PRINT April 1980

Michael Asher: Recent Work

No one would deny that the painter has nothing to do with things that are not visible. The painter is concerned solely with representing what can be seen.
—Leon Battista Alberti, Della Pittura, 1435

NO ONE TODAY WOULD DENY Alberti’s preceding statement, although one pauses in realizing that it has taken five hundred years for the artist to disengage his work from Renaissance principles of perspective. The work of Michael Asher severs all remaining allegiance to the traditional division between real and artificial space.

Works by Asher were on view in Chicago last summer, one at the Art Institute of Chicago and one at the Museum of Contemporary Art, affording the opportunity to see two of his recent pieces at once. The work for the Art Institute represented Asher’s participation, along with that of 15 other artists, in the “73rd American Exhibition.” The piece at the Museum of Contemporary Art was an acquisition for the permanent collection. These two works, by coincidence exhibited simultaneously in the same city, must be considered in the light of Michael Asher’s work as a whole.

As his contribution to the “73rd American Exhibition,” Michael Asher moved the Art Institute’s sculpture of George Washington—a replica in bronze of the 18th-century marble statue by Jean Antoine Houdon—from its position outside of the Museum to the galleries inside. In this way he created a work of art which relied totally on the given elements of a given situation: on the existence of the Houdon sculpture, on the sculpture’s prior placement outdoors, and on the options for the sculpture’s installation within the building. Transcending the sum eventualities of these separate factors, the work synthesized complex ideas involving the temporal, spatial and intellectual context of art.

The bronze George Washington, the specific vehicle Asher chose to implement this work, is one of 22 authorized casts. The original white marble sculpture stands in the rotunda of the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia, and the circumstances surrounding its creation are thoroughly documented. In 1784 the Assembly of the State of Virginia resolved “to take measures for procuring a statue of General Washington, to be of the finest marble and best workmanship.” At the Assembly’s request, Thomas Jefferson, then residing in Paris as American Minister to France, invited the most renowned French sculptor of the period, Jean Antoine Houdon, to carry out the commission.

Houdon arrived in the United States in 1785 in order to study the model in person. He made a mold of Washington’s face and took precise dimensions. When the sculpture was conceived, Washington had already retired to his farm as the victorious hero of the Revolutionary War, not to be elected President until 1789; the sculpture, signed “1788” and sent from France to the States in 1796, represents Washington in his capacity as General.

The 22 copies have been placed at various times in different locations in the United States and abroad. The Art Institute of Chicago purchased its cast in 1917, during World War I, a time of heightened patriotic awareness and culminating interest in the American Revolutionary period. Since its acquisition, the sculpture has remained (with the exception of one brief interlude) in front of the Michigan Avenue entrance to the Museum. Installed on a four-foot pedestal, it was first positioned under the central arch of the building’s ground floor façade. In recent years it has been moved forward on the same line, out from under the arch, to stand at the top of the steps. To all intents and purposes, George Washington has functioned as permanent fixture in front of the Art Institute’s façade for more than half a century.

Asher relocated the sculpture of George Washington to the center of Gallery 219, a relatively small room of the Museum, 261/2 feet by 22 feet by 15 feet, devoted to European painting, sculpture and decorative art of the late 18th century, installed in 1976 by the late John Maxon, the Museum’s Vice President for Collections and Exhibitions. These works are displayed from floor to ceiling against a gray, blue-green background, and arranged in a rigidly symmetrical format, according to size and shape. This installation format refers to the 18th-century practice of hanging paintings in close proximity, often symmetrically and one above the other, so as to fully occupy the empty spaces of the room or gallery, this with an eye to the creation of patterns. As in Gallery 219, the mounting of small sculptures and portrait busts on shelves was also customary in the period. Although unmistakably a re-creation, Gallery 219 resembles an 18th-century setting.

Asher’s installation of the green patinated, weathered bronze statue, prominently in the center of Gallery 219, changed the aspect of the room as a whole, while the sculpture itself lost its previous meaning. Having been displaced from the front entrance of the Museum, where it had existed as a commemorative and decorative object, George Washington was put in the position, so to speak, of having to be looked at in conjunction with other art. Standing in the middle of the gallery at eye level, no longer on its aggrandizing pedestal, the sculpture of Washington was divested of its purpose as a public monument.

In a short text prepared to guide visitors between Gallery 219 and the rest of the exhibition area, Asher stated: “In this work I am interested in the way the sculpture functions when it is viewed in its 18th-century context instead of in its prior relationship to the façade of the building. . . . Once inside Gallery 219 the sculpture can be seen in connection with the ideas of other European works of the same period.” The bronze cast coincided with the other works in Gallery 219 stylistically and formally; one could hardly question its presence there, except on grounds of its lesser esthetic merit. The humor, moreover, in finding the “Father of Our Country” in the rarified atmosphere of the European 18th century (not to mention the sculpture’s outdoor look) subtly reinforced the fact that the sculpture, as a work of art, did not transcend its artistic context.

Toward the realization of his piece, Asher followed standard museum procedures of installation, but in the process he exempted his own work from similar handling; by the relocation of a sculpture, that is, he created a work which in turn could not be relocated and still remain the same work. The “73rd American Exhibition” constituted the immediate context of this piece, but as Asher himself concluded in his written statement for the exhibition, “By locating the sculpture within its own time frame in Gallery 219, I am placing it within the framework of a contemporary exhibition, through my participation in that exhibition.”

The unification of the Houdon with its art historical context under the auspices of the “73rd American Exhibition” occasioned further innovation. Not only was an entire 18th-century gallery installation included in a contemporary exhibition, but 18th-century works—including a sculpture possessing all the most traditional attributes—were used as the material for the creation of a totally original work of art.

Asher conceived a work of art which circumvented institutional procedures and boundaries while based on the curatorial methods of and composed of the contents of such an institution, but he went one step further, too. In a radical fashion, the piece eliminated the traditional, though constantly changing, division between art and non-art reality. The entire installation of Gallery 219, including the Houdon sculpture, furnished the immediate, given reality of the piece; at the same time the actual or “real” space of the gallery remained the space of the viewer as well. The paintings on the walls, moreover, individually retained their status as art, in that Gallery 219 never ceased to serve as a museum gallery. Within Asher’s piece the paintings, too, functioned as elements of the given reality. Having turned traditional perspective astonishingly around with the art on the walls becoming reality-in-the-context-of-art, as opposed to reality becoming art-in-the-context-of-reality, the work wittily commented on itself. The figure of Washington, deprived of its heroic stature, served as a reminder of the traditional, spatially isolated sculpture—the monument—now a catalyst for a work of art.

The placement of the Houdon in its proper art historical niche did not, of course, increase its esthetic value. Instead, it interpreted the important role played by context in the perception of the sculpture. The work presented during the same period at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but planned earlier than the piece at the Art Institute, illuminated this same principle.

The Museum of Contemporary Art celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1977. The next year it launched an expansion program and, after a period of remodeling, reopened in March 1979. The increased interior space has afforded the Museum the opportunity to enlarge its bookstore, to expand its exhibition program, and, in particular, to embark on the acquisition of a permanent collection, as its original purpose had been only for temporary exhibitions.

The first Museum building, formerly a brick bakery converted to offices for Playboy magazine, was remodeled by the firm of Brenner, Danforth, Rockwell in 1966. These architects transformed the front of the building by applying stucco to its façade. The architects for the expanded Museum, Booth, Nagle and Hartray, Ltd. were later confronted with the problem of connecting this structure with an adjoining three-story brownstone, purchased by the Museum as an annex. The architects’ solution unified the two buildings in a single façade. A new, grand entranceway, stair tower and trussed gallery has replaced the former, more modest stuccoed exterior. The design of the building is based on a five and one-half foot square module, expressed on the façade by aluminum panels hung from the concrete block structure. The aluminum panels, applied to the flat face of the Museum, turn the east corner of the building. From an angle one observes how they encase the façade but stop short of the original building.

The trussed gallery is the most prominent feature of the façade and “functions as a showcase so that art is visible from the street.”1 Its two rows of glass windows carry through the five and one-half foot square module and are lined up with the two rows of aluminum panels on either side of it.

In an accompanying description of his piece, Asher stated:

In this work, I have removed from the façade the two horizontal rows of aluminum panels that are in line with the Bergman Gallery and have placed them on the interior wall of the Gallery. The ten panels from the east side of the building and the eight from the west are arranged inside so that they correspond exactly to their previous positions outside.2

At the close of the exhibition, the Museum returned the panels to their original location on the exterior.

When they were hung together on the inside exhibition wall, the double rows of panels demanded consideration as art. The panels from the east side of the building, as a group, required 22 feet of wall space, and the west panels 243/4 feet. Asher specified that the remaining 30 feet of blank wall area could be used for the work of other artists.3 The divided, metal relief appeared surprisingly suited to its setting. Because of its repeated modular sections and its industrial-looking surface, it assumed the attributes of Minimalist art.

The piece in its entirety could be seen only from the Museum’s exterior, although to be fully grasped it had to be inspected from within the Bergman Gallery, too. Duplicating their positions on the outside, the panels hung on the exhibition wall just as they had hung on the building, replicating the flat nature of its façade. Having been taken from their decorative, architectural context and placed on the exhibition wall, the panels came to resemble art. The removal of the aluminum panels exposed the concrete block underlying the façade and emphasized their purely decorative purpose on the outside of the building. Extraneous to the physical support of the structure, the aluminum panels instead support the image of the building as a shiny, new, successful presence in the community. By moving decorative components from the building’s exterior to its interior where they were read in the terms of art, Asher “exhibited” the building in the form of its own image.

The Museum commissioned this work for its permanent collection. It is a work that must be handled like a periodically repeated exhibition and, when not on view, it disappears. By being put “in storage,” as Asher has noted, it vanishes back into the building.4 The Museum as the object of investigation, therefore, provided the material for the resulting work of art, which, once acquired, could not be deposited within it.

The pieces at the Art Institute and at the Museum of Contemporary Art, visually distinct but sharing methods in common, mark yet another extension of Asher’s thinking as it has evolved over more than a decade. Works exhibited by Asher in 1969 and 1970 may seem far removed from these recent works whose meanings depend entirely on the manipulation of given elements of given situations; in retrospect, however, one sees how this early work prefigures, though in no way predicts, the later work.

The work shown at the Whitney Museum in the “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” exhibition of 1969 grew out of a series of pieces which Asher had planned in his garage two years before. Utilizing an air blower and plenum chamber, which he concealed slightly below the ceiling, Asher directed a curtain of air, 8 feet high by 5 feet wide, into the passageway between the large and small rooms of the Museum’s exhibition area. The height of the passage, the air curtain extended from the long wall defining the west side of the passage but stopped short of the wall on the other side. The air blower produced an invisible plane of air, almost undetectable by touch. This use of air, ubiquitous and vital (but taken for granted as a substance), allowed Asher to create a work which corresponded to the other pieces in the exhibition made of “non-art” materials while barely intruding on the surrounding space.

As this plane of air implicitly suggested the desire to present a work without a physical presence (although it had a physical existence), successive works explicitly dealt with the dilemma of making art without introducing a physically delineated or secondary object into the given reality. A piece exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in the “Spaces” exhibition of 1969 examined the possibility of delineating the surrounding space.

The space constructed for the purpose of this exhibition measured 19 feet 10 inches by 22 feet 10 inches by 7 feet 10 inches. Openings were left at two of its opposite corners for entry and exit. The room was acoustically constructed to absorb and muffle sound in proportion to the exterior noise levels. Those corners not accommodating the entry-exit openings approached the state of being acoustically dead. Ambient light from the hallway outside lit the space inside unobstrusively since the “intention [of the work] was to define real space acoustically.”5 The sound patterns regulated within the room’s four walls also regulated the visitors’ experience of the container, not as an empty volume but in accordance with the volume of noise as it changed proportionately and diagonally across the room.

This and other related works signaled the eventual, total elimination of the distinction between container and content effected in later works, which had nothing to do with sensory control. In 1973, Asher began to open up the pre-established container for art, the exhibition space, as an object for consideration and the subject of the work. He achieved this by removing only functional (and functioning) components of the given space and by drawing attention to conditions built into the contemporary context of art presentation. A work done in 1973 for the Toselli Gallery in Milan serves as a key piece in understanding Asher’s ideas as they have developed since the late 1960s, and how they foreshadow the two Chicago works.

Asher had planned for a series of exhibitions in European galleries during the summer of 1973, but decided definitely on his solution for the Toselli piece only after he had seen the space. As he describes:

My proposal constituted sandblasting the existing paint off the walls and ceiling and in so doing exposing the plaster surfaces underneath. Once it was decided upon and started, the whole operation took four men approximately four days. It was a matter of taking off every trace of the many layers of paint which had been applied over the years. In this sense it appeared to be going back in time to when the first cover coat was applied after the original building had been constructed. A past surface was then exposed as a new work in a new time frame for a new generation of people.6

According to Asher’s further description of the work, “the newly exposed walls and ceiling were brown plaster.” Because of the floor’s initial uncoated condition, the walls became one with it.

The questions broached in the Toselli piece have their ramifications in all of Asher’s following work. He writes:

Curiously enough, the white painted surface always covered over a much richer surface underneath. The complete removal, a subtractive condition, became additive with the exposure of the plaster. With the notion of exposure, other variables concerning the gallery and its surroundings became recognized. Plaster, left as an unpainted surface, is mostly found outdoors. By sand-blasting the wall surfaces, I essentially brought the recollection of an outdoor material indoors. The plaster surface, previously concealed by the generally accepted presentation surface of white paint, became in this case, the physical content of the exhibition, however, bringing to the surface (recollection), as underlying content the thought of white paint. If through its absence, the viewer is reminded of the white paint, an interesting question that is then raised is how that surface (white paint) must affect the context of art usually seen supported by it? If the viewers are to assume that the space has been “liberated” from the white paint support, they have only to view the plaster to appreciate the inherent paradox that the plaster is another support surface and is as much an integral part of the gallery as the white paint (another coating).7

For an exhibition at the Claire Copley Galley in Los Angeles a year later, Asher followed the same procedure of adding to the given reality by subtracting from it when he took away the internal, free-standing wall of the gallery. The owner had built the partition as a barrier between the business and exhibition areas of the space. Except for the routine repainting of the gallery and the replacement of a carpet section, nothing else was done. The restoration of the space to its prior condition disclosed the inner mechanisms of the gallery. The owner, her desk, her storage area, and all of the gallery workings were on display for the period of the exhibition. A picture window separated the gallery from the street. While viewers inside the gallery looked back at external reality, viewers outside could see the contents of the gallery as the content of the work.

In 1976, when invited to exhibit at the Clocktower in New York, Asher again employed the principle of removal toward the realization of his ideas. For this work, which extended over the three floors of the Clocktower’s space, Asher took out the glass and fixtures of windows on the 13th and 14th and 15th floors, and removed the hardware from the doors on the 14th and 15th floors leading to the exterior of the Clocktower. Reviewing the exhibition for Artforum, Nancy Foote recalled that she “noticed the sun streaming in through the paneless windows, felt the breeze and heard the sound of the traffic below.”8 According to Asher, the windows not only pointed to the outdoors, but the elements of outdoor weather filled the interior. In the previous two works, the interior exhibition space literally contained the piece while the reference to or the perception of the exterior contributed to its meaning.

During the “Ambiente Arte” exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1976, Asher confronted the problem of the given space in a different manner. In order to avoid what he termed “modifying” the space,9 he placed 22 simply designed, folding stools into the allotted space, not as sculptural objects, but for the purpose of visitor seating. Visitors could enter and exit through the door of an adjacent porch overlooking the exhibition grounds or through a door opening onto another work in the exhibition. By virtue of the stools which encouraged visitors parading through the pavilion to sit, Asher siphoned off the activity of looking at art to form the substance of his work. The work depended on the existence of the exhibition rather than on the space as a surface or container. Although confined to a spatially circumscribed area, the work could not be defined as a spatially circumscribed object. It was the embodiment of the exhibition as an event and, as such, fit the specific theme of the exhibition, Environmental art. The “environment,” was informed by the given situation that Asher channeled into the offered space. In a different way from the Toselli, Copley and Clocktower works, the Biennale piece makes clear how Asher’s work seeks to uncover and express its support or context, rather than being placed within or being dependent upon it. In major works following the Biennale, Asher continued to confront the problem of creating a work of art without importing a reality of his own into the reality already given.

Asher’s work for the “Skulptur” exhibition at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst and Kulturgeschichte, Münster, in 1977, achieved allegorical proportions in its reference to the contemporary setting or context, and as a “representation” of sculpture.10 Like the Biennale work, the Münster piece both defined and was defined by the requirements of the given situation: in this case, the installation of an outdoor sculpture in relation to its site. For the 19 weeks of the exhibition, an 11-foot trailer was parked in 19 different areas of the city and suburbs. The trailer was stationed for a week at a time and changed its location each Monday, when the Museum was closed. Starting at the Museum, it moved away from it during the first half of the exhibition, on a course chosen by Asher. During the second half, it worked its way back toward the Museum. In each of its successive positions the trailer was juxtaposed with, and absorbed into, a different kind of environment, rural or urban, unpopulated or residential, near the University or in a shopping mall.

Visitors to the exhibition received information at the Museum concerning the whereabouts of the trailer. Asher connected the trailer, a seemingly self-contained but symbiotic unit, with its varied surroundings. A non-heroic personification, the trailer personified the isolated, unattached object seeking its necessary support or context. As adapted to Asher’s purposes, the trailer simultaneously delineated the site of the work and the work itself. The Museum, as the sponsor of the exhibition, provided the work with its center of gravity, not only as a fixed point for the beginning and end of the trailer’s route, but as the premise for the work’s existence, its existence within the exhibition, and thus within the context of art.

The supporting situation or given set of conditions has determined and imbued all of Asher’s recent work. It both examines and expounds its context through the manipulation of elements or objects which previously functioned separately from art. The Chicago pieces add another dimension to the development of Asher’s work. By altering the exterior placement of Houdon’s Washington or the aluminum panels, Asher revealed the power of the interior art context “in view” of the unseen exterior façade supporting it. Much as he had done by removing the white paint support in the Toselli Gallery, but in connection with a more complex situation, Asher uncovered the assumptions supporting the work as the way of defining the work.

Two recently completed works—one for a private collection and the other for an exhibition at the Corps De Garde in Groningen, Holland—confirm the guiding principle of Asher’s thinking. For the private collector Asher reconstructed a section of the cement block wall surrounding the house and property. A repeated element of the wall, the section was defined by the repetition of equally spaced, identical piers. Asher, in effect, had the section moved forward, out from between its piers. While its back remained contiguous with the front of the wall, the section was set forward as a separate planar surface. For the Corps De Garde exhibition, Asher maintained a stand at the weekly Saturday market from which T-shirts provided by him could be sold. Each buyer’s telephone number was heat-transferred vertically in black on the shirt. Both sides of the shirt were identical so that the number could be worn on the front or the back.

These diverse works share common ideas regarding ownership and participation. The wall, serving as a divider between the owners and their possessions, became another possession.

The neighbors on the other side are recipients of the work as well, and it is a possession which cannot be dislodged. Subverting us, a boundary, the wall functions as a work with no boundary between the object of use and the object of art. The Groningen work involved the concept of ownership in a completely different way. The work was built upon the participation of those who—while doing their errands at the market—chose to purchase their own telephone numbers and publicly display this mark of identity on the surface of the shirt. The work, as its means, communicates the actual means of communication from exterior to interior and vice versa.

The wall, as a work, is fixed and concrete. The T-shirt work is mobile and ephemeral. They are material and three dimensional and belong—with all of Asher’s work—in the tradition of sculpture.11 Asher redefines this tradition by reexamining relationships between the material, its space, and its support. His works cannot be isolated as objects from the non-art reality in which they take part or from which they extend.

Anne Rorimer is associate curator of 20th-century painting and sculpture. The Art Institute of Chicago.



1. Michael Asher, written statement for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, June 1979.

2. Ibid.

3. This installation coincided with a retrospective exhibition of the work of Sol LeWitt. Lines to Points on a Grid: White Lines from Center, Sides, and Corners, 1976, white chalk on black wall, Whitney Museum of American Art, Gift of the Gilman Foundation, was installed in the space.

4. Michael Asher, unpublished notes.

5. Ibid.

6. Michael Asher, in catalogue to be published by the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Holland, originally prepared for the 1977 exhibition of Asher’s work.

7. Ibid.

8. Nancy Foote, from a review, Artforum, Summer 1976, p. 64.

9. Michael Asher, lecture at N.A.M.E. Gallery, Chicago, June 1979.

10. The work is considered by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh in “Context—Function—Use Value, Michael Asher’s Re-Materialization of the Artwork,” 1977, in the forthcoming catalogue to be published by the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Holland.

11. See Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Michael Asher and the Conclusion of Modernist Sculpture.” Lecture delivered at the Art Institute of Chicago, November 1979, and to be published in 1980 in a Centennial publication sponsored by the Auxiliary Board.