How to Spell the Alphabet (2007)
Auerbach writes in her preface:
The intention of this work is to take an inquisitive look at language, and to apply the unique properties of the system to the system itself. Subjecting language to its own idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies in iteration after iteration in turn brings about major changes and remarkable patterns. … My focus on the flaws or glitches of language is not in the spirit of criticism, but in the interest of cultivating a new idea of possibility or perfection.
It is also in the spirit of artistic playfulness. “How to Spell the Alphabet” is the title of one of Auerbach’s best-known works. A work of ink and pencil on paper (2005), it begins “EY BEE CEE DEE” and was featured in MoMA’s “Ecstatic Alphabet” exhibition (6 May – 27 August 2012). That shows just one way in which How to Spell the Alphabet‘s artistic playfulness makes the letters of the alphabet ecstatic (“to stand outside themselves”). In keeping with the book’s cover and the name of Auerbach’s publishing operation established in 2013 (Diagonal Press), each of those ways adds another angle, another way into, another perspective on her work. This entry, however, deals with only one of them: what Auerbach calls “letter worship”. Expanding on that, she writes:
These pieces are an exaggeration of the slowness of hand-drawing letters. Taking several weeks to draw, each one is a meditation on the form of a single letter on its own, isolated from meaning or context. … These specific letters are inspired by a German alphabet designed by Paulus Franck in 1601. In the tradition of illuminated manuscripts, such an ornamental font treats each letter both as an object of worship and as a means of expressing worship towards what is written. But … they are also an expression of the idea that celebration — in this case, through embellishment — can lead to obliteration. They are meant to teeter on the edge of decipherability, oscillating between legibility and abstraction.
“A” by Tauba Auerbach (left) and Paulus Franck (right). Photos: Books On Books Collection.
“E” by Auerbach (left); “E” and “F” by Franck (center); “F” by Auerbach (right).
“I” by Auerbach (left) and by Franck (right).
“Q” by Auerbach (left); “Q” and “R” by Franck (center); “R” by Auerbach.
That reference to oscillation between legibility and abstraction also draws attention to Auerbach’s fascination with helix-like and chiral (handedness) images and phenomena, which lies at the heart of her major 2021-22 exhibition and even finds expression in its title SvZ. Auerbach’s work oscillates between the world of the alphabet and the world of science and math, just as the letter and the world oscillate when we grasp at the meaning of their relationship.
“Abecedaries I (in progress)“, Books On Books Collection, 31 March 2020 to present.
“Paulus Franck“, Books On Books Collection, 23 March 2022.
Auerbach, Tauba. 2020. Tauba Auerbach: S v Z. San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Bravo, Tony. 23 December 2021. “Science and Math Entwined with Art”, San Francisco Chronicle.
Jones, Caroline A. November 2021. “Tauba Medium”, ArtForum.
Franck, Paulus, and Joseph Kiermeier-Debre. 1998. Schatzkammer Allerhand Versalien. Ravensburg: Ravensburger Verlag.
Provan, Alexander. December 2021. “Playing Dice with the Universe”. Art in America.