PRINT April 1972

Michael Asher: The Thing of It Is...

IF THE HISTORY OF MODERN art is not itself a straight line, certainly straight lines inhabit it—unerring connections from one group of artists to another, a year, five years, or several decades apart. Until the recent proliferation of personal, neo-Romantic, magical styles, by far the deepest groove was that traced by reductive formalism; art objects (or, in painting, the surface of an object) became steadily simpler, e.g., Gabo and Gonzalez to Smith and Judd, de Kooning and Hofmann to Reinhardt and Noland. Although a still fashionable Greenbergian axiom—a work is modern to the degree it consists only of those means peculiar to its own medium—channeled many recent oeuvres, perhaps reductive formalism is just an aspect of industrialism’s general, “If it doesn’t really do anything, throw it out.” So, along with spats, the running board, leaded glass windows, bow ties and surrey fringe, out went figuration, fancy brushwork, welding seams, patina, impasto, funny shapes, relational composition, etc. Finally, with a logic inevitable since Manet, out went the objet d’art itself. After all, in a technological society, static objects are debits, and what do art objects do, save hang or sit and await the implosion of the sun?

The decline of the art object is not accompanied, however, by a paucity of artists’ objects per se; only the Conceptualists, for all their puffed-up virtues and very real faults, operate with a minimum of hardware. The rest—earth-workers, big painters, foundry sculptors, et al—simply replace the bulk of finished objects with the bulk of tools. But art without “specific objects” (an early alternative title to Minimal) cannot be perfunctorily dismissed with the casual observations that: a) physical mass is now plugged in behind the walls; or b) Conceptualism is only Rochefoucauld come to West Broadway. Michael Asher, for instance, is, as far as I know, the best non-object formalist artist in Los Angeles, and he eloquently demonstrates the possibilities of the mode, as well as its drawbacks.

Asher, 28, agrees that the constant, abundant, early presence of certified art objects in his home may have satiated him with “things” requiring “a great deal of visual and material attention.” After a student career in New Mexico, “producing more art objects faster than I thought anyone could” in order to redeem some bad anthropology grades with better ones in art, the New York Studio School (“what was important was not the post-Cubist Abstract Expressionism they wanted the students to do, but just being in New York . . . I saw Flavin’s white tube show while I was there”), and U. C. Irvine, from which he escaped with a degree, Asher says the “jumping off point” came during 1967–69. The results were “air works,” constructed in a garage-studio; these comprised a clean room with air blown in through small nozzles a) from the upper corners toward the center, b) downward, in a line across the room, and c) singly, straight down from the center of the ceiling, denoting, respectively, the linear, planar, and ambient. A similar air work was exhibited at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, and a “curtain-of-air” became Asher’s entry in the watershed 1969 Whitney “Anti-Illusion” show. (The Whitney work was ill-received: a little ahead of its time—going whole hog where the others went half—it was out of step with the floppy, proletarian New York heaviness.) The “empty room” in MoMA’s later “Spaces” fared similarly; Artforum said it was a “mystery” why he was given a slot following the Whitney “disaster.” Asher’s work might be underestimated since it isn’t shown often, not at all in commercial galleries because there’s nothing to sell, unlike the photo-documentation of “non-object” Smithson, or the showmanship of Christo’s Cardiff Giants. Each work is an exhibition (and vice versa, an inherent disadvantage of purist, non-object art). Then followed a proposed exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum (a ceiling tilting to the floor in one of the cupolas—cancelled due to costs), another demiarchitectural room in bent-hourglass floor plan at Pomona, and his last shown work, a series of parallel walls in the County Museum’s “24 Young Artists” of last year (Artforum, October, 1971).

Asher’s focal difficulty as an accessible artist is his insistence-by-default on Art; he has no repertory of art history dialectics, like the post-Minimalists, no RANDy researcher’s points to prove, like Irwin, no neo-Duchampian head fakes, like Nauman, and no supradecorative tours de force, like Bell. Asher’s art is like a gentler, more expansive Reinhardt, without the withering reinforcing dogma; but he shares the attitude of art-as-art and refuses to dress his pieces up with theory. The work is the work, alluding to nothing but itself. “What is it you’re after?” is the question I reinserted, in slight variations, during two lengthy conversations, hoping for a convenient quote from Scientific American on optic nerves, a discourse on Bell’s failings with glass, or a scathing denunciation of the salable object. But the closest I came was his answer to a suggested affinity with “performance pieces”: “I guess I’m just too serious for that.” As Asher’s work leaves off an inch short of didactics (the “24 Artists” walls have no booby trap dispersement; the MoMA space was not cutely “empty” à la Yves Klein; and the “air works” were unnervingly low-key), his methods retain the ambivalence which has always maintained the artist’s high ground between elevated decoration and dilettante science. Asher regards himself as somewhat cerebral, leaving little to chance in the final project, but his research consists of informal conversations with tradesmen rather than library time; he counts contiguity of surface and interior unobtrusiveness as esthetic necessities, but dislikes the labor his pieces force him to do. From an a technological stance, he assumes “anything can be done.”

What Asher attempts is an old-fashioned esthetic cohesiveness in a total situation, a real time (uninterrupted by events or things) through a deceptively simple “balance of lighting,” and “uniformity of surface,” while increasingly and hopefully finally expunging the last traces of “illusionism”—for Asher, present in any kind of inherently effect-getting colored surface or play of light. Pursuing these Augean goals, his work has utilized conspicuously nonvisual (tactile, auditory) senses, combinations with the visual—trying to get an is-ness of space itself (what Robert Morris called an “art of being”), and now, for a proposed work, reverting to the visual alone.

Sensory combinations were the most ambitious but not entirely successful, owing in part to a fundamental error common to most non-object formalist art and, remarkably, shared by almost everyone else in the art business: assuming that the (viewer’s) consciousness is a single location in space, receiving data from incoming sensations which project a feeling of palpable space. In a 1969 unpublished text, Asher says:

In order to execute a cohesive work using these three fields of perception, noise, light, and air are used as directly as possible and, at the same time, they are equally as a vague whole. . . . In this context, the word “direct” seems to mean the easiest or most comfortable way of sensing or experiencing. (Italics mine.)

Here, Asher operates on the basis of sensation, but he intuits the need for something more than a combination of senses. The curator of the “Spaces” exhibition, Jennifer Licht, went curiously in the other direction, toward 18th-century ether, saying, “Actual space is, of course, immaterial, because it cannot be apprehended by any of the five senses. . . .” But it can be apprehended by simple being-in-the-world:

In this sense my body is everywhere in the world; it is over there in the fact that the lamppost hides the bush which grows along the path, as well as in the fact that a passing car swerves from right to left behind the truck or that the woman who is crossing the street is in front of the cafe. My body is co-extensive with the world, spreading across all things, and at the same time it is condensed into this single point which all things indicate and which I am without being able to know it. This explanation should allow us to understand the meaning of the senses.1

Of course, Asher’s art deprives us of the objects which reveal themselves to us and allow us to be in them, or, to put it less philosophically, Asher contrives a combination of objects (walls, floors, paint, lights) deployed to disguise themselves and make us feel there are no objects at all, and thus to cause our being to shrink back from the world a bit. When we feel it shrinking, we question it (“Am I here, really?”) and we tingle at the risk of not being (the same kind of tingle we get, strangely, from losing ourselves in a really good art object, even an illusionistic painting). The essential point is objectivity; things reveal themselves to us by our simply being among them. If we received only incoming dots of sensory data comparable to the computer’s binary blips, we would have to relinquish our humanity, our freedom (to a master programmer, God), or admit to chaos (no programmer). The problem is not that an artist like Asher “cuts drastically into the wholeness of human experience . . . isolating one facet,”2 but that he codifies the core of human experience (being) on the tentative basis of sensation. In reverting to the visual, as Asher says he plans (concurrent with Documenta), and continuing his exorcism of illusion (and thus, sensation), Asher’s art should gain objectivity and profundity.

I’ve left one matter unattended: the social question. Long, long ago, asking what was the greater practical good of formalist art became the laughable province of coffee-house reformers, maudlin illustrators, and die-hard Marxist critics like John Berger. Lately, eco-activists and politicized artists (not art) have given that worry another kick in the rear, but it still isn’t quite respectable. What prompts me to resuscitate it ineffectively here is Asher’s inclusion in his unpublished text that, “due to the unassuming nature of the finished work, it seems the viewer must happen upon it in complete innocence and without pre-conceived ideas,” a burden on the viewer that he has since found “presumptuous,” however. A work like Asher’s room in “Spaces” requires institutional protection (hardware, pure walls, limited access, guards, financing, announcements telling you to expect art), exactly the sort of place which (going through the MoMA turnstile) preconditions any viewer. Is it fair to expect an unassuming viewing of an innocent work in an intensely assuming setting? And to extend the point, perhaps unfairly, into outright politics, we have with Asher and other formalist artists an ostensibly neutral, universalist work which, should you pursue it, is actually partisan and specific.3 David Antin, in referring to non-object formalist art in general, notes “a tenuity of format, a kind of affluent spirituality that bathes all Los Angeles like a dubious sunset,”4 and goes on to indicate that our new non-object esthetic of ethereality is really a middle class retreat, a quickie tonic to daily vulgar materialism, rather than a new awakening. Or, in the context of Revolution, it can have a secret, reactionary aggressiveness: “a certain ostentatious cult of values, of moral purity, of the inward man is secretly akin to violence, hate, and fanaticism.”5 It is unjust to saddle Asher with all this, but his work is, I think, one of the most profound current refinements of a disengagement from “things.” But the world, like those persistent “things,” has its objectivity, and you can’t disengage from that.

Peter Plagens


1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, New York, 1964, p. 294.

2. Dore Ashton, “New York Commentary,” Studio International, March, 1970, p. 118.

3. Formalist works are “partisan and specific” inasmuch as they exist in the Western Democracies only by grace of capitalist society and bourgeois institutions; for instance, Ace Gallery’s austerely luxurious space rendered into a lovely, white art work via Robert Irwin’s placement of a wall of nylon scrim reads not just as a basic sonata on perception, but as a testament to the surplus capital and leisure time which makes the art audience largely the merchant class and their privileged children—so susceptible to such rarified titillation. Michael Asher objects (rightly, I admit in part) to the innuendo of my reference and I quote a few of his points, in the hope of approximating fairness:

Let’s observe the “Spaces” exhibition more specifically, due to its emphasis. Of the twelve exhibitions I have participated in, two were pay-to-see, the Modern obviously being one. The artists and staff of “Spaces” helped constitute a group with enough leverage to open the museum twice a week, in the evenings, so that viewers would not have to pay admission. Providing my source of information is correct, the large gates to the sculpture garden were open all evening several evenings a week for the Pulsa group, not to mention Calder and a few other heavies that couldn’t be removed. But to my understanding, this was a first for the Modern and lasted the duration of the “Spaces” exhibition, as the artists had requested. We had also requested that nothing other than the catalogue and the usual calendar go out about “Spaces.” Had announcements been made in reference to expecting art, we were not aware of it. As for the opening, it was for the participating artists and people that worked on “Spaces.” Up to this point there had been nothing but black tie, sit-down meals for the Board. As you will see in the catalogue, everything was financed by donation from the outside, except for wall stud, ceiling joist, and dry wall. Standard grade construction has been a part of all my work since La Jolla. Crowd control has been a problem for any major exhibition in the garden wing. If you are from Manhattan, it doesn’t stop you from viewing the work.

I would be hard pressed to be so precious as to consider my work a new awakening or new sensibility. For me to take such a stand is presumptuous. But neither will you find me sitting around in a white robe entrenched in deep thought as to what I can do to make the viewer jack off. I follow my everyday thoughts around town with my street clothes on, and if someone mentions the word “exhibition,” I do what is necessary for my own personal pleasure.

4. David Antin, “It Reaches a Desert in Which Nothing Can be Perceived but Feeling,” Art News, March 1971, p. 40.

5. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror, Boston, 1967, p. 102.