Michael Asher, the groundbreaking L.A. conceptual artist and veteran CalArts teacher, died Sunday night after a long illness. He was 69.
A teacher at CalArts since the early 1970s, Asher was famous in the classroom for his wit and candor -- and also his endurance. His marathon "crit" (critique) sessions, designed to review student work, could by his own account run from 10 a.m. to midnight. "I throw away the clock," he once told me.
His own artwork is often described as institutional critique or engagement -- work that grows out of the particular conditions of a museum or gallery environment. But unlike other artists grouped under that umbrella, his work was not fueled by political dogma as much as intelligence and curiosity: How will your art experience change if you alter a choice operating assumption, often in the form of a key architectural element?
One early "intervention," as these works are called, was a 1970 piece at Pomona College that involved removing the gallery doors, essentially forcing the gallery to stay open all day and night. He reprised the concept in different forms recently, both in his contribution for the 2010 Whitney Biennial (for which he won the Bucksbaum Award, given to one artist in the show) and in his work for the 2011 Pacific Standard Time show at the Pomona College Museum of Art.
In 2008, he developed a maze of an installation for the Santa Monica Museum of Art that consisted of rebuilding every internal wall the museum had ever built in that space for temporary exhibitions -- 44 in all. The exhibition functioned both as a retrospective of that institution's history and as a reflection on his own career as a master rebuilder.
Thomas Lawson, dean of the art school at CalArts, wrote on eastofborneo.org: "Michael devoted his work to exploring the limits of the galleries and schools and museums that give context and space for art, poking at all sorts of barriers and shibboleths with a humor that was sometimes sly, and sometimes hilarious. He removed walls and doors and windows from galleries and museum spaces, letting in daylight and air, letting out preconceptions. He listed all the works a museum might wish you didn't know it had deaccessioned, throwing light on policies usually kept from sight. ... He did all this with serious intent -- asking people to consider, or reconsider, the ways in which they thought about art, how they valued it, what they valued it for. There was a politics at work, one that questioned the ethical roots of a system that measures art in dollars, or as a collectible. But Michael loved thinking about art, arguing about ethics and value, and above all laughing."
Santa Monica Museum of Art executive director Elsa Longhauser, who organized the installation "Michael Asher" there, said in a statement: "Michael Asher the teacher and the artist is legendary: his eleven-hour classes at Cal Arts, his 2 AM studio visits with students, his precise and discerning vision. Working with Asher and spending time with him was a privilege. His inimitable work, whether nearly invisible or eloquently present, has illuminated and enriched our cultural legacy."
Los Angeles County Museum of Art Stephanie Barron posted this on Facebook: "He wore such big ideas so gracefully -- with humility. [H]is biting wit, his intense honesty and ability to question everything museums do with intelligence, humor and simplicity will be sorely missed."
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