Michael Asher

Santa Monica Museum of Art
Santa Monica, CA
Kimberli Meyer

Michael Asher, Installation view, Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2008.

At last, the Los Angeles art community has been treated to a solo exhibition by its very own Michael Asher, one of the sires of institutional critique. At this exemplary show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA), Asher’s clear and disciplined formula yields a remarkable alignment of idea, site and form. Asher works site-specifically: he responds to an invitation to exhibit by surveying the host venue, identifying key areas of interest, instigating a proposition that responds to the host institution, and manifesting an exhibition according to the principles he establishes. Rejecting the modernist notion that the meaning of artwork is wholly within itself, he emphasizes how the exhibition space is not neutral.1 In the last four decades, Asher has imposed tight constraints on his artistic methodology and produced an array of distinct and provocative works. Inevitably, the precision of Asher’s work effects an emergence of a latent aesthetic that comes from a core idea applied to a field. Asher’s work grounds the viewer with the transparency of its terms, unsettles her with its appearance, and propels her into considering the work’s deeper content and meaning.

For his exhibition at SMMoA, Asher has addressed two of his long-standing interests: architecture and museum history. SMMoA is located in the Bergamot Station complex, a group of art galleries in converted sheds that once housed a transit station and later a series of industrial operations. The architecture of the Bergamot Station is a conglomeration of functional spaces meant to accommodate flow. SMMoA, a non-collecting, Kunsthalle-style space, moved into the complex in 1998 and has been regularly mounting temporary exhibitions there since. In Asher’s piece, the walls of each of these forty-four temporary exhibitions have been reconstructed out of their original materials, but left skinless, resulting in a dense skeleton of exposed metal and wood studs that allows for physical and visual access through the diagrammed walls. The galvanized framework is not unlike the overall architecture of the station: a metal structure with dividing walls where and when necessary. An information room plus an accompanying take-away document explain the piece and list every exhibition title and every floor plan implemented at the SMMoA in chronological order. Together, the installation and the reference material give the viewer all the information necessary to interpret the work.

The installation immediately creates in the viewer an acute awareness of physical space. As she moves through and between the shimmering armature of walls, the viewer sees them in relation to one another, to other viewers, to herself, and to the given floor plans. Some areas of the installation are quite dense, appearing mirage-like as solid masses in the room only to reveal themselves as open upon approach. The work may be understood as a sculpture that contains architecture; it literally brackets a set of display architectures. Forty-four periods in a decade have been orderly packed into the current moment. As time is compressed, space becomes dense; there are also forty-four times as many “architectures” in the Asher show as is usually found in the museum. As such, the work is a magnification of both architecture and time, held in place by the language of sculpture.

The work may be also be comprehended as an x-ray, a de-obscuring of key activities around a work of art. Exposed and visualized are the acts of art making, art viewing, and art display. Art making is de-mystified by the clarity of the artwork’s logic and the transparency of its method: the artwork can be clearly seen and understood as a manifest set of parameters. The installation makes the act of viewing visible: within the artwork’s frame the viewer views through the structure, views others viewing, is viewed by others, and is thereby conscious of the act of viewing. Art display is, in effect, the subject of the work: the diagram of a decade’s worth of exhibitions foregrounds the background, compelling the viewer to reconsider art’s presentation apparatus as integral to the reception and meaning of art. There is a delightful paradox in this work. It is sculpturally aggregative and yet the artwork itself is hollowed out, taking its form exclusively through the articulation of key activities around it.

Many visitors to the SMMoA exhibition have been struck by the phenomenological affect of the work. Art viewers often expect to read Asher’s work in a non-physical way. However, the SMMoA work provides an excellent example of the latent aesthetic that emerges in Asher’s work.2 Its powerful presence is the result of a straightforward artistic method applied to a clear proposition that engages the physical and institutional space of art. Although the hall-of-mirrors affect of the metal stud walls is not intentional, it is structurally related to the logic of the work.3 Dazzled though she may be by the phenomenological qualities of the installation, the viewer has an anchor: she understands what it is she is looking at. The idea is crystal clear, presenting itself in words and floor plans. The transparency of the approach gives the viewer a mental foundation from which to read and experience the work. It enables her to shift back and forth between the sensual impact of the piece and its core idea. The space between these two interpretive modes is generative. The viewer reads the work simultaneously through sensual experience and through mental comprehension–the formalism of architecture and the concept of an art idea are brought together in Asher’s work.

Bergamot Station’s massive trusses, columns and sheathing are materially and structurally related to the temporary walls of the museum. Both systems are casual, functional, and allow for maximum flexibility. SMMoA’s original 1998 design included a removable wall system on a grid in which wall panels could be configured depending on exhibition needs. The system represented the architect’s notion of flexibility, yet in practice it turned out to be cumbersome and limiting, and was shelved in favor of conventional wall framing. Temporary yet bona fide, stud walls benefit from standard construction, are relatively cheap and easy to customize and dismantle. They provide the white space in which artwork may float; their purpose is to naturalize the art in the space.

Such dynamics between concept and form are at play in all of Asher’s works. Though his approach is remarkably consistent, the form and appearance of his works varies widely. For his project at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1991) Asher focused on the public library at the museum. Using the library’s catalogue system, he found one thousand two hundred and two volumes under the heading of “psychology.” He methodically went through each of the books, looking for evidence of users in the form of bookmarks that had been left in the pages of the books. The resulting artwork consisted of photocopies of each page where each bookmark was found, in the same position it was found. Asher had no hand in the individual selection of the pages, their inclusion was derived from the parameters imposed on the project at its inception. What became apparent was the ways in which the juxtapositions of bookmarks and their pages yielded multiple readings. On a page of a book entitled Le mythe de la psychanalyse, a flyer for cassette tape-therapy was found. In a chapter entitled “On the psychology of the so-called occult phenomena,” is a fragment of a complicated mathematical calculation. Chains of associations arise through the images of book pages and forgotten slips of paper. As intriguing coincidences and humorous moments occur in the visual juxtapositions, the work’s meaning and aesthetic emerge through the images of chance encounters. Within the sub-site category of psychology, arguments support the idea that public residue has a psychological character. Looking at this public through its slips–literally and figuratively– the viewer is reminded that psychoanalysis teaches that there are no coincidences. It is precisely “chance” that is in question.

For the exhibition Museum as Muse (Museum of Modern Art in New York, 1999), Asher’s contribution was to produce a publication: Painting and Sculpture from the Museum of Modern Art, Catalogue of Deaccessions 1929 through 1998 by Michael Asher. Most museums, including MoMA, keep their deaccessions strictly out of public view, as getting rid of works of art is fraught with art historical and political landmines. Publishing this hitherto uncompiled list of deaccessions violated an unspoken taboo, and the project is a great example of how Asher mines institutional resources to reveal an underlying ideology. The bright red catalogue of deaccessions is organized in the format of the museum’s own catalogues of its holdings, with each entry listing the artist, artwork, year, and physical description. Surfacing in this simple publication is a complex history of art objects and their movements. The viewer need only browse the list to ponder the stories behind their listings. A mix of humor and intrigue permeate the consideration of the details of the deaccessioned list. In this work the aesthetic generated is at its most abstract– not physical, but theoretical in its evocation of a rich history of art objects and their assigned value. What materializes is yet another form of a skeleton coming out of an institutional closet.

Michael Asher, Installation view, Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2008.

In Europe, Asher’s exhibitions have drawn record numbers of visitors to hosting museums. Here in the U.S., however, he is not considered a “blockbuster” artist, but rather a conceptualist whose subtle interventions into museum practice appeal to the most intellectual of art viewers. Yet Asher’s presence in the L.A. area has been incredibly influential. A professor of long tenure in the Art School at CalArts, he is the founder of the legendary “Post-Studio” course in which students present an artwork that is exhaustively critiqued by the class. The weekly sessions, which build mental endurance as well as critical abilities, typically review the work of two graduate students per day, for four to six hours each, or until every possible angle on the artwork has been thoroughly unpacked and examined. Over the years, the course has influenced hundreds of artists coming out of the MFA program at CalArts, and has built a culture for critically oriented, concept-based art practice.

Art has always been part of Asher’s life. His mother, the well-regarded L.A. gallerist and curator Betty Asher, was passionate about art. Artists often stayed at the Asher family home, and the discourse of art was integral to Asher’s upbringing. This education gave Asher the ability to focus not just on the object of art, but also on those forces that determine its value and meaning. As the artistically generous SMMoA work confirms, Asher’s record speaks well for foundation and clarity in conceptual-based art practice. Many contemporary artists use the term “conceptual” to describe their work, but too often those works operate from a murky premise and rely on arbitrary decision-making. Asher’s body of work makes a strong case for the cultivation of a clear proposition in relation to a designated field. It also highlights questions around site and specificity, as the core of Asher’s work stems from the identification and activation of a specificity within a site. Asher studies the site carefully and selects particular points of intervention; he has developed the expertise to identify generative locations. while he is unlikely to employ an identical strategy on two distinct sites, he does repeat strategies in the same site, as with his contribution to Muenster Sculpture Projects in each of its four showings in 1977, 1987, 1997, and 2007. The premise of Muenster Sculpture Project did not change over the decades, so Asher saw no reason to change his work’s strategy. At SMMoA, the museum’s architectural context and its Kunsthalle-style history intersected in Asher’s focus on temporary exhibition construction and its relationship to art reception, design, and the built context. In Asher’s work, meaning is linked to an idea, and form is linked to its site. The work is thus inextricable from the site, i.e. site-specific. This merits mentioning because the term “site-specific” is frequently misused where such terms as “site- responsive,” “site-oriented,” or “site-adaptive” would be more accurate.

Ultimately, Asher’s contribution stems from the finely tuned alignment of artistic position, applied wisdom and chosen field. Position + intelligence + target = potential agency. This agency is available to all of us; we have nothing if not our own position and intelligence. If Asher’s approach can yield such an elegant connection between idea, site and form, perhaps it is appropriate to take his work as a challenge. May we, as earnest and presumably intelligent people who engage in cultural exchange, utilize who we are and what we know toward a valid and artful purpose.


Kimberli Meyer is an alumnus of “Post-Studio” and the Director of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, at the Schindler House.


  1. For a more complete description and discussion of Asher’s work, see Miwon Kwon, “Support and Decoration: Michael Asher’s Critique of the Architecture of Display,” catalogue essay for Michael Asher, Santa Monica Museum of Art (Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2008). See also Michael Asher, in collaboration with editor Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Writings 1973-1983 on Works 1969-1979 (Nova Scotia and Los Angeles: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, 1983).
  2. Regarding the aesthetic in Asher’s work, Benjamin Buchloh wrote “Asher’s work committed itself to the development of a practice of situational aesthetics that insisted on a critical refusal to provide an existing apparatus with legitimizing aesthetic information, while at the same time revealing, if not changing, the existing conditions of the apparatus” (Editor’s Note, Writings 1973-1983 on Works 1969-1979, vii). through his work Asher is critical of unexamined assumptions about “beauty” and meaning in art, and resists the creation of a particular sensual experience or artistic style. As such, Asher’s engagement with an exhibition situation is a strategy to dismantle obfuscations around the conditions of aesthetic production and reception.
  3. In conversation with the author on April 6, 2008, Asher indicated that the hall-of-mirrors affect of the metal walls was neither intended nor expected.