New York

Michael Asher

The Clocktower

One of art’s most irritating characteristics is its capacity to irritate. Bad art generates little irritation beyond a casual “Why bother to make it?” The irritation of good art is something else. Perhaps it stems from an uncertainty one never likes to admit to: whether or not the art really is good, how one ought to be reacting, and finally, if one is really “getting it.” Viewers don’t like to feel they’re being reviewed by art; it’s a presumptuous switch in roles that gets under the skin. But that’s what art based on perceptual manipulations often sets out to do, and as such it usually succeeds in being irritating. Whether or not it succeeds in being good art remains to be determined. One has to transcend one’s irritation to find out.

Michael Asher, a West-Coast master of subliminal manipulation, recently turned his attentions to the Clocktower, an unorthodox kunsthalle claiming squatters’ rights atop a deteriorating New York City municipal building. Lacking the slickness of conventional exhibition space, the Clocktower does not look kindly on conventional art. But it has harbored much unusual work that is compatible with its idiosyncrasies. Asher’s exhibition consisted of removing the doors and windows from all three levels of the tower, leaving it wide open to the early spring chill. I knew he had done this beforehand, but wondered as I climbed up what the effect would be.

The Clocktower’s quarters are too well worn to convey any sense of Minimal precision, despite the reductive character of Asher’s gesture. Its tubelike space is punctuated by a rusty spiral staircase and, despite an artifying whitewash, annotated with the graffiti of age—peeling paint, cracked plaster, remnants of plumbing. All this stands out when one approaches with esthetic feelers minutely tuned.

The removal of the doors and windows signals intentions that go beyond basic “empty gallery” art. My first inclination was to go out and walk around the balcony. Coming back in, I noticed the sun streaming in through the paneless window, felt the breeze and heard the sound of the traffic below. Far from making the gallery “emptier than empty,” Asher is admitting the things that the conventional gallery takes pains to seal off. The outside, with all, its real-life pollution, comes pouring in—Pandora’s box reversed.

Somehow this invasion poses little threat to the Clocktower, which has never made any claims to pristine isolation. But seen in the context of Asher’s art, the gesture is more problematic. Much of his previous work has depended on the sanitized, sealed-off gallery environment that this new piece destroys. Is he rejecting his own esthetic or extending it, adding the outdoors to his collection of manipulatory devices? I suspect the latter, since one feels his controlling presence as strongly in the Clocktower as in any of his earlier environments.

Sensing this control produces a sudden surge of irritation. The art is pushing you around, sending you scrambling for its subliminal effects without having the courtesy to provide adequate cues. Once you make the outside/inside connection, you think you’ve got it. Then it dawns on you that the work is also about the process of making that connection. It comments on awareness itself by forcing you to think about how it ought to affect you. When I was a kid I remember trying very hard to feel a year older on my birthday; now I try not to. At the Clocktower, after pushing myself to such a point of awareness and subtracting the irritation, I found the balance to be in Asher’s favor.

Nancy Foote