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PRINT April 2013

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Michael Asher

Michael Asher, no title, 1973. Installation view, Galleria Franco Toselli, Milan. Photo: Giorgio Colombo.

BENJAMIN H. D. BUCHLOH

MICHAEL ASHER seems to have been the only American artist in the second half of the twentieth century (with Marcel Broodthaers being his European counterpart) for whom the challenge of producing art in late capitalist society remained a perpetually irresolvable contradiction, if not a provocation. For the others, even the most advanced and complex among them, often friends of both Michael and Marcel, any number of an infinite variety of compromises had been latent from the start, or else their work would eventually become sufficiently distilled to maneuver the fundamentally unacceptable conditions increasingly governing artistic production (anomic desublimation, historical amnesia, slippage from mere commodification to purely speculative investment, extreme forms of spectatorial alienation, and total spectacularization, to name but a few).

After working his way out of a number of reductivist Minimalist fallacies and Conceptualist culs-de-sac in the 1960s, Asher was increasingly driven by an annihilating radicality: literally the desire to get to the root of where, when, and how false consciousness originates in the production and reception of material and discursive representations. That this principle of annihilation responded to the larger historical conditions that had obliterated bourgeois subjectivity and social relations in the twentieth century is beyond doubt. Asher’s work was therefore all the more relentless in its pursuit of dismantling the compensatory effects, psychological and economic, and the comforting services provided by the cultural-industrial complex, and it remained both unreconciled and inconsolable.

His oeuvre leaves us with an almost vertiginous range of questions and challenges. Which objects and materials, which architectural surfaces and structures, which institutions and publics were left unaddressed and unanalyzed in his negations? Some might wonder whether his practice had ultimately only extended the long lineage of incrementally rigorous and increasingly desperate avant-garde maneuvers of refusal and anti-aesthetic negation. Others might question the actual social function if not the verifiable political efficacy of his critical negativity, which was both the primary aesthetic and ethical principle of his project.

We would argue first of all that Asher’s refusal to take for granted any aspect of the materials and genres, conventions and institutions of artistic meaning production originated in the insight that the shift from critical opposition to affirmative acculturation had accelerated tremendously in the postwar period, while what few social spaces and subject positions there had been for truly autonomous resistance were rapidly being eliminated. The artistic fates of Ad Reinhardt’s and Barnett Newman’s hermetic negativity were manifest examples in Asher’s then-recent past. And the imminent conversion of Minimalism’s critical potential (especially in those West Coast varieties advancing a pseudoarchitecture of light and purely perceptual disembodiment) into almost cultic structures and spaces de facto obscuring corporate power and institutional control determined the conception of Asher’s earliest artistic projects, such as his seminal 1969 installation at the San Francisco Art Institute, in which he rearranged the galleries’ walls while leaving them empty, thereby making the institution’s armature itself the subject of the exhibition.

Asher’s interventions would uncover hitherto normalized conditions of display and perception as the actual discursive and institutional intersections—the very ideological, political, and economic substrata—where the transformation from critical contestation to affirmation had long been socially performed. One of his first truly extraordinary works, his sandblasting of the impeccably white walls of the Galleria Toselli in Milan in 1973, is an illuminating example.

Asher’s ceaseless questioning of what it actually means to produce a work of art in the present suggests that he took one of Walter Benjamin’s prophetic insights as his point of departure: that there would indeed no longer be any document of culture that was not at the same time a document of barbarism. Or we could argue that Asher was one of the first artists to recognize that the artwork had been reduced with an almost barbaric finality and exclusivity to the condition of mere dispositif, or apparatus, as Michel Foucault would define it (more or less simultaneously with Asher’s extraordinary contribution—a lounge area that reactivated the functionality of the sacralized aesthetic space—to Germano Celant’s epochal “Ambiente Arte” exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1976). In a 1977 interview, “The Confession of the Flesh,” Foucault wrote:

What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms . . . in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.

To have collapsed artistic intervention completely into the apparatus, to have fused them dialectically, was in fact one of Asher’s most radical innovations: His work practically denied and publicly disputed that artistic production could still rely on any remnant of separate spatial orders and objects of autonomy, or claim even a residual sphere of an experience of difference or of a discursive specificity of the aesthetic. Thus the asceticism of his strategies was less a variation on modernism’s reductivist purism than a response to the violence with which all spaces, all materials, all elements were increasingly usurped by the instantaneity of recuperation, ideological deployment, or market speculation.

Neither an aesthetic of endless perceptual, cognitive, and semiological purification nor one of an anarchist cancellation in the Dadaist vein from Duchamp on down, Asher’s practice arose from his understanding that to be an artist under the regime of late capitalist spectacle was to accept an irreversible mandate to detect and make intensely palpable and starkly visible all hidden links where capital and ideology, power and cultural claims, self-deception and mass deception intersected in the seductions of perpetually renewed aesthetic attractions.

Asher’s notoriously annihilating laughter performed in the register of personal behavior what his work enacted in the register of public experience. But only a fool would call his work funny. His material interventions were designed and calibrated to resist their instantaneous institutionalization, acculturation, and commodification: repulsion at being duped and deceived in the face of an art-world apparatus affording increasingly dire options for the pursuit of aesthetic truth value.

The ever-widening gap between the compensatory expectations placed on artistic practice (to make up for the lack of any real social and political progress) and the actual conditions of art’s instrumentalization was certainly equal cause for Asher’s laughter—as might have been the mounting evidence of the eventual futility of his interventions. Holding out for truth value under present conditions inevitably provoked the laughter of despair and obliteration, much as the work itself held out (and continues to hold out) for a historical situation in which the aesthetic and the ideological might be conceived once again not as an inextricable identity, but as a dialectic of transformation.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of modern art at Harvard University.