Michael Asher (b. 1943)
Writings 1973-1983 on works 1969-1979 / Michael Asher
Written in collaboration with Benjamin H.D. Buchloh
Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and MOCA Los Angeles,  ISDN 0919616275
Andrea Frasier on the art of Michael Asher
Artforum, Summer 2008
I PURCHASED MICHAEL ASHER'S Writings 1973-1983 on Works 1969-1979 soon after it was published in 1983. At the time, it was the most expensive book I had ever bought. I read it from cover to cover and made lots of notes in the margins. It had a profound influence on my development as an artist. Ten years later, I included my copy in Services, a project I organized with Helmut Draxler in Germany examining the social and economic conditions of post-studio art. It was stolen from the show. If whoever took the book is reading this now, I beg you to return it to me. It is something I treasured, and the loss of it still makes me sad.
I miss the book especially now, as I write about Asher's recent exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, for which he reconstructed the supporting studs of all the temporary walls that had been built in the museum's main exhibition space since 1998, when it moved into its current building. In a small side gallery, he also installed floor plans indicating the placement of walls for each of the forty-four exhibitions presented by the museum during that time period. These were affixed directly to the walls with precisely even spacing, so that they completely circled the room in a continuous band, even wrapping around the corners. Tear-away handouts with all of the floor plans were also provided at the back entrance to the main gallery, so visitors could review them while moving through the installation.
The SMMoA exhibition seemed reminiscent of Asher's canonical works from the 1970s, documented in the 1983 book, many of which involved the displacement, removal, or reconstruction of walls or ceilings or of aspects of their surfaces. These include his 1973 exhibitions at Galleria Franco Toselli in Milan, for which he sandblasted the walls, and at Galerie Heiner Friedrich in Cologne, for which he painted the ceiling (in both exhibition and nonexhibition areas) a shade slightly darker than the floor; his 1974 exhibition at Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles, for which he removed a wall between the exhibition space and the office space; and his 1979 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where he relocated some of the building's exterior aluminum wall panels to an interior gallery. All of these projects are discussed, in the SMMoA show's excellent catalogue, by Miwon Kwon, who also mentions Asher's 1982 exhibition at the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany, where he reconstructed the museum's interior walls at a ninety-degree rotation, with the result that some of them ended up outside the building.
As many people have noted, Asher's SMMoA exhibition seems to lend itself-more than his works of the intervening years, few of which have engaged architecture so directly-to the now-orthodox reading established by his 1983 book and by the writings of Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who coauthored it. That reading, often associated with -institutional critique,- a term with which Asher himself has never particularly identified, has focused on his architectural interventions in museums and galleries-positing these endeavors as paradigmatic of a critique of the neutrality of the institutional frame, and of the autonomy of artworks therein. Asher's SMMoA exhibition has been received in a similar vein, as exposing the museum's exhibition history and making its display structures visible and materially present.
The question of what, exactly, is critical about such operations has dogged -institutional critique.- In this case, it is begged by the institution itself, which described the -monumental new installation- on its website as a -conceptual history- of a kunsthalle that -reinvents itself with each new exhibition- and as a fitting way to commemorate the museum's twentieth anniversary, with which Asher's exhibition happened to coincide. As SMMoA director Elsa Longhauser put it, -The absolute purity of his vision is the highest exemplar of the work we do. Indeed.
Many critics looked to the formal qualities of the installation for a key to its critical content. Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times experienced the densely placed studs as an -imaginary prison- rendering the museum -vaguely but viscerally oppressive- and contradicting the self-representation of museums as free spaces. Roberta Smith, on the other hand, found a -strong pleasure component- in the work. Her review for the New York Times resounds with the language of fiction, describing his interventions as -fabulous tall tales- of -irrational, gargantuan- effort, a kind of -Minimalism gone nuts.- Even Buchloh couldn't resist evoking labyrinths and halls of mirrors in his lecture at SMMoA the day after the opening, describing the project as -mannerist.
Right up to the installation of the studs, however, Asher said he didn't know whether people would even be able to get into the space: -These things are up in the air. I have no idea what will happen. If you can enter, you can go back and forth between the small front room and the frames, and cross reference what is in what show. . . . I want to see if the viewer understands this as a sort of abstract sculpture made of frames or something very specific. I am interested in how viewers' comprehension and experience change as they do that cross referencing. It is an operation very few critics appear to have undertaken. But Asher's comments point to another, more basic operation that seems even scarcer in the critical reception of his work: reflection on the process of reception itself.
It's fine to wax allegorical and hermeneutic over the formal and phenomenological effects of material procedures. Opportunity for such effusion is one of the pleasures that great art offers. Alongside accounts of Asher's installation as a prison or a playground, a fable and a folly, I am tempted to describe it as a graveyard of exhibitions past, a kind of institutional crypt, with studs for bones, which renders us ghosts as we pass through walls without surfaces; a hall of mirrors without mirrors, which refracts our vision but offers us no reflection of ourselves. Or perhaps it does, in these symbolic renderings, which are no more than our own projections looking back at us, flattering us with their acuity and erudition. They should be recognized as such and distinguished from Asher's project.
From everything we know about Asher's method, it is quite certain that the aesthetic, symbolic, and even phenomenological qualities that may be associated with the results of procedures he undertook are quite incidental. The specific logic of those results lies not in Asher's choices but in the decisions of the artists, curators, designers, and installers who placed the walls in the shows at SMMoA, and in the conditions that determined those decisions: broadly, the mission and economy of noncollecting contemporary art institutions and their programming of shows and projects. What is to be interpreted in Asher's work are not the formal qualities of the installation but the procedures of which they are the product, as well as the relationship between those procedures and the conditions of the site and situation for which they were undertaken.
The post-studio practice Asher has pursued since the late 1960s has often been characterized by a rigorous site-specificity limited to removing, displacing, reconfiguring, or reproducing existing or once-existing elements of the sites in which he works. Asher, along with Daniel Buren, reinterpreted the site-specific art that had emerged earlier in that decade, developing practices of formal investigation into strategies of critical intervention. The object of their critique, however, was not only the sites of art's presentation but its traditional site of production as well. For it is the studio, and its distance from the gallery and the museum, that dictates the production of transportable and transferable works-discrete objects predisposed if not predestined to circulate as commodities. By closing the gap between sites of production and consumption, site-specificity provided for a direct and potentially critical engagement with the social contexts of art, at the same time that it freed art from the logic of commodity production.
While many artists making site-specific work have also created discrete objects, or packaged documentation, that circulate as commodities, Asher has consistently eschewed all commodity production and exchange. His is not a utopian rejection of economic exchange as such-a gesture which, in a capitalist society, can only be symbolic-but a very practical and specific substitution of one economy for another. What artists receive on sales is not payment for labor but rather a portion of the value to be realized (or not) by the buyer in the market where that value has been (or, it is hoped, will be) established: It is an advance percentage on an anticipated profit. Since the early 1970s, Asher's only compensation for his projects has been in the form of fees. With the development of this fee structure, Asher conclusively redefined his activity, shifting from a model of goods production to a model of what, in economic terms, would be described as service provision: a form of labor that does not fix itself in a vendible commodity and can't be subject to further exchange. However, the most radical feature of Asher's work may be that it is not only site-specific but temporally specific as well. His installations cease to exist after a contractually determined period of time.
Like almost all of Asher's work, the SMMoA installation was destroyed shortly after the show closed in mid-April. All that is left of it now is the exhibition catalogue, installation photographs, and the documents generated over the seven years of the project's development. These will be collected in the museum's archive or in Asher's personal archive.
Asher will probably never be the subject of a museum retrospective. Short of a public presentation of his archive, there would be almost nothing to show of his forty years of work. However, as Smith noted in her New York Times review, at SMMoA he has, in a sense, given a retrospective to a museum. It is a very specific kind of museum, a kunsthalle whose history as a noncollecting institution, like that of Asher himself as an artist, is preserved only in its archive. If there is an allegory to be discovered in Asher's SMMOA installation, it is an allegory of his own practice, the structures of which were materialized at SMMOA through the homologies between that practice's conditions and those of the institution.
FINALLY, EFFORTS TO PIN DOWN the critique of museums and galleries in Asher's various installations broadly miss the point. The clearest and most consistent object of Asher's critical intervention is not the institution of the museum or gallery but that of artistic practice and the symbolic and material economies in which it exists. Asher's masterpiece, his monumental life's work, is his method: the procedures, conditions, and relations of production and distribution he has crafted over the course of forty years of work. His achievement is not that he developed strategies to materialize the invisible and immaterial structures of our material relations in artistic sites. Rather, his achievement is that by eschewing the commodity form, circumscribing the temporality of his interventions, and substituting the economic structures of service provision for those of goods, he established a mode of production that has redefined his place within those structures. If artistic production was long defined as the manipulation of formal elements within a given artistic frame, Asher's innovation is not so much that he shifted the object of that manipulation to the institutional frame, but that he constituted as the object of art the conditions and relations of artistic production itself: not only the positions artists manifest within the frame of their aesthetic systems but the very positions they occupy within the field of art and the economic conditions and social relations that produce those positions-and that artists, in turn, reproduce in their activity. What his work demands is that we consider whether artists fulfill, or fail to fulfill, the claims of their artistic positions on the level of social and economic conditions.
These aspects of Asher's work continue to be elided and even disavowed by art historians and critics. In an apparent effort to disqualify interpretations of Asher's work as a rejection of market relations, Buchloh asserted in his SMMOA lecture that Asher has always been willing to undertake commissions with private collectors-as if the distinction to be made with regard to Asher's work is between public and institutional versus private and individual commissions (if one can even draw a clear line between the two). Rather, what distinguishes Asher's practice is a site-specific mode of production, the results of which cannot be transferred, circulate in a market, or be subject to speculation, either by individual collectors or by museums. In another example, -artist contracts and fees- are listed among the -logistical matters such as travel arrangements- that were edited out of the excerpts from Asher's correspondence with the curators of Skulptur Projekte Mnster published in the journal October last spring. Logistical matters? If we continue to treat the conditions of artistic production as incidental and irrelevant to works of art, then we have learned nothing from Michael Asher.
It is evident today that the barriers that separate the artistic and material dimensions of art, that maintain a distance between the aesthetic or epistemic forms that constitute art's symbolic systems and the practical and economic relations that constitute its social conditions, remain more obstinate than the wall separating the exhibition space and office that Asher removed at Copley Gallery in 1974. The primary site of those barriers, as the reception of Asher's work suggests, may no longer be the physical spaces of art but the discursive spaces of art history and criticism.
I find it extraordinary and deeply symptomatic that critics and historians, even those whose methods are rooted in materialism, will only recognize the material conditions of artworks in the most euphemized ways. When literal investigations of actual physical materials are fastened on as radical figurations of social and even economic critique, as they often have been in writings about Asher, even while the economic conditions of works are ignored, materialist analysis becomes a kind of farce. It must be recognized that the bracketing off of these aspects of art performs a kind of censorship that may do more than the false neutrality of any exhibition space to perpetuate an idealist mythos of artistic autonomy and transcendence, and to provide the arbitrary mechanism of the market with artistic justification.
It may be time to consider this censorship in its psychological as well as sociological dimensions. It is difficult to see the consistent elision of economic conditions of production in the critical evaluation of art practices as anything other than a false sublimation of -vulgar- interests in money. With Asher, however, I believe what this censorship effaces is even more fundamental. It amounts to a denial of his monumental sacrifice and the demand it makes on us. What Asher has committed himself to may be the most radical enactment of the ambivalence that underlies avant-garde traditions of artistic negation: a form of artistic suicide enacted and reenacted with the destruction of every new work. Such self-destruction may be the only escape from the art market and its speculative necrophagia, as even the estates of artists such as Lee Lozano and Allan Kaprow are turned over to powerhouse dealers, their radical refusals reduced to symbolic gestures severed from any material stakes with the complicity of an art discourse that refuses to acknowledge such stakes except as symbolic gestures. The remains of Asher's work will not be sacralized in any museum, or valorized at any auction, but buried in our institutional equivalent of Potter's Field: the archive.
Thankfully, there are also books.
I would like to thank Rhea Anastas for her comments on drafts of this essay.
Andrea Fraser is an artist based in Los Angeles.
1. Suzanne Muchnic, "A Perfect Lack of a Plan," Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2008.
2. Christopher Knight, "Michael Asher at the Santa Monica Museum of Art," Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2008; Roberta Smith, "How Art Is Framed: Exhibition Floor Plans as a Conceptual Medium," New York Times, March 8, 2008; Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, "Strategies of Voiding the Void," lecture at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, January 26, 2008.
3. Muchnic, "A Perfect Lack of a Plan."
4. Asher has made only three permanent works. The first is a project for private collectors in Los Angeles that he completed in 1978. The second is a 1991 project for the Stuart collection on the Campus of the University of California, San Diego, where he placed a fully functional granite replica of a commercial indoor drinking fountain on a grassy island between a flagpole and a rock with a plaque commemorating the Marine Corps training ground that once occupied the site. The third was a project for the international exposition Daejeon Expo '93, in South Korea, for which he placed a rock on an island in a man-made lake. On the rock, a text is engraved in Korean: ASSUMING THAT THE ARRAY OF STRUCTURES WHICH CONSTITUTE THE IMMEDIATE SURROUNDINGS WERE DESIGNED FOR US SPECTATORS, IT ENABLES US TO ASK: WHO BENEFITS FROM OUR NAVIGATING BETWEEN DISPLAYS OF CORPORATE LEGITIMATION AND REPRESENTATIONS OF POWER?
5. Asher's only project for individual collectors to date (the work cited in note 4, executed in Los Angeles in 1978) provides a wonderful example of how his method can be extended to the private domain. His project was to move the wall marking the southern edge of the collectors' property eleven inches ot the north, effectively giving their neighbors nearly a foot of their yard. Asher rendered their art acquisition a real estate loss.
6. "Skulptur Project in Mnster: Excerpts from the Correspondence 1976-©1997," October 1