodied neural connection, there is a nervous, reflexive vibe in your paintings in particular, a feeling that the gestures have come about via a kind of seismic register of neural impulse. Take Grain - Chiral Fret Arc 1 (2017) for example, which you’ve poetically titled in a way that might clue the viewer into your intent. Would you mind explaining the title in relation to the nervously expressive gesture?
Auerbach: I’d like to give you a better example of that, because in that case Chiral Fret is what I was calling a “meander ornament” for a long time, so the term “fret” in that context is not describing “I’m fretting about something,” but fret is another word for an architectural edge ornament. “Chiral” refers to the handedness of the meander—it’s mirror asymmetry.
Rail: If we consider “fretting” and “trauma” as just a subjective register, it doesn’t necessarily have to be negative, I mean it’s really how you respond and recover, how the mind and body can bounce back. By the way, I love the word play of your titles and how they parallel what is happening in the work, but not in a descriptive/proscriptive way.
Auerbach: Right. I just want to offer a toe-hold, or to suggest some ways in. I think in the past I’ve said too much and explained away some work. But I usually find it ungenerous when people refuse to say anything. I really want to communicate, to commune. Chiral Fret was the base shape I used for the tool I created for that painting, and it's pretty obscured because I shake and drag the tool, but I always hope—especially with the help of some oblique word cues, or an engraving on a frame—that one might just feel the shape’s presence and essence, even if it’s not strictly “decipherable”.
Rail: Your use of the scientific terminology reminds me of how Robert Smithson would would employ geological nomenclature and use it as a foil for art jargon. It seems you’re doing a similar thing. And the wordplay of your titles comprise a kind of poetic key to your aesthetics. Ligature for instance refers to two or more words binding into a single grapheme, but also to a section of suture to shut off a blood vessel. A ligand is also a term used in the description of molecular bonding. So you project a kind of syntagmatic jumble between differing aesthetic forms in the way in which you fluidly appropriate and combine different sequential definitions of the same word. Your fluid interplay with syntactical order makes me think of Alfred North Whitehead’s theory of the fallacy of simple location, in which he states “Temporality cannot thus constitute the essence of the entity; it has nothing to do with the character of the material.” The connection here may be more analogical than literal, but the plastic “character of the material” and its temporal perception is a subtext I do find relevant to your overall project. This character doesn’t seem limited by temporality but feels stretched towards another dimension of knowledge. In a 2015 interview in NYAQ with Jordan Stein you said, “I’ve recently been meditating on the idea that my 3D self is entirely in contact with my 4D self. Every bit of it, even the deepest interior bit. I sit and focus the contact.” I know you’ve kind of talked about this already earlier in the interview, but maybe you could add a couple more thoughts about that?
Auerbach: Thinking about it in terms of syntax brings up something that is always really problematic for me and maybe this is one of my ways of trying to work around it: sequence. It’s incredibly difficult for me to put things in a linear order. Every time I give a talk, that is the big struggle. So maybe there is a way to build lateral or multi-dimensional syntax. I learned that ligature is also the word for the little piece of metal that holds the reed onto the sax.
Rail: Right, right. Just the sound of the word, when I saw the drawings in the gallery and I saw the word, I was like “of course,” because ligand or ligature makes you think of ligament or just the sound of that actual word is so referential of some sort of sinewy connection.
Auerbach: It’s just a really good word in that it has that power. I like the idea of these things that kind of—and this is not my formulation; it’s my friend Chris Jennings’s formulation—run parallel to onomatopoeia. I don’t think is quite an instance of that, it’s several lanes over, definitely, but words do function just as sounds sometimes, so beautifully.
Rail: Yes, and it also makes me think of scat singing, where the singer is approximating words but it’s really more about the sound of the words. Now, just to finish up, I want to talk a little about how your studio practice might have been stretched by the appropriation and painting of the obdurate, big iron, “meat world,” and NYC fireboat John J. Harvey, your 2018 Public Art Fund project entitled Flow Separation.
Auerbach: Painting the fireboat was a tremendous challenge in a whole variety of ways. I fell in love with the vessel and I had long ago fallen in love with dazzle camouflage, so when Public Art Fund came to me with this kind of assignment it was like, “Yes, absolutely. I would pay my own money to do this.” I don’t know that it stretched my studio practice but it really stretched me in my out of studio practice. [Laughter] I’m not used to working with a big team of people, and it’s extremely hard for me to be hands off in any way whatsoever, and for a lot the first half of the project I had to just direct people and it drove me insane. To get the design on the boat one person would be roughing it in with tape, and I’d standing back on a high wall yelling “A little to the left, that line higher, that line lower.” So slow. Of course I had to do it because there were decisions to be made at every single step since there was a flat drawing and a curved surface we were putting it on. But once we got past that stage and I was able to just be part of the painting team I was much happier. We were in harsh conditions: it was ninety-five degrees, we were in so much protective gear, the boat yard is full of loud sounds, toxic chemicals, and giant things being picked up by a crane and flying over your head all day. Yet the whole environment disappeared to me because I love the activity of painting so much. The way I’ve been painting for the last many years now, making tools or spraying from a distance, I know I won't paint in these mediated ways forever. This project really reaffirmed my straight forward love of painting, the old fashioned way, with a brush. My passion for some of the original art practices in my life are back in such a strong and enthusiastic way. I stopped drawing for years and I’m back to it with a renewed love.
Rail: Just hearing you describe your process in the boatyard makes me think of a story that I like to habitually tell about my own love of painting. It involves David Hockney remembering his father painting a door when he was a kid. So when somebody asked David Hockney what is it about painting, he was like, “Just covering that surface, watching my father paint that door.” There’s something satisfying about that paint just covering that surface. It really has nothing to do with any rarified aesthetics.
Auerbach: I really relate to that. I’ve never heard that story. It definitely speaks to me, though. While I was painting the boat I thought many times, “If I can’t sell artwork anymore, there are other ways to paint for a living, like I did before, so I could still be happy.”