Dear Michael

Stephen Prina

Stephen Prina read versions of this text at memorials for Michael Asher in Valencia, California, on December 7, 2012, and in New York, New York, on February 17, 2013. Michael Asher died on October 15, 2012.

Dear Michael,

It’s been awhile. I thought this is as good a time as any to catch up.

Last year José Luis and I drove out to see your contribution to It Happened at Pomona. Yes, we conspired to arrive at night after the normal opening hours would have concluded. We thought it the appropriate action to take. The added value factor was avoiding rush hour traffic. Within the context of an historical exhibition, your work maintained the ability to insert a present tense aspect that delivers still. The tacit ideological nod with the security guards completed the ritual of complicity. Thank you.

The experience prompted me to reflect on the time we spent together at CalArts and beyond.

It is true that the proper names of John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler got me to take the plunge, move to California from Illinois in 1978, and enroll in the graduate program there. Besides my amazement that two such esteemed artists could be part of the same faculty, it was not until I arrived on campus that I realized that the Michael Asher on faculty was THE Michael Asher whose work had begun to work so profoundly on me, and my fellow, unsuspecting third-year drawing class members, whom I formally introduced to your work at Northern Illinois University. CalArts certainly offered an embarrassment of riches in terms of available mentors, introducing me to Jon Borofsky and Barbara Kruger in the process, for instance, or, for a brief moment in time, Christopher D’Arcangelo. Your example as an educator branded me for life: being a teacher was part of your practice as an artist, not a chore that stood apart from it. Casually offering me a copy of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment as if it were a compendium of bedtime stories, suggesting that “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” might hold interest for me, was the way you went about your work. They proved to be effective bedtime stories, in that they and other shared materials must have permeated my dreams and my daily life decisively. On another occasion, you announced the visit of a young art historian to your class who carried with him galley proofs for an as-yet-unpublished essay. He was Benjamin Buchloh; the essay was “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression.” Suffice it to say I had never encountered an essay such as this, nor witnessed the polemical finesse of such a writer in the flesh. Your message was clear: we as a class had garnered your respect and deserved this intimate introduction to what would become a significant subsequent journey. The respect is mutual. Thank you.

I thought I had figured it all out before I arrived at CalArts: the landlocked, Midwestern boy would complete his studies in California in two years and then, of course, move to New York to seal the deal, so to speak. In those two years, however, I was called upon to scrutinize the limits of my practice, or, in a word, to become politicized. What would it mean, for instance, to entertain strategies of deconstruction in the domain of the post-studio but carry on, business as usual, when making career choices? I chose to stay in California, work closely with those valued peers I came to know from CalArts, such as Chris Williams, and embark upon a commitment to education that is gratifying for me to this day. Thank you.

As your teaching assistant, the first task I completed was to make photocopies of Victor Burgin’s essay “Modernism in the Work of Art.” I elected to have it printed on pink paper, the rationale for such action being that to print an essay on pink paper is no more arbitrary than printing it on white. Perhaps now this would be considered an act of pinking or queering the text, but I do not remember having recourse to that critical vocabulary or methodology at the time. Perhaps my unconscious did. I don’t remember a comment being made about my so-called intervention, no ripple registered across the surface of decorum, because, it might be said, that was simply the kind of stuff we tried out, tested, under your watch. Thank you.

There are those who would typify you as a contrarian. I never thought that to be the case. Rather you interrogated the perceived limits or received ideas until they were revealed as being as arbitrary as anything else we encounter. Yours was an extended and intricately woven vision of the way the world works.

Not that we always agreed, as Cindy Bernard so handily reminded me a couple of months ago. You might not endorse even the epistolary approach that I adopt for this bit of writing, for example. Once, a couple of years after my graduate studies were complete and around the time you were working on the Museum Haus Lange project in 1982, over dinner I thought aloud to you that this newly described project of yours (rotating the existing floor plan of the Mies van der Rohe design 90 degrees, extending those fabricated walls from interior to exterior space) shared some affinities with the staggered, layered, and seemingly rotated walls built for your contribution to 24 Young Los Angeles Artists at LACMA in 1971. You rejected my proposition vigorously, to state it mildly. Perhaps your response was based on the premise that, once one of your works is made public, it becomes part of public record. You strenuously resist the compulsion to repeat. In retrospect, it is obvious that other artists, such as Lawrence Weiner, adopt another approach by locating a strategy and making myriad manifestations of it so as to “get it into culture.” This lesson of distinction between practices, in and of itself, is useful. But our disagreement spurred me on to another observation: I am not you. An important observation, you might agree, to be had in the face of such a powerful mentor. Thank you.

Your laughter is much noted, that tremendous eruption. Another reaction I recall, however, is, after having been the last presenter on the last panel of the last day of a symposium addressing the future of theory organized by Charles Gaines et al. at the Pacific Design Center, I opened my presentation — my take on the future of theory — with my rendition for vocal and guitar of “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell. You said I was brave. I didn’t consider it an act of bravery on my part — sometimes we simply must sing it, yes? — but thank you anyway.

Most importantly, thank you for your time, Michael.

Love, Stephen

P.S. I know I’ve never said that to you before but, again, I thought there is no time like the present.


Stephen Prina is a visual artist and musician who lives in Los Angeles, California, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. His exhibition As He Remembered It continues at Los Angeles County Museum of Art through August 4, 2013.

Further Reading