MICHAEL ASHER WAS delighted to learn, in the summer of 2007, that someone had made off with the 11-foot-long camping trailer he had exhibited in four successive installments of the MuÌ?nster Sculpture Project exhibition (1977, 1987, 1997 and 2007). It made perfect sense, he said with a laugh over the phone; the art thieves obviously knew what they were doing.
Asher, who died at home in Los Angeles on Oct. 15 at the age of 69, was known for research-driven projects probing the often hidden conditions that determine how art is viewed, evaluated and used. His always meticulous interventions encouraged spectators to reconsider the ways they thought about art, including how and why they valued it and what they valued it for. But his critiques—always subtle—were carried out with a sly, sometimes hilarious sense of humor. Museums, even in their hidden parts, were public spaces for Asher, and works of art an important part of the cultural memory of a community.
Asher began his art career in the mid-1960s, amid a generation of highly innovative sculptors. Like the Minimalists, he reflected on the relations between the esthetic object and the space that surrounds it. One of his first pieces, shown at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969, used concealed blower units above a door to create curtains of air through which visitors passed as they moved from one gallery to the next. For his 1970 exhibition at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., he reconfigured the gallery by removing its doors, allowing sunlight, air and the noise of the street into the space—and leaving the museum interior exposed all day and night.
But in the subsequent decades, Asher turned from formal investigations to critical interventions. His central concern now became the symbolic and material economies underlying art practice. Triggered by his friend Daniel Buren’s method of working in situ, selecting his materials and techniques in response to each new situation, Asher began to use only elements already present at the site of exhibition. Henceforth, his projects started to both reveal and integrate cultural phenomena. For instance, at the Claire S. Copley Gallery in Los Angeles in 1974, Asher removed the partition wall that separated the office space from the exhibition space, exposing the art gallery’s backroom business operations. At the Art Institute of Chicago a few years later, he relocated a statue of George Washington—a 20th-century bronze-cast reproduction of a marble original by the 18th-century French artist Jean- Antoine Houdon—from the front steps of the museum into an interior gallery that houses French Neo-Classical art. In the recontextualization, the monumentality that the sculpture had conveyed for over 60 years in front of the museum was lost altogether, while the timeless quality of the original objects in the period room was disrupted by the weathered bronze copy. The questions that these and other works raised were only provisionally plastic or even spatial. Increasingly, the formal issues called attention to socioeconomic factors affecting the role of artworks and the public function of museums.
Asher’s projects closed the gaps between art’s tradi- tional realms of production, exhibition and distribution. In opposition to the artist’s studio, which he came to see as a site that dictates the manufacture of discrete objects fated to circulate as commodities, Asher developed a free- floating art practice that engaged critically with art’s social and institutional contexts. He applied the same principles in his pedagogical method. The “Post-Studio” seminar that he taught for decades at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Calif., is legendary. The course’s intensive, hours-long group critiques encouraged students to deeply assess the factors that motivate their art.
Asher’s artwork was equally self-effacing. Finite duration was a fundamental aspect of all of his projects. He considered the complete restoration of the initial conditions from which a work evolved as integral to its completion. All that remained after one of his exhibitions was the catalogue, installation photographs, drawings and other documents generated over the period of the project’s development—ephemeral artifacts that were not afforded the status of artworks in their own right. The contracts he devised in the mid-1970s clearly stipulate that his art is contingent upon strict conditions of display; to moving it would make it cease to exist. Not surprisingly, given these rigorous restrictions, Asher’s art brought him little in terms of commercial success or institutional commemoration.
As the artist Andrea Fraser observed in 2007, “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.”
Temporal elements played an increasingly important part in Asher’s work over the years. His contribution to the exhibition “Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect” (1999) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York consisted of a pamphlet listing the 403 art objects deaccessioned by the museum since its founding. Judging from the insti- tutional response, Asher’s purely documentary piece disturbed the myth of the art-historical finality of the museum, as well as the notion that economic forces are extrinsic to such institutions. It also suggested that the selling and trading of “permanent” collection items is more intrinsic than previously thought to shaping the artistic canons constructed by museums. Time was also a crucial medium of Asher’s 2008 installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, where, with a maze of framing studs, he invoked the walls built for all 44 previous shows in the exhibition hall. His project for the 2010 Whitney Biennial in New York was to extend the museum’s public hours around the clock (at least for the three days that the museum could afford).
Asher’s installation at MuÌ?nster, too, brought time into play. The artist arranged for a 1970s-era trailer to be moved to a different locale in the city each week for the duration of the show. Undertaken in 1977, the scheme initially challenged the notion of sculptural fixity. But with each subsequent installment in the decennial exhibi- tion, a growing portion of the 19 sites where the caravan was originally placed disappeared, swallowed up by urban development. During those weeks in which the initial parking spots were unavailable, the increasingly antique trailer was stored in a garage away from public view. The piece thus highlighted the shifting transformations of the city, while the original trailer, designed for mobility, became increasingly static.
I spoke with Asher one more time about the theft of the trailer in 2007. He strongly suspected that one or two of his former students, or even their students, had committed the larceny. When I asked him what he thought about the fact that police had located the caravan in a nearby town, he chuckled that “art often carries further across time than space.” The culprits have never been found.
Photo: Michael Asher at his graduation from the University of California, Irvine, 1966. Courtesy Special Collections and Archives, University of California, Irvine Libraries.