PRINT April 2013


Michael Asher

Art handlers move statue into place for Michael Asher’s untitled installation for the 73rd American Exhibition, Gallery 219, Art Institute of Chicago, 1979.


MICHAEL ASHER developed his renowned and innovative practice by originating, with others of his generation, a site-specific way of working. He has also been labeled one of the founders of so-called institutional critique—a potentially misleading term, unless the word critique is clearly understood as relating to art’s capacity for self-reflective analysis (and not construed as simply censorious). Asher’s lifelong interest in reevaluating the traditional, discrete, material object led him, over the course of a career spanning more than forty years, in multiple pathbreaking directions, all leading to the creation of works inextricably connected to their contexts. In this regard, his works, most often made for temporary exhibitions, have for the most part been ephemeral, frequently existing only as long as the show for which they were produced—the steep price paid for challenging art’s commodity status and its concomitant physical independence as a material object.

An unrealized proposal offers insight into Asher’s extraordinary independence of thought while also shedding light on the constraints created by logistical practicalities and by the limited financial resources available at a given museum or gallery. Asher had been asked to participate in the Seventy-Third American Exhibition, held at the Art Institute of Chicago in the summer of 1979. After spending quite a few days circling the Art Institute’s building and walking back and forth the length of its interior, making notes on a yellow legal pad all the while, Asher arrived at his initial idea for his participation in the show: In lieu of creating an installation to be viewed in the allocated exhibition space, he wanted to work in relation to the museum’s Classic Revival exterior and, specifically, in relation to the neo-Renaissance facade of its Michigan Avenue entrance. Two larger-than-life-size bronze lions by the nineteenth-century sculptor Edward L. Kemeys flank the steps leading up to that entrance, respectively looking north and south, away from each other. The lions have majestically graced the Art Institute since 1894, when Mrs. Henry Field donated them to complement the architecture of an edifice built for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and subsequently adapted to function as hallowed halls for art. Asher proposed having these icons of the city and the Art Institute change places with each other—his idea was to remove them from their monumental plinths and switch them. As stipulated by Asher, the lions were to be restored to their original positions at the close of the show.

Asher’s idea intrigued the curators of the exhibition (I was one of them). But to wrest the beasts from their bases and hoist them from one plinth to the other with a crane proved to be an unwieldy and prohibitively expensive proposition. The proposal, therefore, was not approved by the museum’s administrative staff because of the cost arising from the project’s inherent difficulties (if not also, to some small degree, because of in-house resistance to interfering with the status quo). The work that Asher ultimately realized for the American Exhibition involved the oxidized bronze statue of George Washington that sat at the top of the Art Institute’s steps. Asher removed the statue—a 1917 cast of French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon’s 1788 original—from its central, outdoor position and moved it indoors to a gallery with other eighteenth-century European works. Here, removed from its aggrandizing pedestal and positioned in the center of a small, salon-style gallery, the cast of Washington was perceived in a different light. Indoors, surrounded by paintings and objects from Houdon’s time, the statue “fit” chronologically in the gallery yet sounded a discordant note as a curatorial anomaly due, in part, to its weather-beaten presence as well as its pointedly American subject.

But the first proposal should not be forgotten for lack of documentation. The repositioning of the Art Institute’s lordly beasts would have altered the visual and intellectual experience of those arriving at the museum, who would now have found themselves walking between the hefty bodies of lions looking squarely at each other. The work would have functioned spatially, sculpturally, and symbolically while evidencing its institutional parameters via both its material and thematic content. It would have added to the broad spectrum of Asher’s aesthetic achievement based on his dogged devotion to investigating institutional support systems, both tangible and intangible. With remarkable conceptual if not financial economy, it would have also made explicit a critical poetics that is elsewhere less overtly witty in Asher’s work, in a move as subtle as it was plain as day. The lions would have formed an image of an institution reflecting proudly—but also critically—on its mission to protect global culture, its guardians appearing to be in conversation with each other. The gazes of the conversing lions would have defined the space surrounding and, in effect, embracing visitors as they prepared to climb the staircase up and into the museum. Although only a proposal, this work makes clear the ways in which Asher, throughout his long and varied career, always insured that the object of art and the elements defining its place of display could not be disengaged from each other—nor from the contextual realities of which both work and institutional site were an integral part.

Anne Rorimer is an independent scholar and a former curator at the Art Institute of Chicago.