Michael Asher: July 15, 1943 - October 15, 2012

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Michael Asher, the L.A. Conceptual artist who passed away on October 15, at the age of 69, grew up in a house filled with some of the most advanced art of its time. His mother, Betty Asher, was a prescient supporter of Pop art shown at the Ferus gallery in the 1960's but also bought the earliest work of L.A. artists Larry Bell, Ken Price, Ed Ruscha and many others. With her physician husband Leonard, she held dinner parties designed, in part, to provide these young artists with regular meals.

As a result, Michael Asher was completely comfortable, with contemporary artists and their art. After graduating from UC Irvine in 1966, a young art department that encouraged experimentation, Asher initially produced minimalist wall pieces made of Plexiglas that derived from the aesthetic of teachers like Craig Kauffman. A magenta piece glows as part of the permanent collection of MoCA. But he very quickly moved on to question the conditions and context for making art.


Opening Reception for Michael Asher January 25, 2008
Courtesy of the Santa Monica Museum of Art
Photo by Bruce Morr

Along with John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler, he became one of the Conceptual artists to join the faculty of the newly established Cal Arts in the early 1970's where his teaching methods became the stuff of legend. Christopher Williams, who photographs photographs, recalled one session when Asher discussed his student work with him, one on one, from 4pm to 6am without a break. Williams, like many of the artists who studied with Asher, felt that such generosity and commitment helped them arrive at a certain clarity in their aims as young artists. Barbara Kruger admonished students to take advantage of it, that no one else would spend that sort of time with them. In Asher's classes, students would screen 16mm films, play music or read texts that they found interesting and wanted to share with other students. (This technique was used by Williams himself when he taught at Otis College of Art and Design, where I was chair of Liberal Arts and Sciences for almost a decade, and his classes always were extremely popular.)


Michael Asher, Installation view, January 26-April 12,, 2008
Courtesy of the Santa Monica Museum of Art
Photo by Grant Mudford

Asher is remembered as well for art that has come to be labeled “institutional critique,” since it challenges accepted ideas about art's presentation and value. Last year at Pomona College, his art was to keep the gallery open 24 hours a day for the duration of the exhibition. He also tried to do this for a week at the Whitney Biennial but they only managed three days for budgetary reasons.

At Santa Monica Museum of Art, in 2008, he had reconstructed all the temporary metal supports used for the 44 exhibitions that had been held at the museum, a visual record of the accumulation of exhibition spaces, without the art they had displayed. Yet the effect was eerily moving, as though experiencing the ghosts of exhibitions past.

I remember clearly my first encounter with Michael Asher's work. Collectors Stanley and Elyse Grinstein asked him to do a project at their home. With their permission, and funding, he moved part of the concrete wall surrounding their Brentwood house in by one foot, thus depriving the collectors of pricey real estate while they acquired his work of art. That sly sensibility infused most of Asher's work, making us smile as we think. His legacy was not of things but of ideas.

Banner image: Michael Asher at MOMA opening of The Museum as Muse,1999. Photo by Andrew Freeman