I PURCHASED MICHAEL ASHER'S Writings 1973-1983 on Works 1969-1979 soon after it was published in 1983. At the time, it was the most expensive book I had ever bought. I read it from cover to cover and made lots of notes in the margins. It had a profound influence on my development as an artist. Ten years later, I included my copy in Services, a project I organized with Helmut Draxler in Germany examining the social and economic conditions of post-studio art. It was stolen from the show. If whoever took the book is reading this now, I beg you to return it to me. It is something I treasured, and the loss of it still makes me sad.
I miss the book especially now, as I write about Asher's recent exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, for which he reconstructed the supporting studs of all the temporary walls that had been built in the museum's main exhibition space since 1998, when it moved into its current building. In a small side gallery, he also installed floor plans indicating the placement of walls for each of the forty-four exhibitions presented by the museum during that time period. These were affixed directly to the walls with precisely even spacing, so that they completely circled the room in a continuous band, even wrapping around the corners. Tear-away handouts with all of the floor plans were also provided at the back entrance to the main gallery, so visitors could review them while moving through the installation.
The SMMOA exhibition seemed reminiscent of Asher's canonical works from the 1970s, documented in the 1983 book, many of which involved the displacement, removal, or reconstruction of walls or ceilings or of aspects of their surfaces. These include his 1973 exhibitions at Galleria Franco Toselli in Milan, for which he sandblasted the walls, and at Galerie Heiner Friedrich in Cologne, for which he painted the ceiling (in both exhibition and nonexhibition areas) a shade slightly darker than the floor; his 1974 exhibition at Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles, for which he removed a wall between the exhibition space and the office space; and his 1979 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where he relocated some of the building's exterior aluminum wall panels to an interior gallery. All of these projects are discussed, in the SMMOA show's excellent catalogue, by Miwon Kwon, who also mentions Asher's 1982 exhibition at the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany, where he reconstructed the museum's interior walls at a ninety-degree rotation, with the result that some of them ended up outside the building.
As many people have noted, Asher's SMMOA exhibition seems to lend itself--more than his works of the intervening years, few of which have engaged architecture so directly--to the now-orthodox reading established by his 1983 book and by the writings of Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who coauthored it. That reading, often associated with "institutional critique," a term with which Asher himself has never particularly identified, has focused on his architectural interventions in museums and galleries--positing these endeavors as paradigmatic of a critique of the neutrality of the institutional frame, and of the autonomy of artworks therein. Asher's SMMOA exhibition has been received in a similar vein, as exposing the museum's exhibition history and making its display structures visible and materially present.
The question of what, exactly, is critical about such operations has dogged "institutional critique." In this case, it is begged by the institution itself, which described the "monumental new installation" on its website as a "conceptual history" of a kunsthalle that "reinvents itself with each new exhibition" and as a fitting way to commemorate the museum's twentieth anniversary, with which Asher's exhibition happened to coincide. As SMMOA director Elsa Longhauser put it, "The absolute purity of this vision is the highest exemplar of the work we do. …