BY James Rondeau in Features | 02 MAR 08
Featured in
Issue 113

Thinking Space

For almost 40 years, Michael Asher has encouraged museums and art galleries to question the logic of their organizational and architectural structures

BY James Rondeau in Features | 02 MAR 08

Santa Monica Museum of Art, California, 2008, installation view

Michael Asher’s work is based on direct and highly site-specific interactions with art institutions and their contexts. More exactly, Asher responds to the ways in which museums and exhibition spaces present themselves, or the objects they display, to their various publics. Informed in equal measure by historical research and contemporary exigencies, his art takes the form of subtle yet deliberate interventions – additions, subtractions or alterations – in particular environments. The highly diverse results are best categorized as sculpture, but a sculpture whose forms are shaped by deeply considered ideas rather than by physical gestures, and which rarely involves objects of the artist’s own making. In this sense Asher’s intellectual and creative enterprise has helped define, and continually expanded the implications of, the catch-all term ‘Conceptual art’, and it continues to have relevance for considerations of site-specificity and institutional critique.

However, while acknowledging Asher’s influence on these artistic approaches, one must be wary of inadequate descriptive nomenclature. Asher’s methodology is precise: his work is always crafted from the existing contingencies that make its presentation possible. His carefully thought-out projects insistently question the logic of particular organizational structures and utilities, uncovering hidden or immaterial elements of a museum’s functioning, such as methods of filtering daylight (Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1977), the effect of expansion on affordable housing in surrounding communities (Le Nouveau Musée, Lyon, 1991) or the positioning of the central heating system (Kunsthalle Bern, 1992). At times the artist’s suggestions can run counter to the institution’s own interests: it is, then, something of a useful irony that Asher’s projects necessarily involve collaboration with the institutions under scrutiny. His cogent analyses, while dealing with issues that are necessarily ideological, are intended as neither exposé nor rebuke; rather, his insights often serve as a catalyst – at best productive of changes in attitudes, perceptions and even policies.

The exhibition ‘Michael Asher’, which is currently on show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, California, provides a rare opportunity to experience the artist’s work (although the museum erroneously claims to be presenting his first major commissioned sculptural installation in decades) and invites further, critical assessment – based both on its own compelling merits and in relation to other, indebted practices that have emerged since his earliest investigations. For the SMMoA show Asher is rebuilding, from plans and diagrams, every temporary wall constructed since the museum’s move in 1998 to its current location at Bergamot Station. Each one will be a faithful reflection of the original structure, made with metal and/or wooden studs to match the initial construction methods. According to the museum’s website: ‘The audience will be able to view an enthralling skeleton map of exhibition design from the front of the museum, and through a specially opened entrance at the back. Asher will also create a documentation room in an adjacent gallery so that visitors can see a concise historical map of exhibition construction, including floor plans for each of the 40 exhibitions. Organized over the past ten years, SMMoA’s multiple exhibition floor plans serve as dynamic evidence of its frequent reinvention and experimentation as a non-collecting museum. Through Asher’s installation, visitors will experience first-hand how the museum space moves and changes with each exhibition.’

The display is a welcome antidote to the increasing sense that Asher’s achievements are less than fully accounted for in mainstream contemporary art-historical and critical discourses. To be sure, he is by nature an exceedingly inconspicuous artist. (His genuine modesty belies a razor-sharp intellect, an uncanny intuitive sense and an at times slyly subversive sense of humour.) As a consequence Asher does not have great purchase in an increasingly speculative, market-based, personality-driven, complexity-shrugging art world, in which short bursts of notoriety and fame are often taken as synonymous with merit and accomplishment. His influence, not unlike his temperament, is quiet but forceful. For more than 30 years he has taught at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where his courses in the renowned Post-Studio Art programme consist of intensive group critiques that, famously, can last for eight or ten hours at a stretch. Indeed Asher has achieved legendary status among his students and their peers. Yet the precedent set by his art has informed certain strains of contemporary practice to such an extent that it has in many ways – not all of them unintended – become nearly invisible. Among the generation of artists and critics born after 1970 (outside the artist’s native Los Angeles) many have never heard of Asher. Even among the cognoscenti, few can claim to have encountered his art at first hand.

In key respects Asher’s work is by its very nature self-effacing. Unlike most museum projects, his exhibitions are remembered only through the human relationships that result from various modes of collaboration and documentation, such as a catalogue or a photographic archive – ephemeral objects that are not afforded the status of art works in their own right. Finite duration is a fundamental aspect of nearly all his projects. All these factors have determined, at least partly, the particular ways in which his work has been received. The body of critical literature, while accomplished, is scant in proportion to the artist’s importance and impact. (Curators and scholars such as Anne Rorimer, Ann Goldstein, Birgit Pelzer and, more recently, Jennifer King and Whitney Moeller have, however, written insightful texts in both exhibition catalogues and academic journals.) The primary resource, Michael Asher Writings 1973–1983 on Works 1969–1979 (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design/Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1983), co-authored by Asher with Benjamin Buchloh, one of the artist’s most astute champions, is limited in its chronological scope and, now out of print, an object of such rarity and cost that it has achieved near cult status. Although there are, certainly, a few excellent catalogues that record and explicate individual projects, the Buchloh survey has no counterpart for work made over the last three decades (although such a volume is planned). The glaring dearth of accessible documentation and interpretation is breeding critical amnesia. Today, for example, the debt to Asher evident in the work of artists including Martin Creed, Mark Dion, Trisha Donnelly, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, Tino Sehgal, Santiago Sierra, Nedko Solakov, Fred Wilson and many others of lesser repute goes almost totally unacknowledged. Our collective understanding of contemporary art is impoverished by such oversights. But even leaving aside questions of influence, a more focused examination of Asher is sorely needed.

The SMMoA piece marks a return, of sorts, to the artist’s early concerns for the material facts of a given exhibition space as defined or expressed by walls. At the San Francisco Art Institute in 1969 Asher used the gallery’s modular wall panels to form an 11-metre-long wall, effectively dividing the space into two sections – one large and open, the other more like a passageway. (In its use of simple, repeatable, geometric units to make a free-standing sculptural form, this early work can be understood as a critique of the then-prevalent Minimalist aesthetics.) The most elemental aspects of planes and volumes continued to animate Asher’s early interests. Subsequent installations that same year – at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, California, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York – used pressurized air from self-contained blower units to create spatially defined curtains of invisible, barely detectable force. Increasingly, the artist was concerned with immaterial aspects of space. Other of his purpose-built environments were designed to reflect sound (La Jolla Museum of Art, 1969) or to absorb it (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1969–70). Asher divided spaces through the use of black and white painted walls (Market Street Program, Venice, California, and documenta 5, both 1972) and used a 35-cm-square sheet of framing glass to subject the colour and texture of a given wall to the same formal scrutiny as a glazed painting or framed drawing (University of California at Irvine, 1973). In quick succession Asher embraced strategies of removal as well as of addition. He sandblasted layers of paint that had accrued on the gallery walls to reveal the brown plaster surface beneath (Galleria Toselli, Milan, 1973) and removed the partition wall that the gallery used to separate the office area from the exhibition space (Claire Copley Gallery, Los Angeles, 1974). Many of his pieces that include the addition or removal of walls – now canonical in the history of Conceptual art – are famously misunderstood as uninflected presentations of an ‘empty’ gallery. The assumption is both facile and erroneous. Asher’s spaces are never merely empty; on the contrary, they are full of thought, actively modified in order to express their own physical materiality.

Asher’s re-examination, for the SMMoA exhibition, of the theme of walls is not surprising. In this case the category under investigation is a general one. Often, however, the artist’s most salient works emerge as reprisals of, or serial returns to, the same topic. He uses the same exhibition strategy, under varying conditions, over time. Working within a fixed idiom allows him to identify changes to and within the circumstances that surround or enable earlier works. In four successive instalments (1977, 1987, 1997, 2007) of the outdoor Sculpture Projects Muenster, for example, Asher has deployed the same make and model – formerly unremarkable, now noticeably vintage – of a three-metre-long camping trailer as a mobile sculpture. The work is stationed for one week at a time at various spots throughout the city and its suburban environs – locations all defined by their wilful ordinariness and their relative distance to the contextualizing site of the Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte. Emphasizing its own relationship to the sanctioned protocols of an art work, the trailer is moved to its new location every Monday, the day when the museum is closed. Importantly for Asher and the meaning of the work, the list of sites has remained unchanged since 1977. In 1997 the artist stated: ‘If the basic logic of the exhibition didn’t change, neither could my work.’ What is most meaningful about the artist’s 30-year engagement with the piece is the way in which the work throws into sharp relief changes in the city. In 2007 the trailer was parked in a storage garage for five weeks because its former parking spaces no longer exist.

Issues of repetition are also prevalent in Asher’s works for The Art Institute of Chicago. Over the course of three decades his efforts have bound the museum more intensely to its own history – particularly to aspects that have been overlooked, jettisoned or forgotten. In 1979 Asher expanded his earlier examinations of an institution’s physical structures to include its collections. His contribution to the 73rd American Exhibition was to relocate a bronze cast made in 1917 of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s George Washington (1785–91) from the front steps of the museum, where it had stood sentinel for over 60 years, to an interior gallery. In collaboration with museum staff, some of whom were resistant, the artist installed the weathered bronze copy – an art-historically ambiguous object that was neither French nor American, neither 18th- nor 20th-century, neither public nor private – in the gallery displaying European paintings, sculptures and decorative arts from the 18th century (Houdon’s own period). The displacement highlighted the curiosities and contradictions inherent in the museum’s early identification with, and subsequent management of, the cast. In 2005 the artist was invited to revisit a work and, in collaboration with Anne Rorimer, the curator of the 1979 exhibition (now no longer an employee of the museum), to re-install the bronze yet again in a way that would restate and clarify the implications of his earlier project. Key to the second version were the changes that had meanwhile occurred to the museum and its collections. Many of the art works that had contextualized and problematized Asher’s first installation of George Washington, for example, had since been deaccessioned. The sculpture itself had, years earlier, been given on indefinite loan to the office of the mayor of the city of Chicago. In effecting the object’s return, Asher once again met with resistance from museum staff; the transgressive potential of his actions remained firmly, if in some ways surprisingly, potent. The most salient aspect of the artist’s re-examination of George Washington was archival: in the museum’s library, Asher created an exhibition that comprehensively documented the history of the object from Houdon’s studio to the present day. One of the most enlightening discoveries was that the object had been technically deaccessioned by the museum in the 1920s, but records had never been altered to reflect the change in status.

The deaccessioned object has proven to be an important theme for Asher. His book The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1999), which carries the coverline ‘Painting and Sculpture from The Museum of Modern Art: Catalog of Deaccessions 1929 through 1998’, was his contribution to Kynaston McShine’s group exhibition ‘The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect’, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1999. The small catalogue lists 403 art works – citations include artists’ names, titles of works, dimensions and accession numbers – that were removed from the collection of the museum by sale or exchange. Patterned after a MoMA publication from 1977 of its own collection, Asher’s volume was arranged alphabetically by artist and, within each entry, chronologically for various works by each artist. Both the casual and the informed reader might be surprised to see the names of well-known artists (Francis Bacon, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet) and unsurprised to find lesser lights (Jean Charlot, Per Krogh and Franklin Watkins) on the lists of the rejected, or to discover the number of objects sold – nine works by Henri Matisse, 21 by Pablo Picasso and five by Andy Warhol. Asher’s approach to the material is documentary; his position lacks overt reproach or judgement. The ethical dimensions are implied rather than stated, and yet its quiet candour is startlingly cautionary. As ever, Asher points to our relative inability to evaluate the meaning of museum collections, the totality of which are evident neither by means of what is selected for exhibition or publication nor through a list of what is jettisoned. Both sets of information, Asher seems to suggest, are inadequate. His work as an artist – as vital and challenging today as ever – is, quite simply and powerfully, productive of new knowledge. In a very direct way Asher’s quiet excavations create greater transparency, reacquainting institutions and their audiences with the complexity and contradictions of their custodial operations.

It is interesting to note another recent exhibition in southern California where Asher’s involvement has been decisive. Rather than tracking what was removed from the museum’s collection, Asher has added works. In 2006 the artist made a gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, of 37 works from his personal collection. (His mother was the well-known gallerist Betty Asher.) The bequest, one of the largest gifts from an artist in the museum’s history, includes objects made from the late 1940s through to the early 1970s. ‘Artists’ Gifts: Michael Asher’ featured selections from this donation, including key works by Larry Bell, Vija Celmins, Judy Chicago, Joe Goode, Al Hansen, Donald Judd, Ken Price, Man Ray and Mason Williams, among others. Even in the role of donor, Asher continues to effect meaningful alterations of and within museums.

James Rondeau is the Curator and Frances and Thomas Dittmer Chair of the Department of Contemporary Art at The Art Institute of Chicago.